The Case of the Sultry Mountie, or, We Need to Talk about Cecil

July, 2015 · By Justin Bengry

I never knew my great uncle Cecil Bengry. Affectionately known as Cic’, this bachelor uncle seems to have lived in the background of other people’s lives. Even the pictures of Cic’ in old age that I found among my own grandfather’s (his brother) papers are faded and overexposed, their physical condition seemingly recreating the fog that surrounds Cic’s life. We know that he spent most of his life caring for others: animals on the ranch, his mother in her old age, and his brother’s grandchildren in his own later years. They remembered Cic giving them treats of ‘sugar sandwiches’, and knew him as well as anyone could, yet they didn’t know if he had an education, if he had friends, even what he did during the day. He is remembered simply as ‘always there. Good to us.’ Though always around, Cic’ somehow remained unknown. When he died, Cic’ left only one record behind: a small cigarette tin of photos. Inside, along with a child’s glass marble and a few family pictures, were snapshots of numerous men, including one of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer I call the ‘sultry Mountie’.

Unlike every other photo in the tin box, the picture of the Mountie included no information: no caption, no name, no date. He simply stands there, anonymous, leaning casually against a wooden rail with hips thrust forward, looking confidently and directly at the camera. Posing for effect, he invites observation and perhaps objectification. I struggled to understand this image and the homosocial collection of photos with which it came. The tin of photos inspired me to organize, with Amy Tooth Murphy, workshops on what we called ‘Queer Inheritances’ at the London Metropolitan Archives in December 2014. We wondered: How do we discern a queer life from incomplete personal effects whose existence and content are often mediated by other family members? How do we, as queer inheritors, navigate lives lived before many could proclaim to be ‘out and proud’? Ultimately, I wondered, was Cecil queer?

Continue reading at NOTCHES…

This post was originally published at “NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality” on 26 May 2015 and subsequently as ‘The Case of the Sultry Mountie: Doing Family History Queerly‘ on the Huffington Post on 24 June 2015.

Re-teaching Gender and Sexuality

December, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

Issues related to homosexuality are currently at the forefront of public discourse. Globally, but particularly in the United States, marriage equity, military service, queer youth and bullying are not just matters of policy debate, but have engaged popular concern and action as well. Seattle columnist Dan Savage’s recent ‘It Gets Better Project’, for instance, has captured an extraordinary degree of public interest, using short video clips of ordinary people, celebrities and global figures to help draw attention to bullying and suicides among queer youth.

But it is another short online video, titled ‘{THIS} is Reteaching Gender and Sexuality’, which is in part a criticism of the ‘It Gets Better Project’, that challenges us to reconsider our understandings of sexuality while drawing attention to the plight of queer youth. In the ‘Reteaching’ video, queer youth appear in their own right, speaking for themselves, demanding immediate social and cultural change, not just the promise of something better somewhere down the road. But far more than draw attention to bullying and structures of oppression, they want us instead to recalibrate how we define sexuality and sexual identities. As two speakers put it, ‘I can like boys and girls. … I can be none of the above’.

So how does this relate to history? Well, we can be part of the re-teaching project, in fact, we already are.  In our case, it’s not re-teaching, it’s simply telling the histories of our subjects in the context of their own worlds, rather than through the limitations or needs of our own.

I recently reviewed Barry Reay’s New York Hustlers: Masculinity and Sex in Modern AmericaReay’s main argument is that the world of hustlers (male prostitutes) and trade (men who had sex with other men without identifying as gay) illuminates how  sexual practices and identities   throughout much of  the twentieth century challenge rigid heterosexual-homosexual binarisms. Reay positions himself against scholars who overlook this rich sexual fluidity and flexibility of the mid twentieth century in favour of narratives that lead only to the creation of a recognizably modern gay identity.

Other scholars have identified sexual flexibility among working-class men and military men across the twentieth century in Britain and America. But such studies still tend to be couched in terms of understanding how we got to modern understandings of gay identity, an identity defined as wholly different and separate from heterosexuality. Reay instead follows the lives of men who fail to neatly fit these categories. Nor do they conveniently remain consistent in their sexual practices over a lifetime. The fluidity of their sexual object choices, in fact, sound remarkably similar to the queer youth described above.

Reviewing this book made me think about how we can teach (or re-teach) gender and sexuality. Reay’s study need not be confined to gender, sexuality or queer history courses. His work offers insights into urban history, twentieth-century America, histories of crime, migration and ethnicity.

Gender and sexuality should, and must, appear in courses other than those devoted wholly to gender and sexuality. But so too should religion and faith, military and war, economics and commerce, ethnic and minority groups, and the list goes on. Of course we can’t do the fullest justice to each of these in every course, but we can create a culture of inclusivity in the classroom. And inclusivity applies to students as well as historical actors. Ultimately, including one can create a place for the other.

Clearly categories which organize our world are changing, but categories that organize our teaching need to change too.

This post was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
17 December 2010.


