Sovereign sexualities

The Daily talks to one of Britain's foremost queer historians

When Jeffrey Weeks first began what would become his life’s work, he and the few other scholars interested in the construction of sexual identity were on the fringes of academia, alienated or disregarded by their peers. Last Thursday, more than thirty years after his book Coming Out helped found the field of queer history, Weeks delivered the opening lecture of McGill’s British Queer History Conference to a packed Leacock 232.

That audiences today are so eager to hear a talk about queer sexuality is indicative of an immense societal shift – an increasing acceptance that Weeks traced from the emergence of social constructionism in the 1960s to the present. In an interview with The Daily, he discussed the state of queer history and the role of queer activism in the face of globalization.

The McGill Daily: Traditionally, a lot of queer history has concerned itself with tracing an origin point for the notion of “the homosexual.” You’ve made a case for locating it at the end of the 19th century, and others have argued for different dates. Why do you think it’s valuable that we understand the emergence of “modern homosexuality?” What would you say the queer historical project is attempting to accomplish?

Jeffrey Weeks: Well I think we have to make a distinction between what was the focus in the 1970s when modern queer history began and what the focus is today. I think in the 1970s there was a preoccupation with trying to understand the shifting nature of gay identity, particularly in the wake of gay liberation, and in a sense the starting point was the present rather than the past. And the present was the emergence of new gay identities – gay liberation identities – and therefore it was almost a natural response to try to look for the origins of the emergence of these identities. And I think that was the main impulse in the 1970s.

Today the impulse is almost the opposite, to recognize in the past what we now recognize in the present, which is that there’s a great variety of ways of being gay or lesbian or transgendered, and therefore trying to seek in the past a similar pattern of diversity. In a sense the starting point in both cases is the present. But the aim is different. 

MD: So what would you say we should be focusing on now? Is the shift away from what we were seeing in the 1970s a good shift?

JW: I think it’s a shift that reflects two things. First of all, the shift in the interests of the lesbian and gay and wider world about same-sex desire and gender non-conformity. And secondly it’s based on the accumulation of knowledge, because a huge amount of research has been done on these issues and therefore we actually know more and we know more about the past as well as  the present.

My own view is that our focus shouldn’t be so much looking for origins of anything, whether it’s origins of identity or of same-sex marriage, or whatever. Our job now I think is, starting with our present awareness and consciousness and beliefs, to query the past. It’s querying rather than queering the past… . In other words, asking questions about dominant notions in the past.

The dominant notion of the past is still what you could call heteronormative and everything else is a deviation from that. I think what we’re learning is that sexual and gender norms of the past were very complex and often contested. There was a dominant model but within that, there was a huge variety of ways of being. And that has become increasingly the focus of queer history, I think.

MD: You talked last week about the way that “queer” moved from the streets into a more formal academic discourse. What’s your impression of the current state of queer within academia and the direction you perceive it to be heading?

JW: Basically the origins of queer history – or lesbian and gay history as we called it then – were grassroots. It was a bottom-up view. We were looking for the ways in which lesbian and gay people … lived in the past, and the way in which this helped us to understand the present. So it was very much a grassroots movement. Of course, by the late 1970s it was very theorized, and the work of Michel Foucault was very influential in that. I think the focus tended to shift away from the grassroots more towards a top-down analysis, the way homosexuality was structured by society. It looked at the issue from the other way around. That became a focus of quite a lot of theoretical disputes and political disputes. The so-called social constructionist controversy which went on in queer history for the next ten or 15 years into the 90s.

So it became it a theoretical issue as much as a political issue. And I think in that process, the notion of agency got lost. A further development of the theoretical debates was of course the emergence of queer theory. … But it had great difficulty in actually approaching the experience of people who lived same-sex lives themselves. A gap developed between the practice of queer theory and what it was trying to do, which was explore transgression and difference and variety and so on. It couldn’t address – because it was so abstract – the actual facts of agency and the problems and difficulties in forms of agency.

Agency got missing somehow in all this debate. And I think the good thing about this conference actually is that it focused increasingly on forms of agency and the way people live their lives, against the odds, and I think that’s a very important stress to have.

