Skip to content

Queer History Now!

Learning to remember otherwise
A translucent fishbowl superimposed over a photo of a man's blue eye.

The Queer Art of History: Queer Kinship After Fascism by Jennifer V. Evans. Duke University Press, 312 pages. 2023.

Queer history has often been a contradiction in terms. History tells the story of change over time in nation-states; it resolutely clings to the archive of written documents and the journeyman’s task of discovering and writing those documents up. History taxonomizes, superimposing categories and narratives on the unruly past.

The defining academic and intellectual project of the gay and lesbian (and trans) liberation years was history: the search for historical examples of gay and lesbian (and sometimes trans) lives––in ethnography and anthropology, in literature, in the margins of the historical record––to advance a political claim that gays and lesbians (and sometimes trans people) had always been here. In every place where a homosexual emancipation or a homophile movement popped up in the early- to mid-twentieth century, amateur activist-historians published (often self-published) volumes of history that made two competing claims: that the historical record demonstrated there had always been gay and lesbian and trans people, and that this historical “proof” was evidence we were a natural minority, a minority like any other, rather than representations of illness, sin, or cultural decline.

“Queer” hates categories and pat narratives, or at least it’s supposed to. Emerging from a political and analytic project that specifically sought to deconstruct (and ideally to defuse) the power relations produced by categorization, “queer” endeavored to understand how different kinds of people are made, and how they fit neatly or otherwise into the sex-gender system, in order to understand how power works. When “queer” first happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s, literary studies began to displace history as the defining intellectual project of the broader social movement. “Queer” mocked the naive faith that something like an “us” had always been “here.” Why, it asked, would we assume that even our own categories of self-identification had been stable over time? It built from (Marxist and antiracist) gay liberation activist-intellectuals’ insight that categories of sexuality and even the concept of a coherent “sexuality” itself were social constructs. It deployed literary analyses of concepts, and reading techniques, to analyze the ways in which power both shaped and was shaped by the ways sexual difference was constructed. It turned this analysis into a method, and the term into a collective noun, then an adjective, and most recently a verb.

The more “queer” has drifted away from its referents, the more it has become an essentializing category.

Around the same time, a minor revolution broke out in the discipline of history and was quickly crushed. Critical historians demanded that contingency enter the study of the past. They proposed––and this is shocking, I know––that academic, activist, and intellectual traditions from outside the euro-American historical academy might help us understand the past in different, even better, ways. They began to ask different types of historical questions about different types of people. Again, this was not strictly new—the classic Walter Benjamin texts on the inadequacy of disciplinary history are now more than eighty years old—but it was received as new, and as a threat. This kind of critical and reflexive history writing was immediately attacked within the discipline as if it were an invasive species. Critical and reflexive history writing was ahistorical, it was presentist, it was responsible for the decline and fall of Western Civilization, it was Not Really History At All: truly, there was and is no thesis about critical and reflexive history too absurd and poorly evidenced to be promoted as fact by the guardians of evidentiary standards and disciplinary sobriety.

Despite the continued valiant effort of radical and critical scholars both in and most importantly outside the academy, mainstream academic approaches to history in the United States and Europe have remained methodologically stable. Most historians “write up” the archive without getting bogged down in too much theory, as if the use of concepts or ways of thinking and reading from outside our small discipline is a mere distraction from every human being’s natural mode of expression: that of the English-language academic historian. As Angela Zimmermann once wrote, the “masters of the profession . . . have never had to recognize the ways language fails most of us—not because of the way we use it but because of the way it uses us.” With terrible accuracy, she describes this “bad empiricism” as “an orthopedic prose occasionally enlivened by talk about the weather––as if admitting that even that ultimate nothing to talk about, the weather, is more than the something about which these historians claim to write.”

