Reflection: Relationships and Representation

In Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites, Susan Ferentinos writes about how Americans’ perceptions of homosexuality have changed over time. Her book makes it clear that there have always been LGBT Americans, but that people did not always think about homosexuality in the same way that we do now. However, Ferentinos does bring up the point that some people who were in long-term same-sex relationships would not necessarily have thought of themselves as being attracted to people of the same gender, if there was no sexual dimension to their relationship.[1] During our class discussion, we talked about these different types of historical LGBT relationships. We briefly touched on whether or not those relationships had to be sexual to be co

nsidered queer.

I do not think historians should assume that sexual intercourse is necessary to consider a relationship queer. While I agree that not all Americans who lived in this same house with someone of the same gender were definitely queer, historians should not assume that just because there isn’t evidence of same sex partners having sex does not mean they were straight and merely living together.

 

This is partly because details of people’s relationships often have not survived. People may not have written about the sexual aspects of their relationships in letters or instructed that their letters be destroyed after their deaths, as many LGBT people did.[2] Although museum professionals should not rush to assign labels to historical individuals, in many cases, if they wait to find evidence that someone engaged in sexual intercourse with people of the same gender, museums will continue to struggle to reach an underrepresented audience.

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Jennie Augusta Browncombe, Untitled (Two Girls at a Window), Photo Courtesy, National Gallery of Art

In addition, queer relationships need not include sex at all. By implying that a queer relationship is necessarily based on sexual attraction, Ferentinos ignores people who do not experience sexual attraction at all. Romantic attraction is not the same thing as sexual attraction. One percent of people are asexual and they can fall in love just as people who experience sexual attraction do. While this is a very small percentage of the population, it includes 3.16 million Americans.[3] Not all people who are asexual identify as queer because of their asexuality, but many do. Others identify as queer, lesbian, or gay because they only feel romantic attraction to others of the same gender.[4]

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Photo Courtesy EMM, not Emma on Facebook (via Asexual Visibility and Education Network)

Speaking to New York Magazine, one asexual individual said, “I had thought, I don’t really want to have sex with anyone. Guess I’ll be alone for the rest of my life. That sucks….it made me really happy to know that there were other people like this and that being asexual does not mean you can’t be in love. And it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.”[5] Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have always existed, and so too have asexual people. Just as other underrepresented people deserve to see themselves in museums, so too do asexual people. By allowing for romantic relationships that do not include sex to be considered on par with sexual relationships, museums can help normalize the idea of asexuality.

Notes:

[1] Susan Ferentinos, Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites, Interpreting History Series (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 38-39.

[2] Ferentinos, Interpreting LGBT History, 24.

[3] Ellen McCarthy, “Asexuals Seek to Raise Awareness of the ‘Invisible Orientation’,” The Washington Post, November 24, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/asexuals-seek-to-raise-awareness-of-the-invisible-orientation/2014/11/24/5dc92d3a-6b7a-11e4-b053-65cea7903f2e_story.html.

[4] “General FAQ,” Asexual Visibility and Education Network, http://www.asexuality.org/?q=general.html.

[5] Amy Sohn, “Shifting to Neutral,” New York Magazine, March 7, 2005, http://nymag.com/nymetro/nightlife/sex/columns/mating/11243/.

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