Rachel Hope Cleves has a detailed and interesting report on a panel she convened earlier this month at the Annual Meeting of the American HIstorical Association in New York City over at Notches: (Re)marks on the History of Sexuality. This panel was an outgrowth of a special issue of Early American History she edited for Fall 2014 on the subject of Beyond the Binaries: Critical Approaches to Sex and Gender in Early America.
Cleves describes each of the four panelists’ contributions, describing their work on flexibly-gendered or trans* people and describing the conversation among the panelists and the audience on the salience of gender binaries as well as the value of reading trans* identities into the more distant past of early America. I thought this exchange was particularly interesting on the question of viewing early America as a “golden age” of gender flexibility and trans* possibilities:
Questions from the floor followed, sparking productive disagreements. Questions from Kathryn Falvo, Maddie Williams, and Jesse Bayker, pushed [Sean] Trainor’s observation of the optimistic bent of the special issue. Trainor suggested that variations in the expression of masculinity in early America need not be treated as “assaults” but could be understood as tolerated iterations. [Greta] LaFleur stressed that her attention to the wide-range of non-binary gender expression in early America was not optimistic but intended as a corrective to the paucity of alternative stories. She announced herself willing to work in the speculative mode, not just the declarative. [Scott] Larson went further, insisting that he felt an ethical imperative to make bold claims for trans* history, and to escape the “land of caveats” in which academic history often operates.
I completely understand Trainor’s concern about the “golden age” fantasy, but I hold more with LaFleur and Larson. Sometimes we need to work in the speculative or even possibly fantastic mode in order to imagine other possibilities in the past. In the end we’re all historians and therefore very committed to using evidence to build our arguments, but a game of “let’s pretend” can open our eyes to evidence that’s sitting right before us if we’re only open to reading it from a fresh perspective.
Read the whole thing. I wish that blog attracted more comments, but their comments section is never very active. I understand why they moderate the comments given the subject of the blog, which can attract a great deal of ugly spam and intentionally hateful or aggressive comments.