Memory, Identity and Politics in Sarajevo

July, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

As an historian I’ve probably gained more sympathy and understanding of the importance of my discipline from my travels and experiences outside the classroom. There are moments of sudden and profound understanding that have given me chills. I first experienced this on my first trip to Germany. Walking among the trees down the former East Berlin’s Unter den Linden I was overwhelmed by history, the power of space, and the profound social and cultural transformations that this street had seen and now represented.

With many more trips to Europe, and the experience of many more sites of historical unrest and change, I thought I had become dulled to such emotive responses to history. And then I took a week-long road trip across the Balkans in a rented Fiat.

There’s something about the immediacy of knowing this place was under siege so recently, experiencing war within the period of my own memory. It’s easy to assume that war ended in Europe in 1945, but throughout Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia war ravaged society not even a generation ago.

The stark reality of this hit when driving through towns that couldn’t afford to replace bombed out buildings and past farmhouses still pockmarked with bullet holes. After the relative wealth of Slovenia and parts of Croatia, the tell-tale signs of war in rural Croatia as we approached the Bosnian border were jarring. And later, in Mostar, the ruins of office buildings and apartment blocks in the downtown core was a stark reminder of what many around us had experienced so recently.

But the experience that stays with me is Sarajevo. Mostly recovered, you might not see many signs of war in its streets these days. Until you look down to the sidewalk and see the so-called Sarajevo Roses, small mortar shell craters filled with red cement, much of the city today seems largely unscathed, its scars mostly hidden from the public and from tourists.

And then I found the shell of the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina just around the corner from our hotel. An Ottoman style building on the banks of the Miljacka river, the library was a repository for the history of Bosnia, and as such became a deliberate target of Serb incendiary bombardment on 25 August 1992.

The fact that the Serbian army would destroy a repository of a nation’s written culture and history speaks to the power of history to define a people and their identity. Bosnia’s rebuilding of the library and recollection of materials lost in the subsequent inferno is equally telling of the need to assert a collective history and culture in an area fraught with competing identities. What I found most poignant, besides the hulking ruin itself, was a plaque mounted on its wall, even during the process of reconstruction:

On this place Serbian criminals in the night of 25th-26th August, 1992 set on fire National and University’s Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Over 2 millions of books, periodicals and documents vanished in the flame.

Do not forget, Remember and Warn!

This plaque is striking. When I saw it, the building was under reconstruction, but the plaque remained. Its tone and identification of the perpetrators of the library’s destruction names names. It asks Bosnians never to forget the loss, but also never to forget who caused it. But, appearing in English, it is also a call for foreigners not to forget what happened on this site of twentieth-century history as well.

As an historical actor itself, the library remains a poignant voice on multiple levels of self-identification, memory, loss, and self-representation of a people to the rest of the world.

For more on the library, its history and destruction, and the move to rebuild its collections see:

* UNESCO site about the library.

* A 1995 article from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions titled “Libraries are not for Burning.”

Photo: National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Justin Bengry)

This post was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
15 July 2010.

Out in the Academy: Researching Queer Histories

February, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

February is LGBT History Month here in the UK, which focuses attention on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans issues in the present, and also the experiences of queer Britons in the past. This yearly program to promote diversity and LGBT histories reminds us just how rich queer history actually is. But it is still taken as a truism by many that the lives of gay men and lesbians remain absent in the archive, that their stories are “hidden from history.” While it is true that the stories of many gay men and lesbians cannot be found in the traditional archive, we are nonetheless discovering their footprints across the historical record.

Traditional archives have, in fact, been at the forefront of this work in the UK. The National Archives has actively participated in identifying LGBT sources across its collection. Together with the London Metropolitan Archives it is also creating guides to better access these histories in other collections. A number of specialist archives also record the histories of political action, legal reform, and campaigningwomen’s and lesbian histories; as well as newspaper and media coverage of homosexuality in the twentieth century. But, even beyond these, researchers of queer history have at their disposal so much more.

As Jean Smith recently reminded us in another Compass posting, we need to look outside the traditional archive for fuller and richer histories of the past. Scholars of queer history in Britain are fortunate to have access to an enormous range of oral history collectionsnational survey testimony, and other repositories of gay and lesbian history. And in my own research, I have discovered film archives, theater collections, local archives, and personal collections teeming with possibilities after a little digging.

I write this post because I was almost dissuaded from undertaking dissertation research in queer history. This was not because of homophobia or reduced funding on account of my subject. I began graduate school believing, like many, that queer histories were largely marginal, inaccessible, and poorly recorded in the archive.  But after arriving in the UK, exploring the archives, and jettisoning the entire PhD project I had initially proposed and the prospectus my committee had authorized (after many sleepless nights), I was able to embark upon the project I was passionate about and which became my dissertation. I had thought that an LGBT history project was not viable as a dissertation. I was wrong. And I hope that programs like LGBT History Month will remind other junior scholars of the range of research possibilities that are available to us, and also of the innumerable histories remaining in the archive but still untold.

This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
11 February 2010.