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09 March 2010

Keith Stern: Queers in History – a review

Keith Stern (1952 – ) from Connecticut, started as a musician, and then worked for Warner Bros Records in promotion and public relations.  He ran a punk/new wave club in 1979, and then promoted punk and new wave acts.  The first version of Queers in History was published as a CD_ROM in 1993, and expanded as a book in 2009. 
  • Keith Stern.  Queers in History: The Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Historical Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, and Trangenders.  Forward by Sir Ian McKellen.  Dallas: Benbella Books, Inc.  2009.
From a trans perspective, the repeating problem with books about Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, and Trangenders is that trans persons get swamped by the other three categories.   There are over 900 entries in this book.  How many transsexuals? Two actually, Wendy Carlos and Candis Cayne. This matches the 1:500 estimate.  Except of course that the 1:500 is against the total population, not the GLBT population.  If we take GLBTs to be around 10% (a rough figure that dates back to Kinsey) then there should be 20 transsexuals in the book.

Wait.  Who is this on p28.  A gay man cum drag queen called Alexis Arquette.  Alexis transitioned to female in 2006.  Queers in History is dated 2009.  This was not a last minute change that we would excuse the book for missing.

There are no transsexual men in the book, not even Patrick Califia. Most of the lesbian cross-dressers from the 19th and early 20th century appear but not always as cross-dressers:  George Sand, Renée Vivian , Bryher, John Radcliffe Hall, Vita Sackville-West, Romaine BrooksHilda Doolittle but not Jane Heap, Micky Jacob.

The only heterosexual cross-dresser included as such is Edward Wood, but the article follows the book by the science-fiction writer Jean Marie Stine that he was bisexual in his younger years.  There is no entry for Stine herself.  Robert Baden-Powell is in as a repressed gay, but no mention is made of his female impersonations.

None of the trans men activists are here, nor the trans women activists.  And, somewhat surprisingly, very few gay activists.  Harvey Milk is here but not Peter Tatchell, Joseph Doucé or Louis Georges TinJosé Sarria, trans activist and gay electoral candidate is sorely missed.  Aurore Dupin is in under her pen name of George Sand and Pauline Tarn as Renée Vivien, but the writer known as Vernon Lee is in under her mufti name of Violet Paget.  Stern is of the school that if a person is a king, queen or pope, their other name is not to mentioned.  Thus on p107 we find Christina but not Christina Vasa;  on p21 we find Anne but not Anne Stuart.

Whilst Stern includes many English kings and queens, he is quite indifferent to prime ministers and other members of parliament.  Thus no mention of Peter Mandelson, Jeremy Thorpe, Edward Heath, William HagueWilliam Lygon, the 7th Earl Beauchamp, leader of the Liberals in the Lords, who resigned after being outed in 1931, is missing.  Lygon is usually taken to be the real-life model for Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited.  However Archibald Primrose, the 5th Earl of Rosebery, Prime Minister 1894-5 is included under Rosebery.  Nor does he include the various gay and lesbian mayors of major cities: Paris, Berlin, Hamburg, Zurich, Houston etc.

Many authors, musicians, painters etc. are included.  One meaning of ‘queer’ is gays and trans who lack heterosexual privilege.   That is not the meaning here.  This book features the famous and the accomplished as recognized by the straight world.   Some of us would have preferred the inclusion of those who had contributed to GLBT history  without the approval of the straight world, but that was not Stern’s choice.

In his “Notes” at the beginning of the book, Stern says “Their sexual orientation is made evident by their choice of romantic partners”.  This leaves one thinking that he does not properly understand what ‘transgender’ is.  Wendy Carlos is in the book by being one of the few transsexuals that straight people instantly name, but surely not by her ‘choice of romantic partners’.

With these few caveats, the book is quite fun, but many of us would have come up with quite different lists.


Anonymous said...

I guess you missed We'Wha, Holly Woodlawn and many others . . . guess you never made it to the W's while compiling your list of what's missing, as if any book could be complete.

Anonymous said...

And you missed the mayor of Berlin who is listed among the missing. Suppose I could go on but I doubt you'd be satisfied.

Anonymous said...

And you missed Deborah Sampson, maybe you didn't even get to the S's. I'll bet there are more than 20 transexuals in the book, even though it is by definition restricted to people important outside of the LGBT community.

Zagria said...

None of these mentioned under either W or S is or was transsexual. Transgender yes, but not transsexual.

Anonymous said...

If there are supposed to be 20 historically prominent transsexuals (prominent in world history, not just gay culture) who are they?

Anonymous said...

Was "choice of romantic partnters" really the definition of transgender or was that taken out of context?