I was reading Jennifer V. Evans’ magnificent The Queer Art of History: Queer Kinship After Fascism in the summer of 2023. As books have a way of doing, my copy came with me on my travels. It came to a workshop at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC, and one night at the museum, it spoke to me.
The heart of Evans’ book is her argument for kinship, rather than “fixed and firm” identity (Evans 2023, 201), as a means to organize how we think about history, a way to, in her words, think “capaciously about queer and trans* lives, loves, struggles, and journeys in the past and the experiences that might be possible in the future” (214). History that begins by putting queer and trans identities at the center, she argues, has papered over many queer and trans people in the past. Touring through queer and trans German history after 1945, she shows an alternative past, one that is messy, fraught, beautiful, and laden with desire. Identity driven history, Evans contends, has made it hard to see sexism and racism in queer and trans politics, or to see the struggles of sex workers that have been so central to queer and trans politics, or to really appreciate the complex meanings of gender non-conformity. We get flat, boring narratives. Identity has given us a past that is not intersectional and does not center queer and trans people of color. It has given us a past where we do not see intergenerational sex, or sex work. It made us a place drained of radicalism and emotion and ascetics. History framed by a notion of identity feeds what is essentially a gay anti-queer politics, she argues. Evans ends the book with an insightful survey of disparaging things that moderate queer commentators in Germany have said lately about queer activism against racism and sexism. The platform those commentators are standing on is the middle-of-the-road queer subject. That subject exists because of identitarian histories of queer social movements, Evans argues (224-6).
“Queer kinship,” in contrast, is “the coalitions, attachments, hookups, and solidarities of choice and necessity that made up queer life after fascism” (2). Throughout the book there are powerful statements and re-statements of what “kinship” is that retain, and yet subtly elaborate upon, this core meaning. For example, in the acknowledgements Evans writes movingly about working on the book during the COVID lockdown, when she reconnected with people online, finding “kinship … the ties that bind us emotionally, intellectually, politically – across seemingly insurmountable differences…” (xiii) Kinship is a way of relating not just to one’s fellows in this moment, but to the past. It is “the ties that bind us to those in our midst and to those who came before us” (197). It is “beyond the heteronormative framework of family” (198) and “grounded in recognition of difference” (199). Writing about Benny Nemer’s piece Paradise, Evans celebrates “a shared imaginary with multiple points of entry” that “creates conditions of empathy across difference, among improperly queer, wayward, unruly subjects.” It is these “affective affinities … a form of kinship” that can be “a basis for communing and communicating with the queer/trans* past” (212).
There is something here about the present work of historians. Two things, actually. Historians are in kinship with one another now, or ideally so. Evans writes of her own intellectual networks of collaboration and friendship as implicitly or explicitly being examples of kinship (xii-xiv; 225). This is something that means a lot to me. Evans’ support and friendship has been of immense importance to me, as has the informal friendship and affinity network of queer and left-leaning Germanist scholars – including, crucially, younger scholars – for which she serves as an important node. To quote my colleague Ervin Malakaj writing here, ever since I met Evans, “It is as though she made a pot of coffee, invited me over, and said “you belong, too, my dear,” and not only in the sense of a personal friendship, in the sense of, even if we did not always agree on scholarly matters, I had her support, my work belonged in the field of German history. That meant a lot.
Evans did not make me coffee when I met her. She gave a fantastic public talk, and graciously fielded a question I asked in the Q&A that, if I recall correctly, was posed in the overly aggressive manner I had picked up in graduate school and have hopefully by now mostly shed. Then we went with a group for dinner, or a drink. It was evening in Toronto, in the early winter of 2008, if I remember right. I recall Jen seeking me out and talking about my work as if we were peers, in a way I was not accustomed to professors doing. I was a postdoc, a few months past my graduation. I should add that with regard to Evans, and with regard to many of the scholars writing in this forum – and as well as with respect to a wider circle of scholars in several countries – I feel myself within a supportive community of inquiry, and I am grateful to Evans and to all of the people in question. It makes the work a lot more fun and interesting. At times it makes it possible.
We also might be in kinship with the queer and trans past. When Evans urges us to follow this method, she is taking up a very old critique of identity in queer theory, one that she and other scholars (such as Laura Doan, Joan Scott, David Halperin, and many others) trace to Foucault’s work in the late 1970s (217). What is so exciting is that she is building on this critique, looking towards a method that is shaped by intersectionality and queer-of-color and trans-of-color scholarship. This is not an injunction that queer and trans historians have no emotional bonds with queer and trans people in the past at all, or that we deny ourselves any claim of commonality with them. To me that is a very welcome response to Laura Doan’s call, in Disturbing Practices, for the most stringent separation possible between the historian and the past.1 Evans’s book is a celebration of the fact that those bonds exist. It is a call to be thoughtful about them.
