By Caroline Edgeton
PVOP's resident historian, Alix Genter, has a unique take on American history. She isn't as interested in focusing on the typical narrative you probably heard in U.S. History classes from high school. She'd rather discuss the marginalization of women in the 20th century or the evolution of butch-femme culture from 1940 to 1970.
“I just really like exposing to students how gender is constructed throughout the 20th century and how certain ideologies about womanhood and manhood are constructed for particular purposes at particular times,” Genter said. “It depends on what's going on in the nation in terms of cultural anxieties, or war, or peace, or economics, or whatever – a lot of times woman and their bodies and their reproduction and their ability to conform, or not, to certain standards of femininity are really attacked in those moments and that is when gender ideologies are created. The idea of what is important for women to do is created as a result of larger issues.”
Genter, an Abington native who has been a member of PVOP since the fall of 2013, attended New York City's prestigious Barnard College, the all female school of Columbia University. She then obtained her PhD in May of 2014 in United States Woman's and Gender History from Rutgers University. Since then, she has been an adjunct professor at the College of New Jersey teaching a course called Women in the 20th Century in the United States.
“I think it's important to expose the idea of divorcing gender from biology and showing students how gender is actually constructed over time is important, and, in general, really interesting. The students seem to find it interesting, too. Usually...hopefully,” Genter said.
“If you're raised in the U.S., you're used to a standard American history narrative. The students don't know a lot about what I tell them. A lot of them will tell me, 'I can't believe I never learned this before, I can't believe I never learned that.' It's because what I teach isn't really taught in high schools. It's not pretty. We talk about marginalized groups – if it's women, if it's African Americans, if it's queer people, or people who identify as all three – it's not going to be a good history. It can be depressing and hard for people sometimes, but it's important,” she said. “But that's the professor thing, the historian thing is different.”
While Genter is a professor by day, professionally she is a historian and prefers to spend her time researching as much as possible. She truly enjoys what she teaches and where she works, but it isn't what she spends most of her time doing.
“What I'm really passionate about has to do with some of the things I teach, but my book that I'm writing is different. It's about butch-femme lesbian culture in New York from the 1940s to the 1970s, and it's about how these different gender identities have manifested in different bodies and how different people constructed them based on their lives or subjectivities,” Genter said. “It's a history of this culture that was lesbianism before the 1970s when feminism changed what lesbianism could mean and meant...so what I'm talking about is during a time when [lesbianism] was really criminalized and considered sick and sinful.”
“The culture and the identities these women created is really incredible and exciting, I think, because of the major risks these women had to deal with. To create a culture that was so vibrant, and their ability to find love and have good sex and figure out who they were and be who they were is just...I really love my book,” she said.
While her studies are based in New York City, Genter knows what she is researching extends well beyond the city limits.
“It's a period before the '70s with the explosion of feminism and challenges to the gendered social order really became apparent...and how new ideas about lesbianism changed what was lesbianism in general. Before that, this other style called butch-femme – where one woman is a bit more masculine and the other is a bit more feminine to varying degrees and in different ways – was considered a pairing that goes together. That style of lesbianism has a really weird rap as being very rigid, but my research shows it wasn't at all rigid – it was flexible and forgiving and accommodating... it was actually an adaptable system and that's my big intervention in the history of this style of lesbianism.”
Outside of teaching and working on her book, Genter, obviously, is a member of PVOP. One of the main aspects that drew Genter to PVOP was the fact that it was an eclectic choir that isn't specific to a certain identity.
“I like the diversity of PVOP – it's not just for gay men or women. I like that this is an LGBTQ choir and we have allies – that works for me. I think it's great and welcoming. I think that's important. I like to meet people who aren't exactly like me,” Genter said.
When Genter auditioned on her 30th birthday in 2013, she viewed joining the choir as a bit of a birthday present to herself. She had sang quite a bit up until junior high and in her synagogue choir. She also performed at open mic nights and talent shows as a solo singer and guitar player. Until 2013, though, she hadn't had the opportunity to sing much since her teens.
“I performed in some musicals when I was younger, too. The last one I was in was when I was 16. I was in Annie and I played Pepper, the mean bully,” Genter said. “I love musicals, so this concert is really exciting to me. I get really excited about musical music. Really excited.”
Genter, who is currently glowingly pregnant, resides in Northeast Philadelphia with her her partner of seven years. They have been married for the past two and a half and are expecting their first born this June!