Portrait: Sexuality Researcher Gives New Perspectives of History
When he left his position as a school teacher for a career in academia, he traded one meaningful job for another. ‘Golden Wednesdays’ eventually led to a PhD in history. Since then, he has both broken new ground and introduced new concepts in Swedish research. Meet queer and crip theorist Jens Rydström.
The door closes behind me and I begin my walk up the stairs to the second floor of a brick house from the early 1900s in central Lund, Sweden. In a moment, I will meet Jens Rydström, the historian who came here in 2008 to work as a senior lecturer in gender studies and who now serves as professor at the same department. I begin my visit at the Department of Gender Studies with a quick trip to the toilet. Somebody has taped a note to the mirror. It says ‘Warning – reflections in this mirror may be distorted by socially constructed ideas of “beauty”’.
I walk past the students’ breakroom and find Jens Rydström at the very end of a hallway. There he is, elegantly dressed in a suit and scanning a bunch of newspaper articles into his computer. We greet each other and he starts to tell me about his visit to the Faroe Islands in the early 2000s and the struggle for gay rights that was going on there at the time.
– I’ve kept these articles and other things in old binders and they take up a lot of space. And I’ve come to realise that a lot of the stuff I’ve kept is a bit outdated and can be accessed in other ways. But I do want to keep the articles about the Faroe Islands, so that’s why I’m scanning them, says Rydström.
We sit down in his office, which offers a great view of the All Saints Church, a local landmark. He tells me he is dressed up for a faculty lunch later that day, and then goes on to talk about how the view of gay rights changed in the Nordic countries in the 1990s. When I turn off my recording device one hour later, he has told me about his younger years, his career, his research, what he is most proud of and what it was like to leave Stockholm and live in Malmö when Lund University hired him as a senior lecturer. He was headhunted here by gender researcher Tiina Rosenberg.
– Yeah, I’m kind of proud of that, but, you know, I did have one of those mornings when you wake up, stare at the ceiling and think “Oh no, what have I done? I voluntarily left a great flat in downtown Stockholm. I’ll never be able to live like that if we move back.” But then I calmed down. I love Lund and Malmö and can’t even imagine moving back to Stockholm. Stockholm has become too big and noisy.
From School Teacher to Doctoral Student
Jens finished his PhD in 2001 at the Department of History, Stockholm University, after writing a doctoral thesis titled Sinners and Citizens: Bestiality and Homosexuality in Sweden, but his path into doctoral studies was not straightforward.
– While I was still an undergraduate, I thought about getting a PhD and went to an informational meeting about it. But it was a total flop, to say the least. There was a panel of doctoral students at the meeting, and all they talked about was how depressing and hard everything was and their stomach problems. It didn’t seem like a good life, it didn’t seem fun at all.
As a young student at Lund, he took some language, literature and history courses before he decided to become a teacher. He spent a long time working as a lower-secondary teacher in Stockholm before deciding to return to the university and get a Master’s degree in history.
– I went through a personal crisis around 1990. My dad died and I felt horrible. I asked myself, is life supposed to be like this? I was 35 years old and had taught lower-secondary kids for 10 years. I enjoyed my job and it felt meaningful, but at the same time, I felt like it was time to do something else. I went back to school to get a Master’s degree in history, and I really enjoyed it. I cut back on hours as a teacher and had Wednesdays off. I thought of those days as golden Wednesdays.
He remembers his years as a PhD student as a wonderful time.
– Returning to the university and being a little older is one of the most fun things I have ever done. I really had a great time. That’s the only time in your career you can totally submerge yourself in research for four uninterrupted years and also have access to supervision, infrastructure and seminars.
His doctoral thesis dealt with the view of so-called unnatural sexuality from 1880 to 1950, which was an era in Swedish history when homosexual acts were legally equated with sex with animals.
In his thesis, he combined a governmental control perspective with how sexual practice was organised. It follows how the legal sanctions and the government’s approach changed, from punishments to a model based on treatment and control by means of hospitalisation.
In his source material, he also found stories about how people subjected to the government’s interventions organised their lives and sexuality. He is still proud of his doctoral thesis, which in 2005 earned him an award in the US and was described as a milestone in queer history research.
– It’s really, really good, if I do say so myself. I’m very proud of it. After all, it took me eight years to finish. I consider it my biggest contribution as a researcher.
Started the Queer Seminar
Rydström’s research has always focused on sexuality, and he has published several books about LGBTQ history. As a doctoral student, he helped introduce queer theory in Sweden, and he has also been interested in critical disability research and crip theory for a long time.
After a first conference in the mid-1990s about lesbian and homosexuality research in Gothenburg, he gathered researchers in the Stockholm and Uppsala region for what was initially called the Homo Seminar. The original participants included Don Kulick, Pia Laskar and Tiina Rosenberg.
– After just a few meetings, we decided to rename it the Queer Seminar, although at that time nobody in the group fully understood what it meant. Don and Tiina gave us articles to read, so it was kind of like a reading circle in the first year.
The queer concept was established simultaneously in Stockholm and Gothenburg, and it was a rather quick process. Already in its second year, the Queer Seminar in Stockholm published an issue of Lambda Nordica. Today, queer research is an obvious component of gender research. However, Rydström points out that in the beginning, some people were afraid that queer research would remove attention from the women’s perspective.