Queer historians have been among those trying to insist that how we make meaning matters in how we write history. But as Jennifer Evans points out in her new monograph-cum-manifesto, The Queer Art of History: Queer Kinship After Fascism, the term “queer” has itself experienced somewhat of a loss of meaning and a curdling of political potential in the decades since it was new. The contributions of brilliant critics such as Cathy Cohen, José Esteban Muñoz, and Roderick Ferguson led to the term becoming, productively, more mobile, and instructed how it interfaces with our analysis of race and class. But recently, instead of signifying the making-strange of the sex-gender system, “queer” has become more of a floating signifier of alterity. Everything is queer! Even drones! Ironically, the more “queer” has drifted away from its referents, the more it has become an essentializing category, a term that means something like “different-but-good,” a way of avoiding critical work rather than engaging in it. “In our quest for queer kin,” Evans writes, “we have forgotten that the critical work we do is to disturb the practice of essentialism, of seeing queerness unidimensionally, as inherently wed to progressive causes, always on the side of right.”

The monograph—a reworking and expansion of Evans’s evolving intellectual investigation into the history of German queers and how that investigation might queer German history itself––returns the sex-gender system to the center of the queer study of queer pasts. It asks urgent, uncomfortable questions of both “queer” and “history,” and insists that the two can still improve one another. As Evans writes, when we “let slip the different inequalities that continue to mark queer and trans* entry into the mainstream,” we also “fail to appreciate what solidarity and coalition building actually looked like when and where it did surface.” In our dangerous political moment, it is “imperative that we draw lessons from kin formations good and bad to both rediscover and redeploy the radical potential of queer as a politics, analytic, and way of life.” No collective understanding of history is enough to advance a politics, but, as Evans suggests, it is necessary to tell more complicated stories about our past queer kin if we are to build a political subject capable of confronting the global right-wing trans- and homophobic backlash.

The word kin is key. Evans traces its genealogy, with a generosity and an interdisciplinarity that should be the standard in our writing, through works of queer thought by Laura Doan, Jin Haritaworn, and David Eng, among others inspired by the activism and intellectual output of working-class queer people and queer people of color. Kinship, Evans argues, is a form of attachment that is “not just biological or even social”; it helps us understand how “disparate people brought together by their shared, though different, experiences of marginalization” have articulated politics and desires that challenged the sex-gender systems of their day. Instead of asking for recognition of stable and fixed ways of being, kinship offers a “potentiality of the otherwise.”

The meaning of queer life has been contested by cops and activists and judges and Radical Faeries and the Black queer homeless youth of the Christopher St. Piers and the shop owners who kicked them out. It has been fought over by dykes on bikes and gay Nazis and the homonormative activists who rose to power in the 1990s and their critics and their critics’ critics. These people engaged in opposition and sometimes in surprising coalition with one another. Queer doesn’t equal good: history is full of bad gays; bad people who happened to be gay, and people who were bad at being gay. Some queer discourse gives the sense of searching for the perfectly marginalized, perfectly political subject, which we know doesn’t exist. We need to make that subject out of more than identities and experiences of marginalization; we must undertake a critical study of how fixed sex and gender identities came to exist––and how the fixing and unfixing of those identities helped shape those experiences of marginalization and alleviate some of them while exacerbating others.

Evans’s second chapter considers the work of the German gay photographer Herbert Tobias, whose intimate photographs of nude and seminude young men circulated widely in the early days of West German gay liberation. She insists that historians depart from our cramped and distrustful relationship with photography to see it not just as evidence of “what was” but as a constructed argument for how people wanted things to be. Especially when photographs depict a queer subject’s “subjective, emotional, and erotic visual sensibilities,” Evans argues, the transgression on display––in Tobias’s case, a “shamelessly eroticized” queer subjectivity––demands analysis as a photographic strategy, not just as “evidence” needing to be “written up.”

