Queering family history and the lives of Irish men before gay liberation

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Historians of sexuality commonly ‘read against the grain’ of the criminal archive as a way to reconstruct both the pitfalls and possibilities of queer cruising cultures. One of the drawbacks of this approach is how it can limit our knowledge of queer men to the fleeting moments of pleasure that led to an arrest, thus obscuring the broader complexities of their social world. The sources that can take us beyond this limited viewpoint – such as diaries, letters and memoirs – tend not to survive for same-sex desiring working-class men who did not live in major metropolises. In this article, I offer a replicable method for uncovering and reconstructing such difficult-to-access lives. By queering the practice of family history, the criminal archive becomes just a starting point that can be enriched through genealogical data, such as censuses, birth/marriage/death registrations, as well as more colourful information from now-digitised newspapers. The resulting ‘small queer histories’, I argue, can contribute to not just a deeper understanding of the sexual past but support important political work in the present too. To demonstrate both this methodology and its contemporary value, I use a case study of one man’s life in Ireland in the time before a Gay Liberation movement. I show how it was kinship networks that provided both the emotional and financial resources that enabled this man to both fight against a charge of ‘gross indecency’ and flourish in the decades after his arrest. This surprising reality of past support is of particular importance in a region where religiously sanctioned homophobia and intolerance were later informed by the supposed antipathy of the family to queer desires.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages22
JournalThe History of the Family
Early online date17 Jan 2024
Publication statusEarly online date - 17 Jan 2024


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