Beginning with Unfamiliarity – Justin Bengry

by | Sep 28, 2020 | LGBT+ Project: Personal Reflections, Teaching Portal, Teaching Portal: Innovative Modules | 0 comments

Dr Justin Bengry is a cultural historian specialising in history of sexualities and the queer past. Lecturer in Queer History at Goldsmiths, University of London, he convenes the MA in Queer History,  the first masters course of its kind. He was the lead researcher on the Historic England initiative ‘Pride of Place: England’s LGBTQ Heritage’, a founding co-convener the Institute of Historical Research History of Sexuality Seminar, and co-founded the international history of sexuality blog ‘NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality’. In this personal reflection, Dr Bengry shares some of the readings and approaches that shape his teaching of queer history, particularly at postgraduate level.


Start with the unfamiliar

I like to start discussions of queer history with the unfamiliar, the more distant past, where LGBTQ students don’t feel they have to ‘out’ themselves in order to participate, and where non-queer students also feel comfortable contributing because no one has first-hand experience of this period.

At the same time, however, by looking at the pre-modern past, we can open up questions about identity, sexuality, gender and lived experience in thought-provoking ways that need not remain in the distant past. Usefully, some of the most exciting work on the queer pre-modern also focuses on the experiences of women so this material immediately dislodges men as the centre of so much queer history. This scholarship introduces students to conversations about fluidities, and the questioning of labels that run through the rest of my modules and into more recent histories. This approach argues that forms of same-sex desire exist across period and place while highlighting historically specific ways in which that desire was experienced and understood.


Question the Familiar

I am always eager to challenge students to question their assumptions and to look at a question, source, or issue from an unexpected perspective. Martha Umphrey’s article on the Harry Thaw murder case confronts students with just how uncertain the categories and language that we use to organise sexuality can be. This piece can be hard work for some students but brings out engaged discussion in class. I’m less concerned about ‘right’ answers and more with exploring possible ways of understanding sexuality and the study of sexualities differently.

Michel Foucault perhaps inevitably appears in queer history courses. It is useful to introduce his work on the history of sexuality to students, even if (even especially) to later question it, because many students will encounter his name and concepts more than others. I have never found it entirely successful to assign long sections from Foucault at either undergraduate or postgraduate (MA) level to begin with, and recall struggling myself as a student with this method. But with support from tutors even undergraduate students should be able to manage selected excerpts from The History of Sexuality, such as those on the ‘Incitement to Discourse’, ‘Repressive Hypothesis’, and ‘Reverse Discourse’And rather than offering the ‘Truth’ of human experience, I use these to instigate conversation, questioning and critique. Whose voices are privileged? Who is left out? Why?


Identify What’s at Stake

I’m also committed to using the study of the past to understand our present. Feminist gender scholar Shannon Weber helps identify the political stakes and consequences of both social constructionism and biological essentialism, and not always in ways we anticipate. She reminds us that even if many of us might think of essentialism as an artefact of a particular ‘gay’, rather than ‘queer’, politics, it holds great resonance for those coming of age in a ‘born this way’ media landscape that our students will immediately recognise. So, this article can enliven discussions of social constructionism and essentialism that really need to be tackled to understand historiographical debates in queer history. Students might find Weber’s article a challenge, but tutors should be able to use it (like the Umphrey article) to provoke further engaged discussion about gender and sexual categories and identities.


Include Bi and Trans histories

At first glance, much queer history tends to exclude the lives and experiences of trans and bisexual people and histories of gender nonconformity, particularly when we look at scholarship about the UK. Our field has much work to do in this respect, and also to better include the histories of queer and trans people of colour. But as teachers (and students ourselves) we should also engage with what is already available, even if against the grain. Previous generations of historians rarely named transgender and gender nonconformity in those or similar terms, nor did they sufficiently discuss bisexuality independently of same-sex desires, but they give us ample evidence of gender variance and sexual fluidity across human experience. They might have used evidence of gender nonconforming behaviour or presentation as a marker of sexual ‘deviance’ rather than as a focus of research in its own right, but that does not mean that our questions, including those we pose our students, have to stop where past historians did.

“Questioning our discipline and sharing its history in the classroom demystifies the processes of historical scholarship and denaturalises the assumptions that informed the work of previous generations of scholars. We must teach our students to see more than what they are first shown.” 


Ask “what’s missing?”

All of this is only a drop in the ocean, and it is impossible to do justice to the range and variety of queer historical scholarship in a session, module, or even an entire degree. I am therefore eager to include students in module development and revision, partly to expand my own awareness of what is being done and also as a pedagogical tool. In my MA core module I ask students to design a ‘missing’ session for a topic that they feel is not sufficiently covered. Of course, given the limitations of a ten-week term there are many topics that are not covered adequately or even at all. More queer history is left out than is included.

For this assignment, students select required and supplementary readings, write a brief abstract (ca. 100 words), key questions, and a 1,000-word statement explaining why they chose their topic, what it contributes to the module, and how it builds on themes and goals for the module and course as a whole. While this assignment is for postgraduate students, it could be adapted for undergraduate modules as well. As a result of this assignment I modify module readings every year, but aside from this it offers several benefits to students as well. They gain a sense of what areas have and have not received scholarly attention. Students who assume that tutors have not bothered to do the leg work to find what must be there may be vindicated, but more often they discover gaps in the historiography and may be inspired to do more of that work themselves. They have to think not only about collecting sources and readings, but also about presenting them coherently, and about curating a set of documents. They must think about how others will understand and interpret issues and ideas they feel are important.

More than once I have had students tell me they never realised how much work went into preparing a single seminar, let alone an entire module, and that this kind of assignment forced them to think in different ways: how to put scholarship and source documents into conversation, what we want to learn, what our discipline has yet to discuss or where other disciplines have done more, and where history urgently needs to move forward.

LGBTQ history is important, and it’s also urgent. I’m delighted to see its provision increasing across the UK and beyond, and I’m proud to be part of that and to share it with so many amazing scholars, community historians, heritage professionals and students.


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