Although my current research interests relate to the history and historiography of sexuality, in the past I have published widely on the contemporary novel and literary modernism. My first monograph, Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern British Lesbian Culture (Columbia University Press, 2001), examines the social, cultural, and political context of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928), a novel soon banned by the British government as obscene. This revisionist intervention moves across several cultural realms, including sexual science, the law, fashion, literary and visual representation, and the print media and scrutinizes myths concerning, for instance, the extent of homophobia in the 1920s, the strategic deployment of sexology against sexual minorities, and the rigidity of cultural codes to denote lesbianism in public culture.
My recent book, Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality, and Women’s Experience of Modern War, 1914-18 (University of Chicago Press), explores the material traces of individual lives not to find acts or identities that warrant inclusion or exclusion in a modern lesbian history or queer history. I turn instead to historical example to disturb current practices in the historicization of sexuality, particularly practices that position the homosexual or queer subject near the center of investigative curiosity. Identity history constrains and obscures historical understanding, even while it facilitates, animates, and illustrates—opposing tensions best understood as a legacy of sexuality’s epistemic construction forged in the nineteenth century by sexology and psychiatry. Following a sustained analysis of historiography and genealogy, the book critiques the sexological underpinnings of lesbian, gay, and queer history by analyzing the exceptional fluidity and interconnectedness of sexuality and gender in a time of war, the limits of categories of sexual identity in talking about sexuality, and the cultural habit of assigning to sexuality the value of “normal” as pitted against its opposite, a binary configuration that remains dominant in queer studies. This project seeks to clarify the ethical value and political purpose of identity history, indeed its very capacity to give rise to new practices borne of sustained dialogic exchange between two fields at present so distant, their intellectual affinities have gone unrecognized: queer studies and critical history.