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Dissertation Research

Codes, Sexology, and Queer Communities

The following is an excerpt from my dissertation prospectus. It provides a general overview of my argument, as well as brief discussions about my theoretical framework and chapter outlines. 

This dissertation seeks to utilize archival theory to identify the connections between the rise of modern sexology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the formation of distinct queer identities, as reflected in literary texts of the times. In other words, through the lens of archival theory, this project explores how literature utilized turn of the century sexological theory to establish a discourse through which queers could articulate their identities, thus paving the way for the establishment of the modern queer community. Prior to the widespread acknowledgement of ‘homosexual’ as an identity, queer individuals had no way to concretely articulate their sexual or romantic preferences, with many turning to friendship or familial-based discourses to express their emotional and physical attachment to a person of the same sex. The rise of modern sexology, however, provided a foundation upon which queers could begin to articulate themselves, establishing a sexual discourse that continued to evolve within queer communities and is reflected in literature throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The influence of sexology on the cultural normalization and acceptance of homosexuality and queer identities has been well-covered. What is missing from that discussion, however, is an examination of how literature reflected and influenced the cultural conversations surrounding the role of homosexuality and homosexuals in society. Literary texts from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, therefore, are well-suited to serve as archives that can allow us to explore these issues. Scientific sexological writings were generally inaccessible to the public in both complexity and the restrictions placed upon them, as these writings were often deemed obscene and removed from public circulation. Therefore, it fell to literary writers who were “in the know” concerning advances in sexology to spread awareness through their work. This dissertation seeks to fill this gap in the literature by utilizing archival theory to examine how queer literature evolved from the incorporation of coded language to portraying queers as tragic, non-threatening figures, to the eventual rise of a discrete genre of literature that fully embraces queer identities and explores issues unique to the queer experience.

Utilizing Ann Cvetkovich’s conception of archival theory, which understands textual archives as “repositories of feelings and emotions” and that such repositories are necessarily “encoded not only in the content of the texts themselves but in the practices that surround their production and reception,” the texts outlined in this dissertation will be examined as archives that allow us to understand the complexities of discussing queerness in literary culture (Cvetkovich 7). The first archival category understands queerness as being coded into literary texts. In effect, these texts contain an inherent duality – non-queers would be likely to read a fairly straightforward narrative written in the style of that particular genre, while queer readers, even those unlikely to identify or recognize themselves as such at the time, would be able to recognize queer elements embedded into the texts. Further, authors may be understood as utilizing certain generic elements to code queerness into their work, such as employing the concept of nineteenth century romantic or homosocial same-sex relationships to convey queer undertones.

The second category of queer archives this dissertation will examine looks at the ways queer writers from this era were engaged in ancestor seeking. In his review of James Gifford’s Glances Backward, Eric Savoy notes that “a recognizably ‘gay’ American culture is a lot older, and a lot richer, than we thought.” As sexological theory began to account for the normalized existence of queers, authors began to look to historical figures and literary traditions for evidence of a queer past and history.

The third set of queer literary archives this dissertation will explore features the trope of the tragic queer protagonist. In these texts, characters are often identifiably, if not explicitly, queer, and queerness is generally rationalized and normalized. In this category, queers are deemed non-threatening to the social order and often work to maintain the status quo even at their own expense, and as a result, they are denied their happy endings or narrative resolutions; a hallmark of these texts is, in fact, the physical death or isolation of the character from the rest of society by the end of the narrative – a sort of “social death.”

The final archival category involves texts that both celebrate queerness and promote the idea of queer possibility and early examples of futurity. These texts generally feature characters who are identifiably or explicitly queer, deal with issues unique to the queer experience, and are allowed happy endings or at least narrative resolutions in most cases, in direct contrast to the trope of the tragic queer explored in the previous section. Further, these texts generally have an optimistic take on queer futures, imagining a variety of possibilities in which queerness is normalized and thriving communities are established.

Purpose of Study

This research is important because it examines the evolution of the queer community from the beginnings of modern sexology in the late nineteenth century through its formal and cultural establishment in the mid-twentieth century. Other scholars have studied the role of sexology in defining and exposing the homosexual as a discrete entity, but have generally neglected its role in establishing a discourse through which queers could articulate their existence and thus establish themselves as fundamentally separate from heteronormative culture. For example, Peter Drucker notes in Warped: Gay Normality and Queer Anti-Capitalism (2015), “Sexologists even helped make lesbian communities possible by separating off the lesbian from the rest of womankind” (120). In other words, these queer scientific classifications eventually worked to help establish communities by sectioning off individuals based on their sexual desires, attractions, and gender performance. The caveat here is that these communities and these sexual discourses could only be utilized by those who knew about them. Lucy Bland and Laura Doan’s collaborations point out that much of this sexological work was suppressed, deemed obscene, and taken out of general circulation, making it difficult for the lay person to access. As such, while the role of sexology is often noted, there has been little substantive work that explores the role literature played in conveying the fundamental tenets of queer sexology to the public, thus enabling a broader population to see and identify with queer characters. The rise of archival theory within literary studies over the last two decades has provided a means through which to explore the issues by treating texts as literary archives of that era.

It is important to note here that the field of sexology has moved away from the theory of sexual inversion to explain, rationalize, and normalize homosexuality; in fact, as the field has evolved, the term more accurately describes what we would refer to today as transgender or transsexuality. Indeed, in “The Development of Sexual Orientation in Women” (1999), an article by Letitia Peplau, et al., the authors examine what eventually became of sexual inversion theory, noting that nearly every tenet of the theory, including psychological components, physical and biological differences, and its refusal of social or cultural influences on sexual orientation, has been either explicitly disproven or remains unproven as of the publication of their article, writing, “the cumulative body of empirical research on women’s sexual orientation refutes each of the main inversion assumptions” (70). That being said, sexual inversion theory dominated sexological discourse for the better part of a century, and its influence on the creation of the modern queer community cannot be denied. This does not mean that the community was built on a lie, but rather that the understandings of its origins have evolved with time. Studying sexual inversion and its effects throughout society is a practice in history – a practice in archival theory – not of pure sexology.

Many of the authors I have chosen to examine in this dissertation, including Radclyffe Hall, Edward Prime-Stevenson, E. M. Forster, and others, intentionally utilized their literary writings to spread awareness of the scientific work being done to normalize queerness. To do this, they employ generic conventions, such as those associated with nineteenth century boys’ books, to convey and normalize queerness. Many even namecheck prominent sexologists in their work, using their writings as signposts to point interested readers in the directions of prominent sexological theorists. In these ways, authors directly contributed to the establishment and spreading of a queer discourse based on relevant sexological theory of the time. Other authors’ works serve as reflections of the social conversation concerning queerness; while they may not namecheck sexologists or explicitly utilize sexological theory in their writings, they argue for the acceptance and normalization of queerness, thus reflecting a growing consensus about the role queers should play in society.

In this dissertation, I will work to complicate issues of queer discourse, history, and identity, and examine how these issues are reflected in nineteenth and twentieth century queer literary archives. Thus, my dissertation will be guided by the following research questions: How does the rise of queer sexology help establish a discourse through which non-heteronormative individuals can articulate their identities and desires? How does this discourse evolve from its 1870 inception through the establishment of the modern gay rights movement, and thus a discrete queer community, nearly a century later? How does literature reflect the evolution of sexology and disseminate its ideas to the broader public? How can contemporary theories of sexology be used to reify queer individuals and texts from the past and uncover hidden queer histories? How can literary archival theory be utilized to explore the historical influence and implications of queer literary texts?

Important Texts