Always a New Frontier

As the discussion on sexuality in American history turns the page to sexuality in American current events, the trends and historiography of various topics that we’ve covered have become more apparent than ever. Sexual issues revolving around homosexuality, women’s rights, and transgender people have persisted from the early-modern America until the present day. In looking at some of the current issues, we can make connections to the past and mark ways in which they’ve changed.

The first article by Mariana Valverde is titled, “A New Entity in the History of Sexuality: The Respectable Same-Sex Coup”. This article really stressed that the issues regarding homosexual relationship, or as they are known today, ‘Same-sex couples’. Valverde did not take a necessarily negative stance in her article, but she made a couple of important points about the road to increasing rights and visibility of homosexuality. Her first major point was that when same-sex couples got married during the first wave of legality, the media covered it in a highly white, middle class- friendly manner.

San Francisco Chronicle photo, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle photo, 2004

Valverde argues that the weddings and recent media coverage of gay rights has increasingly de-sexualized it. She juxtaposed a 73-year-old Canadian homosexual activist with the current activists who has been working through the times of illegality with modern what she called Respectable Same-Sex Couples (RSSC) who are currently battling for the legality of their courtship rather than the right to practice their own sexual preferences. What immediately stuck out to me was the change that the gay world has seen over the last hundred and fifty years or so. Upon further reflection, while I will definitely say that the community has seen progress in many ways, that means that new frontiers must be crossed. The gay community has changed in ways that they have permeated mainstream society and are accepted in ways that someone from the mid-twentieth century would not believe; however, what exactly does that mean for the community? If you ask Valverde, she would argue that it means increasing acceptance for the RSSC, but maybe not as much for others, but also the de-sexualization of the community. While the gay community no longer operates as it did nearly a century ago, in special places like the YMCA or bathhouses, but that means losing a bit of their individual community and culture that was built during this time.

We also read two articles about the current transgender community. Instead of reading about the young and beautifully changed Christine Jorgenson, we considered two different groups of the transgender community, the young and the old- who are less likely to become sexualized in the way that Jorgenson was. For my generation, transgender people have become much more visual than in any other time. Similar to the gay community, though, just because your community has reached the mainstream does not mean that the challenges and new frontiers do not remain. In an NPR article, young transgender students talk about navigating the frontier in the school setting. These kids may have begun their transitions by asserting their true gender, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t face challenges that go far beyond bullying (which is a huge challenge on its own). These kids must get their school to recognize them by their names, and not the ones that they were born with. They must get permission and feel comfortable using the bathroom that they choose. Despite transgender children being able to show their true selves in the school setting, they are still pioneers navigating a new frontier.

bathroom-e1354047601170    And what about the opposite end of the spectrum- those who transition during their middle- to older ages. The New York Times published an article in March that dealt with this specific topic. As people transition in their later years, it is more difficult (and definitely more expensive) to “pass” because of the additional body issues that most people generally face in their old age. Aside from the physical issues aside, there are other issues that face people who transition after years of living through the changes of the twentieth century. For example, what ideas about gender does a newly transgendered woman who lived through the Mad Men era of the Fifties and Sixties bring to to the table? Definitely different ideas than someone will bring who was only born in the Nineties.

These people have far more options to live out their lives as their authentic selves than people did even just a decade or two ago. This can undoubtedly be seen as progress; However, similar to gay rights, progress does not mean new challenges in a frontier that is being covered for the first time. Undoubtedly, I think, the lives lived by Thomas/Thomasina, the Fairies of the Bowery, and Christine Jorgenson would look at young transgendered students in elementary school with pride and possibly envy, but these young people are following a path that few have followed and likely have just as many questions as their predecessors did.

Finally, the third reading dealt with sexual violence as experienced at Columbia University (& Barnard College) by women from the Sixties to present-day.  Sexual violence in universities is an extremely hot topic right now that constantly receives media attention- though that has not stopped its high number of cases. Columbia student, Emma Sulkowicz, began taking a stance against sexual violence at universities after being the victim of such violence. To protest in 2014, she carried her mattress around on the Upper West Side campus to raise awareness and seek justice. Sulkowicz’s story is one of thousands. As the article showed, sexual violence is hardly a new thing at Columbia- or ANY University- and it is interesting to see how it has been handled by women throughout the decades. One women shared her story from the 1960s, at the time when students were fighting to rid of the In Loco Parentis policies of the universities. She was violated by a member of the campus SDS, an activist group which ironically worked for liberal change in the 1960’s. Her response was to just call her abuser her “boyfriend”, because during this time, sexual activity between unmarried people often happened, especially during the dating “steady” stage. The author recounted her own experience in the 1990s, in which she just told herself that “Nothing Happened” as sexual violence was beginning to gain some media attention. The writer did not want to be seen as a victim. Emma Sulkowicz in 2014, on two decades after the author’s experience, took a certain control over the violence committed against her. She took a stand. The previous women who reacted in different, arguably more passive, ways are not any less strong than Sulkowicz. but rather they are a product of their times. In the 1960’s, there was a lot of student activism, but there were still affirmed gender roles in the movements. The goals of students in SDS  would have been tainted if one of their own members carry her mattress around in protest against another.

columbia student

Sulkowicz is a pioneer of a new frontier as well as the other subjects of the articles. This frontier in the area of sexual violence against women is a new one, but the path is hardly old. We’ve have seen this topic from the beginning of history. An early example that we read was Harriett Jacobs’ account of the violence committed against her during her life as a slave. Recall the Bowery g’hals who asserted their own independence by working and earning their own money. Still, even these women who were “protected” by the Bowery b’hoys were often the sexual victims of the b’hoys. Recall the women in the 1970s and 1980s who fought against pornography in the interest of fighting violence against women. Pornography persists, sexual violence persists, but the visibility each gains raises awareness and if nothing else, it provides a voice that tells the public, “Violence against women is NOT okay”. Throughout history, women have been fighting this, whether through the feminist movement or otherwise, and have asserted their agency in ways that their socio-political circumstances have allowed.

What does this mean for the history of sexuality in American history? It is still going. There is always a new frontier. There are always new issues and concerns that arise as others are confronted and solved. Currently, if you just scan the news stories, there are tons that relate to sexuality. In all stories, you can trace these new frontiers to paths that have been followed since the founding of the nation.

Where to find works:

“A New Entity in the History of Sexuality: The Respectable Same-Sex Couple”. Mariana Valverde in Feminist Studies.

Published by

Kelsey Shober

Senior History and Political Science major at Virginia Tech. I have written blogs for multiple classes including: Twentieth Century Russia, America in the 1960s, and the History of Sexuality in America.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.