Portrait: Celebrating a queer missionary

He saw the light in the United States in the seventies. Since then, associate professor Pål Bjørby has been committed to feminist research. Recently he turned sixty.
Pål Bjørby, associate professor in Nordic literature. (Photo: Siri Lindstad)

Embarrassingly enough I am late for our interview appointment. I had gotten into a discussion on eighties feminism and the “sex wars” at a cafe along with a couple of Bergen’s other gender researchers. But Pål Bjørby seems to take my apology more as a cue to continue the discussion than as a lame excuse. The associate professor at the Department of Linguistics, Comparative Literature and Aesthetic subjects probably thinks it is natural to be late when addressing these issues. Or maybe he’s just good-natured. Although: “natured”? Can you say that about a devoted queer theorist? 

Understands the sceptics

In the tribute volume for his 60th birthday last autumn it says that many of the contributors were introduced to queer theory by Pål Bjørby. In 2001, he wrote the introduction for Queer theory; Asymmetrical identities (Queerteori: Asymmetriske identiteter) in the anthology Norwegian gay research (Norsk homoforskning). This year he has contributed with a chapter on the theorist of literature Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in the new text book Gender theory (Kjønnsteori).

Personally he would have liked it if more people had read and been inspired by Sedgwick and the other queer theorists.

 "I understand the scepticism towards queer theory, but I believe that those who are sceptic ought to read the theory more thoroughly. I have tried to introduce queer at my department and gave a seminar to my colleagues a while ago. But it was clear that this was an impossible subject to them. It was simply a language that they could not relate to. And then there is the old misunderstanding, that queer is apolitical, ahistorical, irresponsible and so on," Bjørby sighs. 

He is particularly disappointed with the lack of queer perspectives in most of the masculinity research that is conducted in this country.

"One of the most important things about queer theory is that it is anti-homophobic. The tolerance towards homosexual men that you find in a lot of the prevailing masculinity research still turns out to be somewhat intolerant, as homosexuality is treated as something that can be put aside for the time being while more important issues are dealt with. It’s the same thing lesbians have experienced with regard to mainstream feminism. Lesbian developments within gender theory may cause excitement for a short while, but afterwards it is as if it no longer concerns the mainstream feminism."

Studied in the US

Since Pål Bjørby went to sea at the age of 16 and ended up on the other side of the Atlantic the US has been his second home, although he increasingly often goes back to Norway. It was there that he started his literature studies.

"As early as in the late seventies, feminist theory was common at the big universities in the US. In 1975, I took one of Cheri Register’s classes. She has amongst other things written the book Women’s struggles and literature in the US and Sweden (Kvinnokamp och litteratur i USA och Sverige) (1977). She gave me the novel Money (Pengar) by the Swedish writer Victoria Benedictsson from 1885 and told me to go home and read it. I read it, but didn’t like it very much. 'Read it again', she said, 'and ask yourself why you read it the way you do'.  After yet another week I confessed that the book could be placed in an important context linked to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and an incipient rage amongst women writers in order to grasp the self that men had occupied for such a long time," Bjørby says.

"Register taught me to approach literature, culture and aesthetics from a different angle. Over the next years I tried to evolve as a feminist and researcher – also as a gay researcher – within the American university system. Being a feminist was not a problem, but being gay was still quite impossible. In the eighties, however, bigger and better feminist institutes emerged which also included so-called lesbian and gay studies."

After a while, Bjørby received a scholarship and went to Lund University. He then spent some time in Denmark. He helped initiate the new Benedictsson research and also contributed to the new research on the Danish writer Herman Bang, as seen from a gay perspective.

In 1993 he returned to Norway, and again it was Victoria Benedictsson who set the direction. Bjørby had written an article on her which he submitted to the periodical Edda. The positive response from editor Åse Hiorth Lervik gave him such a good impression of Norwegian women’s studies that he decided to come home. He spent two years in Tromsø before he came to the University of Bergen, where he has been since.


