Gerard Koskovich on “Gender in Translation”

Gerard Koskovich is a San Francisco–based historian, curator and rare book dealer. He has given talks in English and French on queer history, archives and mu­seums, and historic pre­servation at many conferences.

The exhibition Through Knowledge to Justice: The Sexual World of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935), on show at the GLBT Hisotry Museum, features first editions, vintage periodicals and ephemera largely drawn from the collection assembled by curator Gerard Koskovich over the past three decades.

-> What triggered your interest in Gender Studies?

I arrived at gender studies via my interest in gay and lesbian history starting in the early 1980s. The term “gender studies” wasn’t in use yet — but thanks to the work of scholars in the field of women’s studies, I came to recognize that we couldn’t understand the history of homosexuality without recognizing the ways it intersected with women’s history and with masculinity and femininity as social roles and as structures for the distribution of power. This recognition initially opened my eyes to the need to consider lesbian history and gay history as necessarily linked — and later provided a foundation for incorporating transgender history and the history of bisexuality into my thinking.

-> According to you, has the reflection on Gender Studies evolved over the past years, if we consider the publication of “Gender Trouble” by Judith Butler (1990) a reference point?

The ideas that emerged with gender studies as elaborated by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble and queer studies as outlined by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet, both published in 1990, offered fertile ground for a more complex and nuanced analysis of the history of gender and sexuality and of the ways they are intrinsically intertwined.

Since that time, my focus has remained on the field of LGBTQ history, where the debate over the terms and the utility of Butler’s and Sedgwick’s work (and of Michel Foucault’s, for that matter) continues in lively and at times contentious ways. I keep up with some of the discussion, but as is often the case with historians, I give more of my time to research in primary sources than to debating the fine points of theory.

-> The operation “Gender in Translation” as it has been conceived originally tries to put into perspective French and American approaches to Gender Studies. Does this distinction still seem relevant to you? Why?

Given my interests and my work, I’m more aware of the differences between American and French approaches to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history — and to the differing discourses in the U.S. and France regarding the significance of LGBTQ history and its possible value for the LGBTQ movement, as well as its significance to the broader history of the two societies and its place in public memory. As an American who speaks French and who spends several weeks a year in France, I’m intrigued by the distinctive development and forms of LGBTQ historiography in the two countries.

-> Could you define the specificity of your approach to Gender Studies?

Gender studies isn’t my focus, so I might say my approach is to draw on theoretical tools from the field to support my efforts in the area of LGBTQ public history.

-> Does your research in the field of Gender Studies bear a civic and/or political engagement? Is this an important aspect for you?

Shifting the terms of the question, I would certainly say that my research, public history projects and advocacy in the field of LGBTQ history are centrally inflected by social, civic and political engagement. Notably in my efforts as a supporter of the GLBT Historical Society and as part of the team of curators and program organizers at the society’s GLBT History Museum, I look to document, analyze and encourage public understanding of the queer past because I believe doing so promotes social justice.

From my perspective, the GLBT Historical Society’s work enhances the well-being of LGBTQ people by giving us a sense of our place in time, a sense that we have a heritage from which we can learn, a sense that our history is a vital if long obscured part of the history of the wider culture. Bringing knowledge of queer history into contemporary debates about the lives of LGBTQ people and about our relationship to the state likewise contributes to creating a more equitable society. And by sharing queer history with non-LGBTQ people, we build greater understanding and respect for LGBTQ people throughout our society.

-> As a scholar/artist/thinker/curator/…, what does the title “Gender in Translation” evoke for you?

For me, “Gender in Translation” suggests that like language, the forms of gender and sexuality embody connections and differences across cultures. And much like language, translating gender and sexuality across cultures requires care, respect and creativity; it involves risks and challenges; and it offers opportunities for the pleasures of what our forbears might have referred to as social intercourse—an exchange that can expand our understanding of ourselves and of the world.


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