I do not agree with the critique of identity. I couldn’t agree more with Evans’ critique of a certain conservative genre of queer history, and Evans’s work is a brilliant and very persuasive articulation of the critique of identity. I do not think there is a necessary connection between identity politics and the problems in queer history that Evans elucidates.2 Queer theory – in particular queer of color critique – has taken extremely nuanced positions on the identity question and I would like to see queer history engage more with that important intellectual tradition.3 I will however leave off my defense of identities and history writing for another time and place. I love Evans’ call to let us admit the emotional bonds we feel stretching into the distant past, lingering beyond death. They are real. We are better scholars for them. We can be thoughtful about them.
Do those bonds reach in the other direction as well?
One evening this summer at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, after the school groups had gone home and the museum was closing, I walked through the first few rooms of the permanent exhibition, with Evans’ book rolled up in my backpack. That afternoon at the workshop I was attending, we had had a conversation about how Roma are represented in the exhibit. I had only seen the permanent exhibit once, in the 1990s. I did not remember it well at all. A workshop organizer invited me to see for myself and was good enough to serve as my guide. I wanted to see the issues colleagues had raised – the very minimal and problematic representation of Roma. I was also curious about how cis queer people were represented. Trans people were not represented at all, I assumed from much prior thinking and looking at how the USHMM represents our history online. This is despite the fact that when the Nazis took power they destroyed a thriving trans subculture in Berlin and then went after trans people, particularly trans women.4
It was dark in the permanent exhibition. The light there is always dim. The designers sought to create an oppressive and hopeless mood, a sense of moving in “heavy darkness,” as Edward Linenthal writes in his history of the museum.5 It was after five o clock. Two staff people were cleaning the exhibition, wiping down the glass exhibition cases. A third staffer was making a repair to another display. Otherwise, the halls were deserted.
We walked for a while, past the very large atrocity photograph at the exhibit’s beginning, past displays about the Nazi rise to power, and came to a sort of shallow bay off to the side of the main path. I was unfortunately correct about how the exhibit represents trans people. Even cisgender queer people are barely represented. In the area where we paused, there is a display of a Roma wagon and a sign that lists “homosexuals” along with other non-Jewish victims. (This lack of queer and trans inclusion is not the only nor the most pressing problem with the permanent exhibit, which is scheduled to be updated. On the erasure of queer Jewish people from Holocaust history see the important work of Anna Hájková.)6
As I saw just how absent trans people were (not to mention the issues about Roma representation), I got mad. Tied to the anger was an emotion that was just as strong, in the form of a bond. Perhaps a sort of imagined kinship? It gave shape to my anger. It was not, however, kinship with the Nazis’ queer victims. It was, rather, empathy with the school kids who get marched through that exhibit. The USHMM is a staple of the eight-grade trip to the museums in DC. Thousands of kids see it each year. Some of those kids are queer and some are trans.
What I wish those kids were able to see is not so much the suffering of the long-dead queer and trans people. (Although the kids do have a right to know about that). What I want them to see is that queer and trans people existed. They lived, and struggled, built communities, and loved. They were not only white non-Jews but also Jewish people and Roma people and Black people. In the 1930s and 1940s, queer and trans people were everywhere. I don’t think that ought to be the core message of this exhibit. But it ought to be there. As things stand now, it is a historical reality that the museum is concealing.
One of the powers of queer kinship as a concept is its ability to look forward as well as backward, to show us solidarities with the people who are coming after us. That imagined network with people coming after us shapes what historians do as well, and it should.
Laurie Marhoefer, Professor of History, University of Washington
- Disturbing Practices (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). See for example Doan’s comments about touching the past: xi-xii.
- I hope to write more about this but for now see Marhoefer, Racism and the Making of Gay Rights (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2022), 202.
- Such as: José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.)
- Laurie Marhoefer, “Transgender Life and Persecution under the Nazi State: Gutachten on the Vollbrecht Case,” Central European History (2023), 1-7; Bodie Ashton, “The Parallel Lives of Liddy Bacroff: Transgender History and the Tyranny of the Archive in Twentieth-Century Germany,” German History 42, no. 1 (2024, forthcoming) and Zavier Nunn (who has a complex take on the issue of persecution and victimhood): “Trans Liminality and the Nazi State,” Past & Present 260: 1 (2023), 123-157; (2022); ———., “Against Anticipation, or, Camp Reading as Reparative to the Trans Feminine Past: A Microhistory in Nazi-Era Vienna,” Gender & History (16 August 2023)
- Edward Linenthal, Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum, (New York: Viking, 1995), 170.
- Such as: ‘Den Holocaust queer erzählen,’ Sexualitäten Jahrbuch (2018): 86-110; ———., Menschen ohne Geschichte sind Staub: Homophobie und Holocaust (Wallerstein, 2021).