But in turbulent times he turns to the US. As he told Hubro, the University of Bergen’s own magazine this summer: “Young, Norwegian male authors write little and poorly about sexuality. There is an effective internal censorship, a homosexual panic and a fear of being misunderstood, to appear homoerotic. At the same time they want to identify themselves with other heterosexuals at the right end of the homosocial scale.” 

"That interview got me into a lot of trouble. I received many phone calls and the newspaper Klassekampen kept it going for a long time. I must have touched on a sensitive subject amongst male writers."

Many young writers disagreed with Bjørby’s interpretations of their books. Also when he has presented alternative readings of male depictions within Norwegian, American, English and French art he has often been told that “you can’t read the depiction that way”.

"But yes: I can read the depictions that way. Queer theory makes it possible."

As an example he uses a painting by the French artist Renoir which shows a young, naked boy leaning against a damask tablecloth.

"This picture was painted on commission and was part of a private collection. It wasn’t publicly known until three or four years ago. But it is an example of what I have called 'the impossible body aesthetic', with a different male homosexual body than we find in the literature of that period.  The 'gay' literature that emerged after the mid-1800s employed a scientific, pathologized homosexual body with one single object: To die or commit suicide. In other words, nothing but tragedy. In the arts, however, I find some of the finest and most beautiful portrayals of the male body, but unfortunately they are hidden away in private collections or archives."

Disappointed colleagues

Pål Bjørby says with a smile that he has colleagues who are disappointed with him for throwing away his career on feminism, gay and lesbian studies and queer theory. He believes few of them actually know what he does. But if curiosity should get the better of them there is plenty of available reading material. Along with last autumn’s chapter in Gender Theory Bjørby wrote a chapter on the Danish-Norwegian 18th century periodical Library for the fair sex (Bibliothek for det smukke Kiøn), in the anthology Periodicals of the Enlightenment (Opplysningens tidsskrifter). Together with Anka Ryall he has also been the co-editor of Queering Norway, a special edition of Journal of Homosexuality that the publishing house Routledge decided to release as a book.

"After all these years of research, things are starting to fall into place. Not to exaggerate, but I haven’t encountered a single discourse that isn’t already gendered, both explicitly and implicitly. There is no excuse not to make gender studies a bigger priority, especially now that the majority of students are women and we continue to offer canon and family tradition and conserving what is considered 'the golden era' and 'the finest' of Norwegian culture."

This autumn has been affected by the illness of his partner through the last 30 years, Reidar. Still, there has been room for some celebration. The Centre for Women’s and Gender Research marked his 60th birthday by giving a seminar in Bjørby’s name, in addition to the publication of the already mentioned tribute volume.

"And I have been celebrated at all the brown pubs I go to, where I enjoy myself with people of all orientations and interests. These 'drunkards' gave me whiskey, champagne and flowers.  The first thing they yell out when I enter the pub is 'So, Pål, anything new in sex?' And sometimes I read out loud from some of my own work. They think it’s hysterical because they don’t understand a word of it."

Translated by: Vigdis Isachsen

Pål Bjørby

Associate professor in Nordic literature at the Department of Linguistics, Comparative Literature and Aesthetic Subjects at the University of Bergen.

Selected publications in English

2008 (ed.): Queering Norway, special issue of Journal of Homosexuality, no 1/2, together with Anka Ryall. Also published by New York & London: Routledge, 2008.

2005 (ed.). Ibsen on the cusp of the 21st century : critical perspectives, together with Alvhild Dvergsdal & Idar Stegane. Laksevåg: Alvheim & Eide.

1988: «Ibsen’s When we dead awaken. A Reading of Gender/Genre» i Nolin og Forsgren (eds.): The Modern Breakthrough in Scandinavian Literature 1870–1905. Göteborgs Universitet, Gothenburg.

1983: The Study of a Vision in the Authorship of Victoria Benedictsson, phd at University of Minnesota.

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