As I draw to the end of the prelims process (71 books and 24 days left!), I am beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel and have begun to enter the real world again. As a graduate student, this means that I am beginning to attend academic talks again and that I am trying to limit my consumption of cupcakes and candy which have become my food of choice lately.
This week, I went to see Laura Doan give a talk entitled “Normal Soap.” In the talk, she talked about the definitions of queer theory and the binary that they tend to place between normalcy and queerness. David Halperin, for example, famously defined queer in Saint Foucault as being “whatever is opposed to the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.” Doan argued in the talk that this definition reifies the normal, a concept that was not in common currency until the 1930s or the 1950s. She argues that historians should focus on the multiple discourses and structures of meaning that occurring at any one time. Sometimes, she argues, it would be more damaging for someone to be accused of losing their virginity than for someone to be accused of being a sexual pervert.
As I was listening to her speak, I was thinking of the ways in which polygamy underscores the fragility of the binary she was to bust. Few people would classify polygamy as queer, and yet few would classify it as normal. As such, it is difficult to place within the history of sexuality if we accept the binary that some queer historians have constructed. Scholars of Mormonism have much to contribute to these discussions as a result.
Unfortunately, such conversations rarely happen. Historians of American religion are the few non-Mormon historians who deal with Mormonism, and even their references tend to be few. Mormonism is a side note in queer history, in the history of American radicalism, and in the history of sexuality. Mormon historians tend to be allergic to queer theory, skeptical of its claims and reticent to apply it to their own work.
The result are academic conversations that go past each other like ships in the night, never engaging each other, never speaking to each other, and each missing out as a result.