Happy Birthday Queer History Warwick!

Introduction

The 6th June 2020 marks the two-year anniversary of Queer History Warwick (QHW)! We wanted to mark our anniversary with a post that tells a little of our story. On the 6th June 2018, QHW (or the Queer History Reading Group as it was known at the time) hosted our first event titled ‘Queering the Archive, Archiving the Queer’. The group was originally founded by Somak Biswas, and individuals such as Pierre Botcherby, Andrew Burchell, Daniel Ewers and Amal helped to get the group off the ground. Once Hannah Ayres came on board, the decision was made to have a larger, more formalised committee structure and Pierre, Louise Morgan, and Nick Cherryman were formally recruited. With the committee formed we put out our first Call for Participation and began the year of events! In January 2020 we recruited Phoenix Wilks, an undergraduate student who has taken on the bulky task of helping to manage our expanding social media. Many of you might have only heard about us because of the work Phoenix has done; their work is even more integral during this time of lockdown and isolation. Recently we gained three new members: Crawford Emily, an undergraduate student who will be helping to run the social media as well as taking over the blog from Pierre; Dipak Panchal, a PhD student based in Sociology; and James Whitfield, a (soon to be) MA student also based in Sociology.

Throughout our growth as a group, we have received an incredible amount of support, particularly from the History department here at the University of Warwick as well as the Student Union and the Library. We’ve since had international speakers (such as Kate Davison), online lectures (from drag queen Ibi Profane), roundtables, film screenings, and we’ve even fostered research from our very own undergraduate community. Over the past two years we have experienced exponential growth, and we hope we can continue this with your support!

Below our committee has contributed their personal thoughts on what QHW means to them and why they got involved.

Somak Biswas – Founder & organising committee member

I was new to the world of queer theory and history back in 2018 when I floated the idea of a queer history reading group. I was coming to terms with my own queer identity at that time, and I keenly felt the need for a dedicated space in the History department for those who identified as queer or were academically interested in things queer. As a doctoral student my work did not directly correspond to queer theory, but I hoped for a space that could foster a meaningful dialogue between diverse streams of academic and political interests. I had little experience of running a group like this event as it rapidly snowballed into something much bigger than we anticipated. With a small but dedicated crew we tried to network and bring in new people, resources, and programmes on our very shoestring budget.

Our first event – a reading session based on two rather dense queer theory readings – drew almost 50 people, a mixture of staff and students from different stages and departments. We were unbelievably excited that it could actually work! The important thing for us to keep the work alive for the first two terms; we knew we could sustain it in the long term only if we managed to create enough buzz. The year saw us organising several important sessions on readings such as queerness and class, panels on queerness and Islam, and fruitful collaborations with ‘Queer’ Asia and the Warwick SU. It was my wish to align it further with the work that liberation societies such as anti-racism and anti-sexism societies have been doing even as we ran the risk of being spread too thin. Nevertheless, we remained, in the main, a largely academic group that studied and discussed important work being done in queer scholarship. By the end of 2019, I had found an able successor in Hannah Ayres, someone who was deeply invested queer studies and was as enthusiastic in running it. She brought in new people and directions, a vibrant social media presence, and an overall systemization to the group that greatly deepened its value in the university and beyond. Many individuals and groups helped us in consolidating this work, and I cannot be more thankful for what I shared and learnt from them. It has been a quiet delight to see our work grow from being a small reading group to a more formidable presence, and to know that I had played a small part in it.

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Pierre Botcherby – Founding member, former blog editor & organising committee member

My involvement with QHW came about due to my role as the postgraduate rep on the History department’s Research Committee. I was asked by Somak to present the initial funding request at a Committee meeting.

There was no queer space in the department’s research landscape at that time, something stressed in the initial request for funding. The intention for the group to be student- rather than staff-led also marked it out from the bulk of the department’s research groups. The group was proposed as trying to reach the broadest audience possible: not, then, just an echo chamber for queer academics and/or academics interested in queer matters; nor an activist group, as such organisations already existed; but a space for students and staff from all levels and departments of the university to participate. This was reflected in the high attendance and diverse audience at the group’s early events, and in the decision to run a blog alongside these. The blog posts and talks which emerged from the 2019-2020 Call for Participation have really recaptured this spirit. The diverse scope, flexibility of format, range of contributors, and – above all – welcoming environment are the keys to the group’s success.

I don’t work on queer history and don’t have much knowledge of the wider field. Participating in the group’s activities has thus been a huge – and enjoyable – learning experience. I’m very proud of the group’s work, the events it has run, and – if I may blow my own trumpet – the increasing popularity and success of the blog. Long may it continue!

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Hannah Ayres – Current convenor

I first heard about QHW as a brand-new PhD student, when one of my supervisors let me know about a fantastic new group that I should get involved in. Unfortunately (because of scheduled classes) I was unable to join early on and missed out on some fascinating events. I became formally involved in the group when Somak invited me to run a session. I can tell you now that I was extremely excited and incredibly nervous as this is something that I had never attempted before. I ran a session on Molly Houses based around previous PhD idea that never came to fruition. The session went incredibly well and it was then when I witnessed the initial potential of this group, as it provided me with a space where I felt legitimised and where I could express my excitement about queer history in a room full of like-minded people.

