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Documenting and Honoring Queer History Requires Imagination

We have a lot of conversations — especially right now, as there seems to be less and less of them — about queer spaces. And as queer people, many of us have had to or have chosen to forge a path for ourselves where we either find places where we can wholly be ourselves or create those spaces and places from whatever resources are available to us. Some of us don’t necessarily do either. Some of us live and work in places and spaces that are unwelcoming and openly hostile to us in order to challenge the conventions of that place and, hopefully, leave it in a better state than we originally found it. And some others don’t have the option to worry about any of it. They’re stuck where they are for a variety of reasons, and they have to do what they can to survive.

Regardless of what a queer person’s relationship is to the place and space they occupy, there’s no doubt that the way they live in and move through that geographical location will impact the way they see themselves in the world, their inner life, and the experiences they have with the people who surround them as well as what becomes of that space once they’re gone from it. But both of those aspects of our stories are seldom seen as a way to help tell those stories and shape the narratives of our lives. Nothing Ever Just Disappears: Seven Hidden Queer Histories, a new book by cultural historian Diarmuid Hester, shows us what is possible when we consider space in this way. Not as just a background to the events of queer history and the lives of important queer artists and activists but as a guide to understanding who they were, why they did the work they did, and how they were able (or unable) to accomplish what they set out to do.

Although it could be argued that some of these queer histories — such as the chapters focused on Josephine Baker’s, James Baldwin’s, Jack Smith’s, and E.M. Forster’s lives — are not quite as “hidden” for everyone who might read this as the title implies, Hester’s book presents a provocative case for looking at space both concretely and abstractly. Hester’s framing argues that space is a physical location, quite literally the places where the people highlighted in the book lived and worked, and also a more imposing and malleable environment, one that shapes and is shaped by the people who choose to take up residence and working space in its homes and studios and on its streets. He writes,

But if we turn our attention to such places, if we really look at them and try to connect with their stories, we can start to see how vital they are to the lives of individuals and societies, to history and culture, to identity and community. [This book] issues a challenge: to conceive of history more in terms of place than time. Traditional approaches are preoccupied with dates and timelines (then homosexuality was decriminalized, then the Stonewall riots happened, then gay marriage…), which gives the who endeavour a comforting feeling of progress but rather misrepresents the forms of queerness that were available at different times in different places. Taking the locations that follow as our guiding thread, we can shift the emphasis from timelines to places and, in so doing, gain access to a new, broader, more diverse perspective.

Beginning in legendary filmmaker and queer activist Derek Jarman’s home in Dungeness, Kent, England (sweetly named Prospect Cottage by Jarman and his friend, Keith Collins), Hester takes us on an investigation that spans the last two centuries and different cities all over world. From Dungeness, we go straight to Cambridge, the famous university town north of London, where E.M. Forster spent the majority of his adult life studying, teaching, and writing. In the conservative, all-male environment of King’s College and on the equally stifling streets of Cambridge, Forster learned to keep his sexuality and his relationships quiet all while secretly sitting on a draft of Maurice that wouldn’t be published until after his death. Cambridge leads us to London, where Vera Holme and the British suffragettes are not only demanding to be treated equally in the eyes of the law but also wearing men’s clothes and publicly doing tasks that were traditionally done by men to subvert Londoners’ expectations of gender.

Hester knows you can’t really discuss queer life in the first half of the twentieth century without turning your attention to Paris, so we make the trip there. In Paris, Hester discusses Josephine Baker’s — along with many other influential lesbians of the period such as Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, Djuna Barnes, and Radclyffe Hall — unique symbiosis with the people and culture of the city, how they helped build one another up despite their many differences. As Hester introduces to the various queer artists and activists who changed the culture of Paris forever, he eventually gets to the life and work of surrealist photographer Claude Cahun who lived there for a time before moving to the island of Jersey right before the start of World War II. When Jersey was occupied by the Nazis during the war, Cahun focused her work on protesting the Nazi Regime in Germany by producing anti-Nazi agitprop that she then spread all over the island, an act that got her and her partner, Marcel Moore, arrested and sentenced to death (luckily, the regime fell and the occupation ended before they could be executed).

As Hester continually points out in his chapter on James Baldwin, Baldwin’s relationship to the spaces he was part of was always much more complex than many of the other queer people highlighted in the book. “Always out of place,” Baldwin split his time between New York, the place where he grew up and where much of his family still lived, and his home in Saint-Paul-De-Vence in the south of France. Neither of which ever made him feel fully at home, though we can see the influence of these places throughout his work and we can see the effect he had on them through their history also. Since he’s in New York, Hester takes the time to highlight the life and work of boundary-breaking, provocateur filmmaker Jack Smith, whose work not only thrived in New York but was seemingly dependent on both the city’s geography and its culture. In the underground art scene of the city, Smith pioneered filmmaking styles and techniques that would eventually influence the works of Andy Warhol and John Waters.

In what is undoubtedly the strongest and most compelling chapter of Nothing Ever Disappears, Hester takes us to the queer “utopia” of San Francisco in the 1970s, where a group of young queer writers have banded together to form the New Narrative movement. Hester is quick to highlight the distinctive quality of queer community in San Francisco during this time period and how Killian spent his time there figuring out ways to bring people together — not just through his work but through their works, too, and through their shared responsibility to one another. In examining Killian’s life and work, Hester makes a stark contrast between him and the other artists he examines in the book. San Francisco certainly shaped Killian’s life but not in the same manner as the other spaces and places shaped the rest of the artists and activists here. Instead, San Francisco presented Killian with an opportunity to connect with others and to build a collective of queer people who could take care of one another no matter how difficult their lives in the city might get.

Even if some of the sections of the text are not quite as revelatory as other people interested in queer history might want them to be, Hester’s style is accessible and uncomplicated enough for anyone, with any level of knowledge to read, enjoy, and learn from. The book is thoughtfully researched and strikes a wonderful balance between biographical information and Hester’s own assumptions and assertions about these people’s lives. As he mentions many times in the book, much of the history of some of the queer activists and artists is unwritten or poorly documented, so we must use what we know in conjunction with our imaginations to fill in some gaps. Hester gracefully manages to accomplish this throughout the entire book. His prose also sometimes takes a more conversational turn, especially as he’s discussing his own experiences in the myriad locations the book takes us to, which gives it a level of intimacy that makes you hope he has more to say.

As the book is concluding, Hester writes: “When I started out, a part of me was looking for proof that queerness has a place in this world,” which calls attention to the necessity for a book like this to exist in the world. In a moment where queer spaces and places seem to be vanishing from week to week, Hester’s book is vital for helping us understand how we can not only claim more space for ourselves but also carve out spaces for ourselves in every space we’re already part of. He manages to prove, over and over again, that even in the face of great repression and antagonism, queer people have, throughout history and against incredible odds, done exactly this. They’ve taken the places and spaces they were given and left an indelible mark on the histories and futures of those places and spaces, and in turn, they let themselves be marked, as well.

Nothing Ever Just Disappears: Seven Hidden Queer Histories by Diarmuid Hester is out now.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 95 articles for us.

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