More than 500 registrants representing over a dozen countries descended on the University of Chicago campus last weekend for The Future of the Queer Past. Billed as "a transnational history conference," this vast representation of current queer theory was organized by members of the University of Chicago's three-year-old Lesbian and Gay Studies Project.
The majority of the participants were historians and researchers attached to various academic institutions. However, a significant number of activists, students and independent scholars helped to make up the large and enthusiastic audience. The conference consisted of 50 panels which introduced papers from historians working in an array of both traditional and interdisciplinary fields. One can begin to grasp the immense variety in historical inquiry in queer studies by simply looking at some of the titles of these papers. Historians discussed research on topics as contemporary as "Fear, Shame, Pride and Anger: Lesbian and Gay Political Responses to AIDS, 1981-1986," the dissertation of University of Chicago's own Debbie Gould, and as historically obscure as "Representations of Sodomy in Massachusetts, 1690-1765," presented by Thomas Foster of the Johns Hopkins University.
Most of the panels offered much more than strictly historical inquiry. Discussion time was allotted at each session that enabled both presenters and audience members to explore issues of methodology, contemporary context, language and other possibilities for new information.
While decidedly an academic conference, there was enough programming to keep the "non-intellectuals" in the house stimulated. Six documentaries around various queer histories were screened during the conference, including Arthur Bresson's rarely shown Gay USA, made in 1977 at the height of Anita Bryant's media onslaught against gay rights. Several filmmakers introduced their own work. Greta Schiller, Andrea Weiss and Yvonne Welbon ( directors of The Man Who Drove with Mandela, A Bit of Scarlet and Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis at 100, respectively ) were able to participate on a panel exploring narrative and documentary strategies in films on queer history.
Conference attendees were also treated to performances from two acclaimed queer performers. Holly Hughes remounted her recent show Preaching to the Perverted on Thursday night. This tale of Hughes' experiences with censorship and the Supreme Court premiered in Chicago in July. Brian Freeman, longtime performer and activist and co-founder of Pomo Afro Homos, read excerpts from his recent play Civil Sex: The Life of Bayard Rustin. This study of Rustin's vast life and career as an activist was a fitting counterpart to the themes of historical re-naming and re-claiming that pervaded the conference.
As large as The Future of the Queer Past was, the conference was still missing work from several perspectives. Co-organizer George Chauncey, in his closing remarks, lamented the "disappointing lack of work on Asia and Africa" and expressed a general interest in seeing more cultural histories. Lisa Duggan of the New York University encouraged tenure-track professors at the conference to organize for a more ethically and racially diverse group of employed historians, citing the audience of mostly middle-class white academics as example. She sarcastically challenged reporters to title their news pieces "Queer Scholars Urge Terrorism in History Departments" as a response to her remarks.
The Future of the Queer Past did, however, highlight the important contribution that historians working in queer studies are making toward our further understanding of the GLBT community's place in this world. By resurrecting our past triumphs and defeats, we re-establish our roles within the family of Earth. We have a home in history and a place in the creation of the human myth.