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G.S.A. Keynote Speaker Sarah Prager Highlights Queer History

M.Zhang/The Phillipian

Sarah Prager is the author of “Queer, There, and Everwhere: 23 People Who Changed the World.”

Following prosecution for his homosexuality in 1952, British mathematician Alan Turing was forced to undergo chemical treatments and ultimately died of cyanide poisoning. Today, Turing is regarded as the inventor of the computer, as he broke the Nazi’s enigma code by building a computational machine.

Sarah Prager, author of “Queer, There, and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World,” argues that Turing’s story demonstrates homophobia’s negative consequences on everyone.

“[Turing’s] story shows us in part how homophobia hurts everyone, not just gay people, because what could Alan have invented if his career had not been cut short?” asked Prager in a presentation to the Andover community.

As the Gender–Sexuality Alliance (G.S.A.) Weekend Keynote Speaker, Prager shared her thoughts on past and present events in the queer community in a visit to Andover on October 26.

In her presentation, Prager highlighted certain historical and current figures from her book who she believes have been significant in the queer community, including Major League Baseball player Glenn Burke, who is said to have invented the high five, and mid-seventeenth century Swedish queen Kristina Vasa.

Prager emphasized the idea that queer individuals have been present throughout all of human history.

Lorelei McCampbell ’22, an audience member, said she was was surprised by queer historical figures that Prager presented. McCampbell noted that while “coming out” has become more common in recent years, queerness has existed and can be seen throughout history.

“A lot of people that I’ve had discussions with about the history of queer people… say if you went back 50 years ago, they would only have pronouns ‘he and she. Except now, looking back… [Kristina Vasa lived in] the 1600s. They were neither female nor male, and that’s just neat to see that it has been like this for so long — that it has not only been recently [that queerness has existed], but only recently has it been more available for people to come out,” said McCampbell.

Prager also noted that heterosexuality is a European custom that was brought to the Americas during colonization. She referred to the Machi, leaders and healers of the Mapuche group in Chile, who believe in the spiritual ability for gender fluidity.

“Two-spirit people were not just in the U.S. We have documented evidence of two-spirit people existing from Canada down to Argentina. And ‘two-spirit’ people meaning, broadly, ‘trans’ as a word for Native American constructions of gender where the spirit of male and female existed in one person. And so many of these tribes had three genders or five genders, and that was the norm. And the Machi are just one example of dozens of peoples in the pre-colonial world where gender and sexuality was more diverse from culture to culture, before a single-minded approach of binary. Heterosexuality came with the colonists” said Prager in her presentation.

As heterosexuality became the norm, homophobia became more widespread, according to Prager. Prager believes that homophobia and all forms of prejudice toward queer people are especially harmful because they prevent queer individuals from realizing their full potential.

In an interview with The Phillipian, Prager said, “Homophobia… queerphobia, [and] transphobia deprive the world of the full contributions of these incredible people who could give so much.”

Prager emphasized the roles that language and symbolism have in creating a sense of connection within the queer community. For example, she traced the evolution of the word “queer,” now used as a way to identify oneself as not heterosexual, from the slur it once was.

“I love how our community has reclaimed this slur and taken the power out of it and given a different power to it by reclaiming it… We took this slur of ‘queer’ and turned it into a self-identification,” said Prager.

Prager also referenced the pink triangle, a symbol of gay pride.

“The pink triangle….originally, as a symbol, was taken from pink triangles being used to identify homosexual prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. We took that symbol of hate and turned it into a symbol of pride,” said Prager in her presentation.

Coreen Martin, Instructor in English and G.S.A. Faculty Advisor, said she enjoyed Prager’s presentation and her ability to share her voice in multiple ways.

In an email to The Phillipian, Martin wrote, “In her book and through her Quist App [an app designed to teach LGBTQIA+ history], Sarah Prager writes about queer people who have changed the world or profoundly affected people in some way. And it’s fantastic to read about all these people and their stories, but meeting the author and hearing her speak in person herself is even more inspiring. She herself is changing the world with her writing, her words, and her activism. It was an incredible honor to meet her!”

In addition to the educational component of her presentation, Prager described her own experiences growing up in Connecticut, coming out as lesbian in her first year of high school, and finding that learning about queer history helped her feel less alone.

“Not knowing really any other queer people, I taught myself queer history. Thankfully, my school’s library had books about that time, and learning queer history is what gave me a sense of community. It helped me to know that I was not the first person to ever feel this way, that I wasn’t alone, that I had role models who had accomplished incredible things, and I really believed that I could, too. I could see a piece of myself in them; I could see a piece of them living on in me,” said Prager in her presentation.

Prager continued, “It completely changed everything in my life to know that who I see as ancestors, these people as part of my family, it made me feel less alone. It made me feel like part of something bigger, and it helped to inform my own identity development as a lesbian, where I found the lesbian rights movement.”

Prager also shared her thoughts on the recent statement released by the Trump administration regarding the definition of gender in an interview with The Phillipian. She believes that this event has put a strain on the queer community, and is frightening because it has the potential to sanction violence.

“It’s a stress, mentally, on the entire queer community, whether or not these things end up going through or have real-life repercussions. It is just exhausting to deal with the rhetoric and the rhetoric has an effect in a spike in hate crimes against queer people. So this climate incites violence,” said Prager.

In order to help advocate for the rights of the queer community, Prager encouraged the audience to become politically active, especially in local settings. She highlighted that in Massachusetts, the “Yes on 3” campaign is working to gain support to sign a law that would prevent transgender discrimination in public spaces. Voting on this law will take place during the midterm elections on November 6.