A space was reserved on the entrance to the main exhibition for visitors’ comments. Several people voiced their disappointment with the way the exhibition presented Copenhagen’s LGBT history as something that ended long ago. It was difficult to disagree with these observations. As I Am did not address or actualize current issues and political struggles, and unenlightened visitors could easily think that Copenhagen did not have an active LGBT community or a queer activist scene at present. Except for a brief reference to events such as the annual activist gathering Copenhagen Queer Festival, the exhibition historicized political struggles that are still being fought. Thus, As I Am seemed to present LGBT life in “the twilight of equality” – consolidating the dominant view that there is nothing left to fight for.
This tale of uniform historical progression was further underlined by the fact that the most “up-to-date” wall in the exhibition thematized rainbow families and the so-called lesbian baby boom – as if the story of LGBT life in Copenhagen started with radical resistance and ended in assimilated family life. In this sense, As I Am seemed to fit perfectly into the picture of Copenhagen as the most gay-friendly city in the world. But what had to be forgotten for this story to be told? What bodies, laws, prejudices, struggles, beatings, sex acts, dirty queers, and others were left out of this image?
The narrative of development offered in As I Am takes part in a wider tendency to present LGBT history as a linear movement from a negative past to a positive present; from repression to openness; from shame to pride. Literary theorist Heather Love describes the structure of this specific story with reference to the development of an analogue photographic print. In this “darkroom of liberation,” she writes, “gay pride is a reverse or mirror image of gay shame, … the ‘negative’ of the closet case or the isolated protogay child is developed into a photograph of an out, proud gay man.” The problem with the development of this black-and-white picture is that this representation of progress frames the past in a certain way, as something we have left behind. This leaves no room for shades of grey; for continuing experiences of inequality and shame; for feelings of anger and rage.
My belief in the importance of interrupting and dismantling this story of progression should not be taken as an attempt to deny that advancement has been made. I am indeed grateful to, and have benefitted tremendously from, the important work by LGBT activists in carving out a space for non-normative lives and sexual cultures in a vastly heteronormative world. But even though laws have changed and possibilities are greater, we must not forget that the quality of some of these advances is disputable and the distribution highly uneven, with the result that many so-called problems of the past live on in the present.
The Danish political culture is influenced by a neoliberal agenda of pragmatics and consensus, where LGBT issues are frequently being presented and perceived as a question of consumerist lifestyle diversification. In this seemingly geopolitical deadlock we must never cease to imagine different social worlds. “The present is not enough,” as José Esteban Muñoz passionately reminds us in Cruising Utopia (2009), his recent book on queer futurity, “[i]t is impoverished and toxic for queers and other people who do not feel the privilege of majoritarian belonging, normative tastes, and ‘rational’ expectations.” In other words, we must return to the darkroom and redo the printing of the picture of the perfect present. I believe that the history-producing darkroom is capable of more than developing “positive” images useful for upholding the status quo. This darkroom is a place to fuck and fuck things up, to twist and to queer, to work and have fun. In this queer darkroom of history-making we can scratch the negatives and create alternative visions, showing the non-linear connections between the past, the present, and the future.
It is not often one finds ambitious and well-financed historical exhibitions with a LGBT perspective in Copenhagen. Initially getting up my hopes and expectations the exhibition made my disappointment all the more severe. I find little satisfaction in critiquing an exhibition such as As I Am, being aware of the uniqueness of its scope and the hard work of the curators in putting the show together. But it is because of the importance of this form of historical projects that I find it necessary to address the shortcomings of the show, as a hope that it may trigger or engender new interventions into queer history.
As I Am reminded me of the need for new and more diverse ways of approaching the writing and presentation of LGBT and queer history – ways that question progression as a main trajectory. We need to develop a “politics of the past,” as Heather Love formulates it, that can account for the many ways in which the “past continues to structure queer experience in the present.” An inspiration for such a historical approach can be found in the writings of the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin. In an attempt to make a distinction between historical commentary and criticism in the seminal text “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin suggests that “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.” Insisting on the importance of re-working of the past in and from the present, Benjamin shows that any historical project which attempts to “reconstruct the past ‘as it really was’ is impossible – if desirable at all.” Instead, Benjamin delineates a different approach to history – a preposterous one, as Mieke Bal has described it – moving from the present to the past, not from past to present. While all histories are written in the present, not all are written in present tense. As I Am is an example of the latter, as the exhibition tells a story of the past detached from the present’s concerns, with the result that the existing LGBT history seems to “disappear irretrievably.”
Some people might find my call for an engaged historical practice to represent a radical politicization of history that sidesteps the scope of academic work as well as official “objective” institutions such as the City Museum. But a detached history of progression is also abundantly ideological, inscribing itself – intentionally or not – into a political narrative maintaining the status quo. Instead of leaving politicized history aside, we should learn to “‘look forward’ while we are ‘feeling backward’” – as Heather Love so beautifully phrases it – in order to use history more productively in the service of imagining better futures.