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Evolution of Queerness

Relearning our History

The narrative that queer people were less visible in the past and have progressively become more visible over time is inaccurate. And the cultural understanding of what makes someone be seen as abnormal in their gender and sexual expression has also changed dramatically over time. Queer history is largely the history of gender nonconforming people, as gender nonconforming people, particularly transfeminine folks, have been the most visible members of the queer community. There were times when transfeminine people were accepted in working class neighborhoods and intermingled with cisgender people. Gender nonconformity has been deliberately erased from history. The timeline below highlights some key points in a much abridged history of the evolution of queerness in American consciousness from the mid 1800s to the mid 1900s, with a focus on language and the way gender and sexuality have been conceptualized and understood. 


Author Bio:

Edmund Green Langdell (they/them) is an ever becoming enby, whose work focuses on promoting human and environmental wellbeing through design and education. They work for Play Out Apparel as a Marketing Assistant. They strive to spread love and healing in the world through connection and education. They also design eco-friendly needle felted packers. They earned a BFA in Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design, where they worked as a Peer Health Advocate for four years, and created and led Gender Venting, a group for transgender students.


Author Bio:

Edmund Green Langdell (they/them) is an ever becoming enby, whose work focuses on promoting human and environmental wellbeing through design and education. They work for Play Out Apparel as a Marketing Assistant. They strive to spread love and healing in the world through connection and education. They also design eco-friendly needle felted packers. They earned a BFA in Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design, where they worked as a Peer Health Advocate for four years, and created and led Gender Venting, a group for transgender students.



So... What Are Neopronouns?

Neopronouns are any set of personal pronouns besides he, she, and they. They are usually gender neutral pronouns, although some have meanings that speak to the user’s gender or experience of the world, although they are still outside of the gender binary. Gender neutral pronouns, besides singular they, have existed in the English language for hundreds of years, although most of them have not gained widespread popularity. Since the 1300’s, English speakers have attempted to introduce more than 200 gender neutral pronouns into the language, and some of them have made it into dictionaries.


Perception of Queerness Throughout History

1800s - Gender was not defined by genitalia, but rather by whether someone played the submissive or dominant role in a sex act. Womanhood was understood as having variations including both cisgender women and transfeminine people. Similarly, manhood was not linked to heterosexuality, it was linked to playing the dominant role in a sex act. Men could have sex with other men without loosing their status as “normal men” if their physical presentation was masculine, and they played the dominant role in sex. 


1864 - The Contagious Diseases Act was passed, which enabled police to conduct vaginal and/or anal examinations of any woman arrested for prostitution. Police wouldn’t differentiate between cisgender people and gender nonconforming people when arresting sex workers, because the definition of woman didn’t mean having a vagina, it meant playing a submissive role in sex. During this time, many men said they prefered to have sex with gender nonconforming people, feminine men, etc. because they didn’t think they would contract disease, and it was effective birth control.


Late 1800s - Victorian Era gender ideologies split the world into two spheres, the public sphere, which included electoral politics, sex, and public life was the men’s sphere, and the private sphere, which included the home, intimacy, love, and erotic passion was the women’s sphere. White queer life in the Victorian Era was split along these spheres, with the gay men’s world including a vibrant, public, homo-social sex scene, focused around specific spots, like the piers in NYC, where white gay men would go to hook up with other men. Walt Whitman kept books with lists of men and their appearances, many of which he slept with. White upper and middle class women had intense emotional and romantic friendships, some of which would fit into modern ideas of lesbianism. Most, however, would not. The necessity of genital contact in defining the nature of a relationship is a modern concept that has not always existed. These relationships, although not usually sexual, were still romantic and still queer. There is evidence of some of these women writing about how they love the other woman as a wife loves a husband. These types of female/female relationships grew to be seen as suspect as Sexology began to replace Victorian sexuality in the late 1800s. Relationships between women who were poor, mannish, or who supported women’s suffrage were seen as especially unnatural.


Late 1800s - In cities across the US and Europe there is evidence of gender nonconforming people, particulatrly people who we would today consider transfeminine, existing visibly and proudly in public. In working class neighborhoods there was a degree of social acceptance for these gender nonconforming people, who publicly intermingled with cisgender people. People who were assigned male at birth and who understood themselves, and lived their lives, as women and nonbinary were the most visible members of the queer community. These people referred to themselves, and were described by others with words such as invert, androgen, girl-boy, third sexer, faery, molly, pansy, and more. These faeries lived their truth and didn’t feel the need for medical intervention in order to confirm or validate this truth. 


1896 - The term “homosexual” was coined by Karl Maria Kertbeny as a means of identifying masculine men who sexually desired other men as distinct and separate from faeries.


Early 1900s - Sex began to be defined exclusively by genitalia. Western eugenics and sexology began the process of the medicalization of transfeminine people, promoting the idea that transfeminine people were not women, but were simply aspiring to be women, and were in need of medical intervention in order to become women. This idea compelled transfeminine people to view their bodies at odds with their gender, and ignored the many transfeminine people who were living their truth without the desire for medical intervention.


1910s and 1920s - The word “gay” signified flamboyancy and fabulosity, and was often associated with faeries. 


1910s and 1920s - The word “queer” was invented as an identity by masculine men who sexually desired other men as a means of differentiating themselves from transfeminine people. These men blamed homophobia on transfeminine people, rather than on binary gender norms. They believed that if transfeminine people would conform to binary gender roles then masculine queer men wouldn’t face as much homophobia. 