And she goes further: instead of presenting Tobias’s transgression as an uncomplicated good, she confronts the degree to which sex workers and “underage casual sex” were central to Tobias’s erotic world. Connecting his photographs of younger men to the “imperial” tradition of early twentieth century gay photography and its depiction of sexually available Mediterranean youths (often in Classical or orientalist garb), Evans insists that we see Tobias’s work both as the expression of a highly mediated queer sexuality and as the expression of profoundly unequal relations of power, as “forms of violence and coercion.” Neither way of looking at these photos is sufficient on its own. Given that his work circulated as erotic talismans both before and after the partial decriminalization of homosexual sex in West Germany in 1969, it could never be adequately “written up” without attending to matters of both aesthetic construction and circulation. Erotic photography is itself, she argues, history: “an iconography of emotions with time-bound aesthetic trajectories . . . a thing eliciting a host of responses filtered through the lens of time and place, and . . . an agent of self-actualization.” Taking seriously what these photographs meant to the people in them and those who circulated them requires us to consider overlapping groups of people on their own terms; to take seriously their desires, their needs and failings, and to consider how all those implicate us.

A subsequent chapter on trans photography analyzes tropes of image-making across multiple generations: from sexological and police photographs of trans people from the Weimar and Nazi eras, to 1970s and 1980s portraits and self-portraits, and finally to the exhibition of these pictures in the present day. As Evans argues, in conversation with trans scholars, photography has often been a tool of the subjugation of trans people as well as a tool of self-representation, so we cannot uncritically venerate “representation” and “visibility.” In one case study, she examines mugshots taken of Fritz Kitzing, who has alternately been read by historians as an instance of gay or trans persecution at the hands of the Gestapo. Rather than reading Kitzing as either/or, Evans traces the history of Kitzing’s interactions with the police from an initial arrest for solicitation in 1933 under a law specifically targeting female sex workers to the history of the photographs themselves: they were staged by the Gestapo after Kitzing’s second arrest in 1935, when cops forced Kitzing to dress in clothes found in their apartment and pose for side-by-side mugshots intended to “provide essential physiognomic data.” Placing Kitzing neatly in a single contemporary identity category might actually reinforce the violence both of the Nazis and of sexologists who posed similar side-by-side photographs to demonstrate the “inborn” nature of transsexuality.

Memory politics around queer and trans persecution by the Nazi regime are especially fraught right now. Contemporary bigots uncomfortable with the degree to which they and the Nazis share broadly congruent views of trans people engage in forms of soft Holocaust denial. They lie, arguing that trans people were not persecuted by the Nazis, or that the Nazis actually encouraged transsexuality as opposed to homosexuality.

In two linked chapters, Evans thinks through ways of fighting back against memory politics not capable of addressing the horror, and the complexity, of fascist persecution and its aftermath. She connects German gay men’s claims to proper Nazi victimhood to official national(ist) politics of memory to argue that making too-simple claims about victimhood and persecution leads to “accommodationist, liberal, rights-based approaches” rather than “coalitional, radical, and intersectional activist kinships.” These chapters on memory are some of the book’s most pressing. The history of how queers in Germany were entangled with Nazi rule and its aftermath––as victims of persecution and murder, as participants in persecution and murder, as forgotten and silenced survivors, and most recently as part of a flawed national story about overcoming the past––has much to teach us about how to approach far-right politics now.

A concerted campaign by gay men eventually led to the creation of the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism in Berlin’s Tiergarten in 2008. Designed by the artist duo Elmgreen and Dragset, the memorial looks as though one of the so-called stelae of Peter Eisenman’s concrete jungle of a Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe decided to cross the street and duck into the bushes for a bit of cruising. A slit cut into the concrete block shows footage of queer couples (originally only men) kissing. Through the memorial, the liberal capital of the capital of liberal Europe celebrates its transcendent acceptance of the people it once murdered. “What is lost as well as gained,” Evans asks, “by the recognition of queer commemoration as an expression of the universality of queer rights?” This is an important question to ask about Germany, where the National Socialist period and the Holocaust have made memory politics a national pastime.

A truly queer history means that all must be rendered strange.

