This Pride Month, we spoke with Samuel Clowes Huneke, author of States of Liberation. In this blog post, he talks about how he became a historian of queer Germany, his forthcoming book with UTP, and what Pride Month means to him. Read below:
1. How did you become a historian of queer Germany?
I’ve been interested in Germany since I was a kid, when I lived in Bonn with my parents. That’s when I started learning German, which I continued and eventually majored in German at Amherst College. I fell in love with German literature and culture when I was a teenager, and so my entry into queer German history was actually through literature. At Amherst, I wrote my undergraduate thesis about queerness in the literary works of Klaus Mann, who was the oldest son of the Nobel laureate Thomas Mann and one of the first openly gay authors in modern history. But, at the end of the day, it’s a field that I find meaningful both as a gay man and as an intellectual – there’s so much that happened in Germany, particularly in the twentieth century and particularly as it pertains to queer people. There’s triumph, there’s tragedy, and there’s success and failure. It’s a really fruitful place to look to understand modern queer experiences.
2. You published States of Liberation: Gay Men between Dictatorship and Democracy last year. What was the reaction like?
I still can’t quite believe that I’m a published author, and I am so thankful to have published States of Liberation with Toronto, which has one of the most fabulous lineups of queer German history anywhere. I’m also fortunate that there’s been a real outpouring of interest in the work. It’s among the first books to look at gay experiences in postwar Germany and was really the first to compare and contrast what happened to queer men in East and West Germany. When I first published it I was really worried, in particular, about the East German material. There’s still a lot of fear and a reflex hatred of socialism, especially in the US and but also in Germany. I was worried that the revisionist argument I was making that in many ways East Germany was a friendlier place for queer people would not be taken to kindly. But luckily, it’s an argument that people have been very receptive to.
3. Tell us a bit about your forthcoming book with UTP. What topics will you be tackling? Where did the idea for writing this book first come into fruition?
I can’t believe I’m already working on a second book! It’s a history of queer women in the Nazi era. LGBTQ histories of Nazi Germany have gotten a lot more attention in the last decade or so. A number of historians – including myself, Anna Hájková, and Jennifer Evans, as well as UTP authors Laurie Marhoefer and Javier Samper Vendrell – have really done a huge amount of spadework to uncover what these experiences were. For a long time, we knew about the fates of queer men in Nazi Germany, but much less about queer women and trans people. It’s a topic I’ve been working on for a long time now, and it’s exciting to bring it to fruition as a book. I first started thinking about the topic as a graduate student when I came across a few files at a regional archive in Germany dealing with queer women who had been denounced to the Nazi police as lesbians and the topic has just captured my attention ever since. The history of lesbian women under Nazism sheds light on what we mean when we talk about persecution as well as tolerance. It’s a really fascinating case study of how authoritarian regimes deal with outsiders who may not be their “priority” but were still very much marginalized and persecuted. The book, which I’m about halfway done writing, will really focus on the life experiences and the stories of these women, and I feel very fortunate to be publishing it with Toronto’s Aevo UTP imprint. So, stay tuned!
4. What does Pride Month mean to you as a historian?
I always feel ambivalent about Pride Month, to be quite honest. One part of me is immensely thankful for the freedoms I enjoy because of the struggle and suffering of my queer ancestors. I try to use the month to recognize the queer history that brought us to this moment. And it’s also a time for us to think about queer people who do not enjoy these protections and privileges. In the United State, trans people, in particular, face massive discrimination and outright persecution. And so, I think to the extent that we use Pride Month to renew the political imperatives of queer liberation, then it’s good and useful. But for so many of my peers, Pride Month now seems like nothing more than an excuse to party. And I’m certainly not opposed to partying, but I worry that Pride has become too commercialized and too saccharine to actually retain much of its original radical, political import. In many ways, it’s now nothing more than a branding opportunity.
5. What do you hope readers and Queer Studies scholarship will take away from your work?
At the end of the day, I think my work has two primary messages. The first is a warning: things can always get much, much worse. In the face of the political, environmental, and economic catastrophes we’re facing today, I think that this is a message people are increasingly receptive to. The other message is that things can also get better and that they can get better through the efforts of small groups of individuals. Ultimately, it’s a message of hope: if we look through the queer past, we do find cases of individuals and groups making a real difference in their lives, in their communities’ lives, and in their descendants’ lives. And so I’m certainly not a Whiggish historian who believes in the inevitability of progress. But I also do really try to look through the queer past and recognize moments of joy and growth that can not only inform us today, but ultimately also inspire us.