“Thinking Through Childhood, Sexuality, and Temporality in the Archives of the Perkins School for the Blind”

By Mary Zaborskis

My research looks at archival materials, historical records, and literature to explore productions of queer childhood in boarding schools established for marginalized populations. I focus on schools established in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in North America: Native American boarding schools, reform schools, schools for children with disabilities, and African American industrial schools. I argue that these institutions managed children’s sexualities to orient children toward limited futures where their bodies, labor, and reproductive capacities would be under state control. These limited futures were experienced as liminal, stagnant, or cyclical—all forms of what has been theorized as queer temporalities. I show how institutions were not opposed to queerness but depended on its production to subjugate marginalized communities. Queer studies tends to view deviations from normative temporalities—that is, temporalities bound with marriage and reproduction that rely on a linear, progressive model of time—as full of possibilities. My project recasts queer by revealing how institutions oriented children toward temporalities that were exploitative, violent, or genocidal.

One of my project’s aim is to expand queer studies’ view of the child: instead of looking for antecedent figures in LGBTQIA- or sexologically-marked archives, I examine how institutional and otherwise seemingly normative spaces produced queer childhoods. I analyze these childhoods as temporal forms executed and managed by the state in order to arrest the development of children from particularized groups into proper heterosexual and reproductive adult citizens. Through finding queer childhoods in these seemingly normative, sanitized institutional spaces and materials—dry annals, rote hygiene regimens, tedious daily schedules—I show how these childhoods were central to the state’s formation and preservation of mainstream white, racially assimilated, and productive heterosexual culture.

One archive that has been pivotal to my thinking on these issues is the Perkins School for the Blind, of which so much material is digitized and readily available for perusal and analysis. In looking at how gender and sexuality were managed in this space, I’ve been fascinated by the ways Perkins utilized the environment to train children in heteronormative teleologies of development that they were not intended to access outside school. In what follows, I’ll share some moments from the annual reports that are helping me think through how Perkins’ architecture was instrumental in shaping the futures—economic and sexual—available to students.

Founded in 1829, Perkins was the first school for the blind established in the United States, serving as a model for other nineteenth- and twentieth-century schools that strove to educate and eventually integrate rather than institutionalize and segregate blind children. Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe served as the school’s first director, a position he held for forty years. He combined traditional subjects, like reading and writing, with training in trades so that students could be self-supporting and join the labor force after leaving the school. The school’s articulated goal was for children to eventually live independently so that they wouldn’t be dependent on state and private resources for the entirety of their lives.

For Howe, this future outside the institution was not intended to include marriage or reproduction. Howe was preoccupied with heredity. He wanted to prevent blindness, and all that it was perceived to signify morally, from being transmitted from one generation to the next. Howe condemned immoral behavior, including multiple forms of sexual acts and relations such as incest, infidelity, promiscuity, and masturbation, for resulting in disabilities in children.

Howe was concerned with how to prevent blind children under the institution’s charge from entering marriage or reproducing. He was convinced that intermarriage—that is, marriage between two blind people—was “to be deprecated [as] its consequences are almost always deplorable” (Forty-Second Annual Report 111). His solution for the problem of potential intermarriage was strict separation of the sexes on campus. In the Seventeenth Annual Report (1849), he wrote that separating students was “an imperative necessity . . . There is a stern moral duty to use every precaution against a perpetuation of such [hereditary] tendency through successive generations. Marriage in cases where one of the parties has such hereditary predisposition is generally unwise, often wrong; intermarriage between two persons so predisposed is always wrong, very wrong” (21). Separation was a direct attempt to prevent “moral” romantic intimacies that might result in marriage and offspring. He condemned any relation that a blind person might enter upon leaving the institution—marriage with a non-blind person was “often wrong,” while marriage with another blind person was “always wrong.” Fear that blind persons might reproduce necessitated an attempt to eliminate all forms of intimacy.

