Q&A with Samuel Clowes Huneke
If your readers take away only one idea from your book, what would you want that idea to be?
I'd like the main takeaway from the book to be that queer liberation is not a necessary companion of either liberal democracy or of capitalism. The book compares and contrasts the experiences of queer men in East and West Germany across the duration of the Cold War, and, in many ways, that comparison reveals that the socialist dictatorship of East Germany was better for LGBTQ people then was the liberal democracy of West Germany. By the late 1980s, to take just one example, the GDR had passed a suite of pro-gay policies and laws that made it arguably one of the most queer-friendly states in the world. Now, the point is not to make East Germany out to be better than it was or to whitewash its very real failings, but rather to highlight how contingent the thing we call queer liberation really is. Ultimately, the book argues that we can only ever speak of states of liberation.
What work or idea or thinker influenced you the most in the writing of this book?
That's a difficult question to answer because there are so many thinkers, ideas, and works that influenced States of Liberation. But if I had to choose one idea, I think it would be that of sexual citizenship, by which I mean not just the ways that sexual norms are imposed by states and societies, but also how sexual minorities have mobilized their sexual identities to make specific claims of rights, privileges, and belonging. This is an idea that you can find in the works of many scholars, but a few who have been really important to my own thinking include Katie Sutton, Laurie Marhoefer, Kathleen Canning, Paisley Currah, and Lisa Duggan, who all interrogate this intersection of rights activism and the state in ways that I find extremely productive.
What got you interested in the topic of your book?
Well, there’s a clear personal connection insofar as I’m a gay man and I’ve been interested in the history of sexuality, and the history of sexuality in Germany in particular, since I was an undergraduate. I first explored the field through a bachelor's thesis on homosexuality in the works of Klaus Mann, one of the first “out” gay authors in modern history. When I went to graduate school, I continued pursuing this kind of research, first working on sexuality in the Imperial and Weimar eras of German history (for a time I thought I was going to write my dissertation on the history of queer suicide in 20th century Germany). At a certain point, though, I realized that much less was known about the Cold War era and especially what had happened to queer people in East Germany. Once I started to delve into the archives and began interviewing people, I realized what a rich topic it was and how few of these stories had actually been told.
For those interested in learning more about your topic, what should they turn to next (after having read your book, of course)?
I'm lucky because there's been such an outpouring of work on queer life in postwar Germany over the last few years. For anyone interested in the topic, I would urge them to read Jennifer Evans’ The Queer Art of History, Andrea Rottmann’s Queer Lives Across the Wall, Jake Newsome’s Pink Triangle Legacies, Craig Griffiths’ The Ambivalence of Gay Liberation, Josie McLellan’s Love in the Time of Communism, and Christopher Ewing’s The Color of Desire.
Books answer questions, but they also raise new questions. What questions does your book raise?
My goal with States of Liberation was really to unsettle our understanding of what queer liberation is or can be and its relationship to both state and economic form. The way I do this is by comparing a capitalist democracy and a socialist dictatorship. The obvious question this framework raises is what would the additional comparison of a capitalist dictatorship and a socialist democracy add to our understanding? More expansively, the book raises — and declines to answer — the question of what are the best political, economic, and social conditions for queerness to flourish? Does such a state, does such a society exist?