– That’s what happened when the queer or sexuality research started, and also when we began to deal with intersectionality. At a time when there was still a strong focus on women’s research, queer research was first only given a tiny bit of space, but today there are a great number of different perspectives in gender research.
As an example of the continuous expansion of the field of gender research, he mentions the g16 gender conference that Linköping University and the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research arranged in 2016. The way he sees it, the tremendous diversity and the multitude of perspectives are making the entire research field stronger.
– That conference was so diverse and strong, and that made it fantastic. It was like a big mosaic, with trans and queer and crip and postcolonial and ethnicity and all kinds of stuff, and all of that made it a really cool, creative mess.
Continuously Evolving Concepts
A few years into the new millennium, Rydström became interested in the crip concept and crip theory and eventually became a crip pioneer in Swedish research. In brief, crip theory is based on the idea that a human body is expected to look and function in a certain way and that society is designed for people who exhibit a certain type of functionality. Thus, people with alternative types of functionality risk being excluded.
In the 1970s, the Swedish term funktionshinder was coined to describe individuals with a disability, and the word handikapp was used to describe obstacles in society for such people. Some years later, the term funktionshinder was replaced with funktionsnedsättning and handikapp was replaced with funktionshinder, and the terminology continues to evolve.
– The division of obstacles in society and individual traits is brilliant. I think it’s important to keep it that way, as it makes discussions about people’s abilities and disabilities a societal and not a medical issue.
Most likely, there are no 100% perfect terms. Also, we shouldn’t waste too much energy fighting with each other about semantic stuff and feel that we have done enough as soon as we have found the right word.
Rydström explores these concepts both historically and geographically in his research and emphasises that the terminology keeps changing over time. Today, the terms funktionsvariation and normbrytande funktionsvariation have largely replaced the word funktionsnedsättning. A corresponding terminological evolution has not occurred in English.
– When the term funktionsvariation (functional variant) was coined, the point was made that all people display some type of variation in functionality, so literally, the term includes everybody on the planet. Then we have this discussion about atypical, or non-standard, functional capacity – how exactly do we define what’s standard and what’s not?
It is important, says Rydström, to be aware of how a person’s power position can be expressed through language. There is for example a difference between naming somebody in one’s own group and doing it as an outsider.
– But sometimes people in the same group disagree, so this is not a simple thing. Most likely, there are no 100% perfect terms. Also, we shouldn’t waste too much energy fighting with each other about semantic stuff and feel that we have done enough as soon as we have found the right word. Instead we should work hard to make things work well regardless of what exact words we use.
Many Projects before Retirement
One of Rydström’s current research projects deals with Nordic sex worker organisations since the 1970s.
– The idea was to show that this is a social movement organised by women that is about to be forgotten about. I want to bring attention to their history and also, as always, include a comparative perspective, so I’m comparing the history of sex worker organisations in Sweden with that in Denmark and Norway.
He recently travelled to Oslo to go through all available volumes of Albertine, which is published by Norwegian sex worker organisation Pion. It has been published since the formation of Pion in 1992 and always in paper form, which Rydström is happy about.
– As a researcher, it’s easier to work with non-digital material. We’re facing a catastrophic loss of historical material, unfortunately. And everybody believes that everything is automatically saved and stored, and it may be, somewhere, but it may be impossible to search for it. I’m a big fan of paper. That’s why I call myself the Grumpy Old Professor.
– I get so irritated because I never have enough time for research, and you never get any sympathy for that since professors have it so much better than everybody else.
At the turn of the year, Professor Rydström cut back on his workhours as part of a semi-retirement plan. He sees this as an opportunity to up his hours in research. He recently started a research project focusing on volunteer organisations during the AIDS epidemic 1982–2000, together with Lena Lennerhed at Södertörn University, so he really appreciates the extra time.
– I’ll retire completely in 2020, so I’ll barely be able to finish my research projects. I get so irritated because I never have enough time for research, and you never get any sympathy for that since professors have it so much better than everybody else. But I guess we can get a group of professors together so we can sit there and whine together.
As a pensioner, he envisions more visits with friends and family, and more time for travel, and for reading.
– I want to read, of course, I want to have enough time to read things I don’t have time to read now. And to travel around the world to visit all the people I have met at conferences, I think I’ll enjoy that, says Rydström.
The interview is over and we leave the office to take a picture by the ivy outside. In retrospect, I regret not taking the picture he suggested, at his desk covered with stacks of books, in front of the shelf with the pink feather boa. But then I remember the note on the mirror and realise that the picture cannot convey everything there is to say about Grumpy Old Professor Jens Rydström anyway.
Three favourite theorists: Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Jack Halberstam (to name a few of many)
Three favourite authors: Thomas Mann, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Majgull Axelsson
Three favourite films: Cabaret, Pride, Moonlight
The best thing about working in academia: Intellectual development, seminar discussions
The worst thing about working in academia: Always fragmented time and too much administrative work
Person I could never do without: My husband Martin
A place where my mind works best: At a calm café or during a stroll in the park
Photo Inga-Bodil Ekselius