Despite what liberal journalists will tell you, German culture is no paradise of historical self-awareness. Increasingly, it is a grotesque spectacle in which immigrants are berated for improperly commemorating the Great National Genocide. The sociologist Esra Özyürek has described how “in a country where 90 percent of antisemitic crimes are committed by white right-wing Germans, fingers are still pointed at Muslims for being the major carriers of antisemitism in the country,” with news articles describing these Germans “with a migrant background” failing to perform the “proper” shameful identification with the perpetrators. Instead, Ösyürek has found, these Germans’ responses to the Holocaust, deemed “unsuitable” by Holocaust educators, consist of expressing “fear that something like the Holocaust could happen to them too.”

Queer memory culture began as a challenge to the exclusions of nationalist mythmaking but has now become a part of it. Some of the gay men who fought for inclusion in the national memory culture turned around and tried to stop a memorial to persecuted lesbians from being installed at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, falsely claiming lesbians had never been persecuted. Now some gay men in Germany claim trans people were never persecuted. A sign at the Homo-Memorial praises Germany for having overcome its past of persecution, unlike other countries “where homosexual love remains illegal and a kiss remains dangerous.” Those unnamed countries are the source of immigrants who, as dominant media narratives explain, threaten domestic liberation. This is same the perverse logic by which new immigrants are placed under permanent suspicion of antisemitism by the Germans whose ancestors murdered the majority of European Jews. Trans and queer liberation demands more than inclusion in a nationalist memory culture.

In her last chapter, Evans offers suggestions for how we might remember otherwise. It is by embracing the messiness of relational kinship—by recognizing ourselves in others good and bad—that we can remember in ways that may prove adequate to addressing today’s political challenges. This is why we can’t write off either the ways Herbert Tobias’s photography helped create communities of desire or the potential damage it did to its models; why we can’t just use photographs of trans people in the 1920s as proof that we’ve always existed in roughly the same ways as today; why we need better arguments for our survival than “we just can’t help it.” A truly queer history means that all must be rendered strange, that the catechisms of contemporary queer politics are themselves the products of history and will always twist, bend, expand, and imperfectly conjoin with the queer past. It is through this “queer art of history,” Evans proposes, that we can overcome simple stories of resistance and claims for toleration.

In her epilogue she focuses her anger––rightly––on centrist and right-wing German queers who have advanced racist and transphobic viewpoints, abandoning shared histories of kinship with people who have been considered abominations to the state in order to join in the state’s persecution of these others. But there is something for the left to learn from here too. We desperately need a more critical and less reactionary queer public history. To insist in listicles and on Instagram, explicitly or even implicitly through omission, that all queer people have been valiant radicals fighting on the side of all that is revolutionary is not functionally different from the 1950s arguments that respectable, masculine gay men could be respectable, responsible bourgeois citizens. It is still an identitarian argument that mobilizes a limited version of the past on today’s terms. If we understand “queer” to mean not “radical” or “antinormative” but instead to refer to people who help us understand how the sex-gender system is made—people who are, as Michel Foucault proposed gay men would only briefly be, “slantwise” to that system— we can begin to see all of our ancestors, and ourselves, more clearly.

There is a love for queer history running through Evans’s monograph; it is not a cold, calculating deconstruction of our love for our past but instead a proposal for how we can love it better. It makes me think of the end of the first novel of the German communist gay writer ronald m. schernikau, written when he was only eighteen, the story of a gay boy and a one-sided high school romance in a small town in West Germany, which ends with the narrator moving to the big city:

what’s feasible: not giving up on happiness, on the idea of love even in the stone age. as long people are being destroyed by their relationship with their work, with their neighbors, with themselves, gays won’t be any exception . . . i will try to love again and again. i will no longer try to escape the embraces. i live in the embraces, i want them. only when i no longer want to escape the embraces but instead want to change the world, only then will i be able to live and work . . . i embrace you all.

History, especially that of people history was designed to exclude, can no longer afford to escape the uncomfortable embraces of all our kin. Critical and reflexive ways of thinking and knowing must become the standard. Queer history must stop being a contradiction and become an imperative. History as we know it must be destroyed.