Howe’s convictions about the link between blindness and sexual immorality in Perkins’ early history impacted the rules, regulations, and architecture of the school into the twentieth century. In the Eighty-First Annual Report (1912), the new director, Dr. Edward Allen, wrote, “It is wise alike for economic and eugenic reasons to educate vitally handicapped boys and girls strictly apart at all times and places . . . Making each cottage of boys or of girls a family is especially desirable [and] wholesome. The doing of daily chores by all pupils can be made to have a profound educational effect; being contributory work it is moral; besides, it’s practical training for life . . . it promotes the spirit of family interdependence” (30). Allen asserts that the separation of boys and girls continued for “eugenic reasons”—that is, to prevent students from intermarrying and having children. Thus, blind students were barred entry to (or, desired to be barred entry from) a heterosexual future. However, their dorm life was supposed to be “wholesome” for them: it would simulate “family” life and so serve as “practical training.” And yet, the very separation of the sexes was supposed to guarantee that they wouldn’t have a family life in the future. These contradictory desires of their education reveal an impossibility: children were educated in norms they weren’t meant to access outside the institution. Training in family life was really just training in work so that students could join the labor force after graduation.

The eugenics movement imagined a future without disability, but had to deal with a present that included disabled persons. Institutions resolved this dilemma by training disabled persons in menial labor. The eugenics movement operated on the grounds that “fortifying the health of the nation required institutional, systemic, and bodily interventions” (Burch and Patterson 124). A hallmark of the movement was institutionalization of people—immigrants, delinquents, the poor—who “might further contaminate society” (ibid.) through transmitting social ills through biological reproduction. For example, men and women deemed feeble-minded were routinely sterilized; even after extinguishing the threat of reproduction, institutions often required these persons to remain. Since schools for the blind intended for the majority of their students to graduate, enter the workforce, and not be dependent on the state, they worked to prove their students weren’t a biological threat to the progress of the nation. The schools had to figure out how to grant students economic futurity without reproductive futurity. The schools functioned as a site of “crip nationalism” (Markotic and McRuer 166) because they tried to find a place for blind children in the economic order, ultimately bolstering the strength of the nation. Crip nationalism can “generate other forms of dispossession” (ibid.) and in my larger project, I consider how students were made to undergo a form of sexual dispossession in order to be incorporated into the labor force. In order for students to access the future, they had to renounce reproductive capacities and learn a trade, becoming a part of the economic order and not dependent on state resources for support. Sexual disavowal enabled access to a queer future—one that was not liberatory, but exploitative and limiting.

Expanding where and how we locate queerness in childhood makes visible the ways that children and youth institutions have been central to maintaining racialized, bourgeois, settler-colonial, able-bodied norms around gender and sexuality. The Perkins School for the Blind’s archive is one of many teeming with queer childhoods.

Works Cited

—–. Seventeenth Annual Report of the Trustees of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind. Cambridge: Metcalf and Co., 1849.

—–. Forty-Second Annual Report of the Trustees of the Perkins Institution and the Massachusetts School for the Blind Boston: Wright & Potter, 1871

—–. Eighty-Second Annual Report of the Trustees of the Perkins Institution and the Massachusetts School for the Blind Boston: Wright & Potter, 1913

Burch, Susan and Lindsey Patterson. “Not Just Any Body: Disability, Gender, and History.” Journal of Women’s History 25:4 (Winter 2013), 122-137.

Markotic, Nicole and Robert McRuert. “Leading With Your Head: On the Borders of Disability, Sexuality, and the Nation” in Sex and Disability, eds. Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

Mary Zaborskis is a postdoctoral fellow in the Humanities Center at the University of Pittsburgh, where she is affiliated with the programs in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies and Childhood Studies/Children’s Literature. She works at the intersections of queer, critical race, and childhood studies in 20th-century and contemporary American literature and culture. Her work has appeared in GLQ, Signs, and WSQ, and she is a series editor at Public Books.


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