The word queer was first used in a non-conservative way in the 1990s, when Queer Nation was founded, an activist organization in NYC by HIV/AIDs activists from ACT UP. Queer Nation was a political group that demanded action against the gender binary and systems of complacency. 


1920s - The term “cruising” was invented to describe the vibrant, public, homo-social sex scene of queer men and faeries that had existed for some time now. Popular “cruising” spots in NYC included certain streets, beaches, and parks, including Bryant Park, Prospect Park, Battery Park, Riverside Park, and Central Park. 

Transmasculine people were more easily able to pass as men in society and so there is less evidence of words being used to describe them. 


Early 20th century - “Trade,” “husbands,” and “wolves” were all terms used to describe masculine men who had sex with transfeminine folks, faeries, and other cisgender masculine men. These men often referred to their faerie partners as “punks.” These masculine men were not considered abnormal for their behavior nor considered themselves gay, because homophobia was targeted based on gender presentation rather than the sex of one’s sexual partners. These relationships between trade and punks were very common among seamen and transient workers, so much so that these relationships were often depicted in cartoons in well known newspapers. 


1930s - The Pansy Craze was the peak of gender nonconforming life in the US. In the 1930s, faeries were running the queer community. Their elaborate drag balls drew in thousands of attendees. People from the cisgender straight world would also come to these events, studying the black drag queens at balls, and putting what they learned from them into mainstream culture. Faeries often ran their own venues, put on theatrical productions, and much more. 


1930s and 1940s - Eugenics began to frame white LGBTQ people as a racial failure. Eugenic doctors viewed white LGBTQ folks as people who had not yet evolved to the peak of evolutionary progress, and began to theorize ways to “fix” queer people to conform to heteronormativity and the gender binary. Queerness began to be seen as a disorder that required a solution. These “solutions” included mental incarceration and nonconsensual hormone treatments. Gender nonconforming people were not the ones who initially searched out medical confirmation of their gender. Eugenic doctors decided this for them as a project of perfecting the white race by removing queerness. 


1930s, 1940s, and 1950s - The division of “fairies” and “normal men” based on gender presentation and the role one played in a sex act was replaced with the division of men into “homosexuals” and “heterosexuals” based on the sex of their sexual partners.


1940s and 1950s - Periods of extreme freedom are often followed by periods of extreme repression in backlash. Following the Pansy Craze of the 1930s was a period of extreme homophobia and transphobia, including the erasure of gender nonconforming people and our history. Trans people were gaslit by eugenic doctors, and were systematically removed from public life as the popular drag venues and queer gathering spots were shut down by the police and laws were passed and policies enacted that targeted queer life. 


1950s - The term “straight” was invented by gay people as a way of say “I’m leaving the gay community,” “I’m going straight.”


History as a context for Queerness

Reclaiming queer history can help us heal from the trauma of our erasure. Understanding the variety of ways people have conceptualized gender and sexuality in the past can help us to loosen our grasp on rigid understandings of what gender and sexuality are, and focus more on accepting the diversity of humanity. This helps us to understand that how we conceptualize and relate to that diversity isn’t the same as the truth of what that diversity actually is. Humans have always experienced a wide variety of emotions, sexual desires, self understanding, and self expression. How we define these experiences changes over time and is inextricably linked to the social, cultural, and political climate of the time and place. 


Today we are still stuck in the traditional gender roles that were established in the 1940s and 1950s during the baby boom. The reason this binary understanding of gender is so engrained in society has to do with the erasure of gender nonconforming history. To this day, trans people are gatekept from our own community by people who are repeating racist eugenic medical narratives without understanding the history of where these ideas came from. 


Today, the gender nonconforming community is fighting to return to the freedom that existed for us before these eugenic ideas took root in society. The freedom to be acknowledged for who we are on our own terms, and without the approval of cisgender people. As language is a reflection of the way we think, our language is undergoing a shift towards inclusivity of gender nonconforming people. Words like nonbinary and singular they pronouns are becoming more widely understood, and even less common gender inclusive language, like neopronouns, is being featured in major publications such as The New York Times and The Rolling Stone


History as a context for Queerness

Reclaiming queer history can help us heal from the trauma of our erasure. Understanding the variety of ways people have conceptualized gender and sexuality in the past can help us to loosen our grasp on rigid understandings of what gender and sexuality are, and focus more on accepting the diversity of humanity. This helps us to understand that how we conceptualize and relate to that diversity isn’t the same as the truth of what that diversity actually is. Humans have always experienced a wide variety of emotions, sexual desires, self understanding, and self expression. How we define these experiences changes over time and is inextricably linked to the social, cultural, and political climate of the time and place. 


Today we are still stuck in the traditional gender roles that were established in the 1940s and 1950s during the baby boom. The reason this binary understanding of gender is so engrained in society has to do with the erasure of gender nonconforming history. To this day, trans people are gatekept from our own community by people who are repeating racist eugenic medical narratives without understanding the history of where these ideas came from. 


Today, the gender nonconforming community is fighting to return to the freedom that existed for us before these eugenic ideas took root in society. The freedom to be acknowledged for who we are on our own terms, and without the approval of cisgender people. As language is a reflection of the way we think, our language is undergoing a shift towards inclusivity of gender nonconforming people. Words like nonbinary and singular they pronouns are becoming more widely understood, and even less common gender inclusive language, like neopronouns, is being featured in major publications such as The New York Times and The Rolling Stone


Source:

Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay World, by George Chauncey

The New Woman, by Emma Heaney

When Brooklyn Was Queer, by Hugh Ryan

The New Woman book report by Alok Vaid Menon

Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay World book report by Alok Vaid Menon


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