(C)istory Lesson

Our next submission is from Rachel Duke, our Rare Books Librarian, who has been with Special collections for two years. This project was primarily geared towards full-time faculty and staff, so I chose to highlight her contribution to see what a full-time faculty’s experience would be like looking through the catalog.

Frontispiece and Title Page, Salome, 1894. Image from https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/objects/68775953/

The item she chose was Salome, originally written in French by Oscar Wilde, then translated into English, as her object. While this book does not explicitly identify as a “Queer Text,” Wilde has become canonized in queer historical literature. In the first edition of the book, there is even a dedication to his lover, Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, who helped with the translation. While there are documented historical examples of what we would refer to today as “queerness,” (queer meaning non-straight) there is still no demarcation of his queerness anywhere in the catalog record. Although the author is not necessarily unpacking his own queer experiences in the text, “both [Salome’s] author and its legacy participate strongly in queer history” as Duke states in her submission. 

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas

Even though Wilde was in a queer relationship with Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, and has been accepted into the Queer canon, why doesn’t his catalog record reflect that history? Well, a few factors come into play. One of the main ones is an aversion to retroactively labeling historical figures. Since we cannot confirm which modern label would fit Wilde, we can’t necessarily outright label him as gay. How would a queer researcher like me go about finding authors and artists from the past who are connected with queer history?

It is important to acknowledge LGBTQ+ erasure when discussing this topic. Since the LGBTQ+ community has historically been marginalized, documentation of queerness is hard to come by because:

  • People did not collect, and even actively erased, Queer and Trans Histories.
  • LGBTQ+ history has been passed down primarily as an oral tradition. 
  • Historically, we cannot confirm which labels people would have identified with.
  • Language and social conventions change over time.

So while we view and know someone to be queer, since it is not in official documentation we have no “proof.” On the other hand, in some cultures, gay relations were socially acceptable. For example, in the Middle Ages, there was a legislatively approved form of same-sex marriage, known as affrèrement. This example is clearly labeled as *gay* in related library-based description because it was codified that way in the historical record. By contrast, Shakespeare’s sonnets, which (arguably) use queer motifs and themes, are not labeled as “queer” or “gay.” Does queer content mean we retroactively label the AUTHOR queer? Does the implication of queerness mean we should make the text discoverable under queer search terms?

Cartoon depicting Oscar Wilde’s visit to San Francisco. By George Frederick Keller – The Wasp, March 31, 1882.

Personally, I see both sides. As someone who is queer, I would not want a random person trying to retroactively label me as something I don’t identify with. On the other hand, as a queer researcher, I find it vital to have access to that information. Although they might not have been seen as queer in their time period, their experiences speak to queer history. Identities and people will change, which is completely normal, but as a group that has experienced erasure of their history, it is important to acknowledge all examples of historical queerness as a proof that LGBTQ+ individuals have existed throughout time. How do we responsibly and ethically go about making historical queerness discoverable in our finding aids and catalogs?

Click Here to see some more historical figures you might not have known were LGBTQ+.

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