In June 2019, Somak began to pass the reins of the group over to me as he aimed to complete his PhD (something he has now successfully done) and I became the convenor of QHW. In all honesty I felt unprepared, Somak had established something that people really enjoyed, and I felt that the group had a lot of potential. I also wanted to offer a space that could give others the same feeling the group had given me. In my uncertainty I craved support; I felt like I could not take advantage of this potential alone and so I decided to form a committee. This is one of the best decisions that I could have made, and the group would not be as well organised or as fully formed as it is now without them.

When I look back at the work QHW has done, I am incredibly proud. The group has come such a long way in a short amount of time, and I hope that we can keep this momentum going. It has been a joy to help support this group and seeing the current work on queer history and queer subject matter honestly warms my heart. I feel privileged to be able to offer a space for this work to be showcased and because this group gives me the opportunity to meet so many fascinating individuals.

To finish off I just want to say a massive thank you to the committee members, speakers (and future speakers), blog contributors, funders, and anyone who has ever attended an event or event just liked a post, we really appreciate your support!

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Louise Morgan – Organising committee

I was initially asked to join QHW by Hannah when she began to lead the group. My undergraduate and master’s dissertations had both been about the history of male homosexuality, so I have a longstanding interest in queer studies. While my PhD research has shifted away from the field, it is still something I enjoy learning about, and I use a lot of the skills and language developed in queer history to discuss my work.

As an undergraduate, I was really inspired by a lecturer working on histories of sexuality. They opened my eyes to how interesting and useful history could be, and I would not have even thought of pursuing a PhD if it were not for their work and their kindness. By being involved in QHW, I hope that our collective enthusiasm for queer history can inspire others to follow their own interests. I have been proud to see so many people engage with such a variety of topics through events we have organised. I cannot wait to see how the group continues to grow over the coming years!

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Nick Cherryman – Organising committee and (newly appointed) co-convenor

So, what have I got from QHW?

Well, as a queer theorist, I was first introduced to the group via Hannah when she reached out for help on a brief she was writing on an unrelated project. From there, I was asked to join, and I was initially interested, but bemused. For me, it’s not something I necessarily would have been involved in – I’m not a historian by trade at all – I’m a queer theorist, and I look at culture, society, and media… history doesn’t necessarily have the most pressing connection to it over other areas of exploration. But, with this said, I’ve always been aware that my queer history is important – people have given up their lives for me to be who I am today, so I went in expecting to learn something and at most it be a small academic hobby on the side of my PhD.

Since then, my perception has shifted somewhat. Instead of QHW being stuffy, and slightly alienating, the group has expanded a niche academic space onto the broader campus. It has opened up what is often viewed as a small and inaccessible field into one which is open and available for all, and our numbers and turn out reflect this! It’s great. We now have worked with (and will hopefully continue to work with!) Coventry Pride, other research groups on campus, external speakers, visiting academics, activists…the list goes on. We’ve been privileged to be able to use the group to meet and platform these people – which I think is not only interesting, but important.

Finally, I feel like there was something tragic about variations on the phrase ‘the struggle of the past is the heritage of the present’. Well, historically this is true (as a discipline), but I think that queer history pushes and interrogates this and asks if struggles are of the past. In a sense, this group has been a form of activism for me; educating people and re-evaluating what we take for granted. For me, despite my (very slight) reluctance at the beginning, I’ve come to realise that this is my work. My PhD looks at what we take for granted, and have normalised, and pushes the boundaries of it. Framing this through a historical frame is now not only useful, but important to me, and it’s a privilege to be forced to shift our perceptions on things in the past and use it to question the present.

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Phoenix Wilks – Social Media Coordinator

My first experience of QHW was through Hannah putting out a request for an undergraduate to take on the social media. At the time this seemed like a good way to get more involved in the university, this was at a time when I was still struggling to find out where I fit in the university experience. I have always been an academic person; I was raised by a father with a doctorate who works as a university lecture and consequently the academic sphere has always been one that I have felt a part of. In terms of my own queer experience, I had previously only been aware of more activist groups such as pride groups, for example Coventry Pride and Pride Cymru from my home in Wales. I support this is what attracted me to QHW at first as a group that looked at queerness through an academic lens, drawing further into the queer community and the academic one at the same time.

My own personal experience of running the social media for the last five months or so has been one of great personal growth as I have had a connection to the wider queer community of the university and beyond myself. Queer history itself teaches us about the struggles that those before us have gone through and how we continue to write about queer history everyday in our daily lives, particularly in times like this that are so politicised. Being a part of a group like this helps me feel connected to the world. In many ways I hope that the work I do on the QHW social media helps others to feel that same connection, reading and researching the struggles of those who came before and connecting with each other now.

To wrap up:

We really look forward to the future of this group. As well as the scheduled talks to look forward to (and a potential conference), we are making our foray into more online outreach and are investigating ways in which we can help support the local community. As committee members leave to go on and achieve their own personal accomplishments, we look forward to working with new, bright individuals who can help push this group forward.

If you ever want to join us, you can always drop us an email with an expression of interest at queerhistory@warwick.ac.uk

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