MD: Do you think that’s something that’s emerging across the field?
JW: I think so, because I think there’s a wide recognition that people make their own history, but not in circumstances necessarily of their own choice. It’s finding a balance between the way people make their own history in very complicated and difficult periods, and what the structural constraints and opportunities are. You need to hold a balance between structure and agency all the time, doing any sort of history.

I think what I’m saying is that the balance had shifted too much towards the structure, and not enough towards the agency. I was pleased to see that there’s a move back towards greater recognition of the diverse forms of agency over the last few hundred years.

MD: In the last few years we’ve seen a real increase in the visibility, on a global level, of what many refer to as “queer” issues. For example, the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill, the conviction of the Malawian couple Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, and the repeal last year of anti-sodomy laws in India. A lot of LGBT and queer groups across the world are involving themselves in these issues, but there’s also been criticism of these groups for imposing Western templates of gay liberation onto these non-Western societies. What role do you think queer communities – especially activists and academics – should be playing in these situations?

JW: I think several things have been happening at the same time. I think in the West, where modern homosexuality was in a sense defined, and new forms of controlling homosexuality were pioneered from the 19th century onward, There has been an incredible liberalization and most Western countries now, with some exceptions, have by and large have reformed the laws and opened up the opportunities for same sex marriage or civil partnerships, and there’s a greater attitude of toleration and so on – all of which is largely positive.

But the fact that so much has changed in the West has given rise to a recognition that in other parts of the world, things may be going in the opposite direction, and sometimes in direct response to what’s happening in the West. For instance, fundamentalist regimes across the world – or indeed in the Western world – look at what’s happening in the West, and the greater tolerance of homosexuality, and say, “Look, this is what happens if you allow modernization to get out of control, this is what happens if you abandon God.” And that feeds into homophobia in some other countries in the global south, especially in Africa – the role of the Anglican church in Nigeria for instance is extremely dangerous, and is feeding a schism in the world Christian movement.

Now what’s happening is that activists in the West see what’s happening there and want to show signs of solidarity, and I think what’s emerged out of that is a discourse of human sexual rights, which isn’t simply a Western imposition of Western values. It’s reflecting people’s struggles for harmony and self-expression in the world as a whole, and especially in the global south – it’s the politics of solidarity. But there is a danger of course that in doing that, people want to – not so much impose, because we haven’t got the power to impose – but present a model of development that culminates in the contemporary lesbian or gay of the Western world, and we’ve got to respect the fact that homosexuality, and sexuality generally, is lived in a whole variety of different ways in different parts of the world. So it’s important to respect those differences while defending people’s right to express their sexuality, and that I think is what the movement for human sexual rights is trying to do.

Now there is a paradox in all this – that many parts of the world which decry Western influence, especially governments saying, “Keep out of our morals, we have our own traditions and we want to follow our own traditions” … there’s an irony in that, in that what they are now defending – the laws against homosexuality – were actually laws which were imposed by the imperial power in the 19th century, particularly Britain.

MD: Should academics involved in queer issues even be playing a part in these conversations?

JW: I think it’s essential that those of us who have studied these issues and are aware of them should do our best to demonstrate to the world that sexuality isn’t a given, that there’s no such thing as a true sexuality, that there are various forms of sexuality, and they take different forms in different cultures and different histories. We have to respect those differences while insisting that there are certain common human values and norms  that every country and every culture should follow. And the supreme one for me in relationship to sexuality is that people should be free to express their own sexuality in their own ways, at their own pace. As long as those don’t harm others, and don’t impose violence on others, people should be free to express them.

That seems to be a human value, a universal value. So while it’s respecting cultural difference, I think it’s absolutely right for people in the West, and indeed anywhere else, to say, “Yes we respect difference, but we also respect that there are certain common values which we must respect to be fully human.” And that doesn’t seem to be a Western norm, that seems to be a universal norm.

MD: You’ve been retired for several years now, but you’re still obviously very much involved in these discussions. What are you most focused on now? Do you intend to keep speaking and publishing?

JW: Well what I retired from were management positions in  university and a commitment to full-time work. I took slightly early retirement in order to find more time to write and to research, and to do a bit of travelling like I’ve done to Montreal. So that’s what I’m doing, and that’s what I hope to continue to do. I’ve got several book projects — I’ve just finished a book — and I’ve written a number of articles which are being published. And I hope to continue to do that, as long as I have the energy and commitment to do it. So retirement isn’t the end.