Archives and LGBTQ+ History

I’m trying to decide exactly how I feel about an ongoing debate occurring in France over the institutionalization of LGBTQ+ history through the establishment of a community archive along the lines of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. The Bay Area Register has a helpful overview in English of the debate. Essentially, The Collectif Archives LGBTQI wants to establish an archive in Paris dedicated to LGBTQ+ History. Presented with their plan, however, the French government has demanded that the archive be put under the control of the state National Archives rather than the Collective. In response, the Collective has argued that the state should be involved in supporting the archive but, considering its history of oppression and erasure, cannot be trusted to document and preserve the history of LGBTQ+ people in France.

The archivists and preservationists laid out their position in an open letter published in Libération, signed as well by similar organizations from around the world. The letter begins by saying:

Au cours des cinquante dernières années, un mouvement a émergé partout dans le monde pour retrouver le passé des lesbiennes, des gays, des bisexuels, des transgenres, des queers, des intersexuels (LGBTQI) et préserver leurs cultures. Ce mouvement est nécessaire car l’expérience des personnes LGBTQI a été exclue des archives par les institutions traditionnelles qui génèrent l’histoire de nos sociétés. Cela a entraîné une perte de compréhension historique tant pour les LGBTQI que pour la société en général (Over the last fifty years, a movement has emerged all over the world to recover the past of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people, queers, and intersexuals (LGBTQI) and preserve their cultures. This movement is necessary because the experience of LGBTQI people has been excluded from the archives by traditional institutions which generate the history of our societies. This has led to a lack of historical understanding not only for LGBTQI people but also for society in general).

Collectif Archives LGBTQI, January 8, 2021

As someone who has written about archives in this context, I find the issue to be a bit more complicated than it might at first appear. One aspect of my argument about the police archives, at least insofar as they include material on the policing of various forms of deviant sexuality in the nineteenth century, is that they do not necessary “exclude” LGBTQ people as much as they reflect the fact that no such identities existed in the nineteenth century. For the police and other moral and social commentators, there was nothing to exclude (how targeted individuals actually felt may or may not be different from how they were perceived). Or at least, there was nothing to exclude that would necessarily look like modern sexual identities. This is not to say that the police did not actively seek to attack and oppress people who engaged in same-sex sexual activity. That is obvious. Rather, it is to say that interpreting those practices in terms of erasure or exclusion is premised on the idea that “we” would have been present but for those activities. I’m unconvinced that is the case.

The project of recuperation enunciated by the letter then is not really (or not just) a project of ensuring that LGBTQ+ people are able to access their histories. It is also taking part in the constitution of those identities as identities and as part of a single community in the first place. In other words, the specific framing of the project as the preservation of a single LGBTQ “culture” is also a kind of distortion — a productive one perhaps — of history. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is important for us to recognize the ways in which all archives (and historians) participate in construction of history itself.

The goal of constituting a space and institutional basis for the elaboration of LGBTQ+ people and communities in Paris is badly needed in the French context. The continued suspicion of supposedly American “communitarianism” has made it unfortunately difficult for LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, and people of color, among others, to organize around a collective identity and make claims on the state in its name. Suspicion of state control over LGBTQ+ historical material is therefore well-founded. However, I found traditional archives in France to be hugely fruitful to the reconstruction of a history of sexuality, just not necessarily the one I originally thought I’d find. There are, in fact, multiple histories in the archives, not all of which will necessarily find themselves at home in an institution devoted to the interests of the LGBTQ+ community. That’s precisely why they remain valuable.

Originally published at https://www.andrewisraelross.com on January 31, 2021.

Assistant Professor of History at the Univ. of Southern Miss. History of Sexuality, Modern Europe, and Feminist and Queer Studies. All viewpoints are my own.

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Andrew Israel Ross

Andrew Israel Ross

Assistant Professor of History at the Univ. of Southern Miss. History of Sexuality, Modern Europe, and Feminist and Queer Studies. All viewpoints are my own.

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