Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Around the World in Another 80 Gays : Part 8) A Study in Queerness

Previously : 9) Hugh Walpole’s (1717-1797) gothic mansion was inherited by 10) Anne Seymour Damer (1749-1828) who campaigned in the 1784 General Election wearing the blue and buff colours of the Whig Party, which were adopted for the uniforms of the American Revolutionary army as worn by 11) Deborah Sampson (1760-1827), the first female American soldier, whose life was novelised by her descendant 12) Alex Myers (b.1978).

When 12) Alex Myers was growing up in New England he often heard stories of his family heritage. One story told every year when the family visited his maternal grandmother on their annual “pilgrimage” to see re-enactments of the Battle of Lexington was that of 11) Deborah Sampson. It became something of a family tradition.

Even though some of the details may have been elaborated over the years Alex’s grandmother gave him a life-long interest in his ancestor. Even at school Alex couldn’t understand why Deborah’s story wasn’t better known. It is now, nearly 30 years later, when such gender-variant stories are coming out of the history books and into general public awareness. Alex Myers himself played a part in this awareness with the media publicity which went with his novelised version of Deborah Sampson’s life in his 2004 book “Revolutionary”.

The story of his ancestor resonates with Alex’s own life. He too is a pioneer. He describes his childhood as a typical rural New England childhood, climbing trees, wearing jeans and playing with the boys of the neighbourhood. A typical childhood for a boy, but Alex wasn’t a boy. He was born female and was called Alice.

Growing into a teenager Alex realised that he should be a boy, and when he went back to his school, the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, after the summer break he had decided on his future life and became the first transgender student in his school’s history.

Alex later returned to Phillips Exeter as a teacher after he had transitioned, graduated from Harvard, and got married to the girl he first met as a 17-year-old who had just come out as transgender.

At Harvard Alex was again a pioneer, the first openly transgender student in its history. He was immediately welcomed. In an interview last year he said “They looked through their housing and asked ‘what’s appropriate housing for a transgender student? Where will they feel safe?’”

Harvard University now has a thriving lgbt association, the Harvard Gender and Sexuality Caucus, founded in 1984. Since Alex’s time there Harvard has seen another transgender pioneer. In 2015 Harvard student Schuyler Bailar became the first transgender swimmer to compete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The Harvard Gender and Sexuality Caucus became a pioneering organisation itself in 2009 when they raised $1.5 million to create the USA’s first endowed professorship in lgbt studies. Other US universities had programmes and courses in lgbt studies from 1986 but none funded specifically for the purpose. The process of creating this professorship began in 2003 when Harvard’s Women’s Studies became Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Members of the Caucus began to campaign for the lgbt professorship.

In 2009 the campaign successfully reached its fundraising target. It enabled Harvard to invite an eminent academic in any aspect of lgbt, gender or sexuality studies to teach at the university for a year. The academic would have the title the F. O. Matthiessen Visiting Professor of Gender and Sexuality.

Who was 13) F. O. Matthiessen (1902-1950)? He was an eminent American literary critic who, like 4) Count Albrecht von Bernsdorff, was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Matthiessen’s connection to Harvard began in 1926 after returning from the UK. He earned a PhD in 1927 and then went to Yale for two years before returning to Harvard as a literature professor.

Matthiessen specialised in American literature from the mid-19th century. This was a time when some of the great American authors were writing their best works. Authors such as Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman were studied by Matthiessen, leading him to describe the period as the “American Renaissance”, a term which has now become universally recognised.

During Matthiessen’s time at Harvard he was in a relationship with a painter called Russell Cheney. They lived together for over 20 years and their relationship was an open secret. Cheney died in 1945 and Matthiessen bore the grief for as long as he could. Five year later he would fall to his death from the 12th floor of a hotel in an apparent suicide. Matthiessen’s previous mental health problems may also have contributed, including a nervous breakdown he suffered in 1938.

It was for both his academic record and his sexuality that Harvard named the lgbt professorship after him. The first appointment was made in 2012 to Dr. Henry Abelove, a member of the Harvard Gender and Sexuality Caucus. It is the second appointment that will lead us to the leather and sado-masochist community.

In 2013 the second F. O. Matthiessen Visiting Professorship went to a woman who was a pioneer in the study of the American leather s/m community and women’s sexuality. She was also a co-founder of the International Ms Leather contest. Her name is 14) Dr. Gayle Rubin (b.1949).

Next time : The World of Leather, in which we take a journey from Harvard via Stonewall to the world of comic books.

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