Austin Raetz ’18, a history major with a minor in archaeological studies, is a textbook example of an honors student. The hard-working SUNY Potsdam alumnus just graduated summa cum laude and was accepted into a prestigious graduate program at Cornell University. What’s equally impressive is his passion and personal connection to his field of study, as he examines sexuality and gender roles through a historical lens.
When Raetz was a sophomore, he changed his major from secondary social studies education to history, after taking a class with Dr. Sheila McIntyre, an associate professor in the Department of History. “My sophomore year, I took a class called ‘Fighting Words,’ it’s our historical methods class, and it kind of blew my mind! It was just so interesting, getting to talk about the process of history, and the ways in which historians have a lot of power in the world, and how they influence how people see the past and see each other,” Raetz said.
Before coming to SUNY Potsdam, Raetz said he had always viewed history as a very structured process of examining topics like the politics and the economics of America and Europe, but that changed when he took McIntyre’s class. “I’m gay myself, so I had spent a lot of time thinking about sexuality and my own sexuality. During ‘Fighting Words’ we read articles on the history of sexuality, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t even know that you could study this,’ and that was really eye-opening,” he said.
His way of interweaving his personal identity with topics of study has proven to be immensely successful for Raetz. During his junior year, he was accepted into the College’s Presidential Scholars Program, where he received funding and support to research the history of homosexuality—specifically, love and friendships between gay men in the early 20th century. “I basically looked at whether or not gay men were able to develop love-based relationships. In the early 1900s. In the traditional historiography, it’s been very focused on the public lives of gay men and not too much on their personal lives. Those sources are harder to find. I tried to look at gay history from a gay perspective, instead of from an outsider perspective,” Raetz said.
Finding source material was a very challenging part of the process, but he was able to track down two sets of diaries and one set of letters for his research. “The hard part was trying to make conclusions off of such a small source base, just because these are not people who would necessarily be leaving a paper trail, because it was evidence in court if you were caught in homosexual acts. It was very dangerous to leave documents behind, so these weren’t people that would have been creating a lot of sources for historians to use,” he said.
As part of his research, he made a trip down to Cornell University to look at their archives, one of the largest collections of gender and sexuality material on the East Coast. His project culminated with a 50-page paper that he in turn used as part of his application process for graduate school at Cornell, where he will be pursuing his master’s degree this fall as part of a Ph.D. track program to continue studying gender and sexuality, and men’s masculinity within the scope of early modern European history.
Whether working on his Presidential Scholars research or taking a class in the history department, Raetz felt right at home at SUNY Potsdam. “All of our history professors are amazing and super open to talking about issues of gender and sexuality. At least three of our professors specialize in women’s history and so they have read a lot about gender and sexuality,” Raetz said.
He went on to say that both McIntyre and Dr. Geoffrey Clark had a considerable impact on his studies. He took “Witchcraft in Early America” with McIntyre and “Renaissance & Reformation” With Clark. “They had the biggest influences on me as a history student and the types of things I want to study, and how I want to study it, so that’s been really helpful,” Raetz said.
In addition, Raetz got a lot of support from history faculty members Dr. Thomas Baker, Dr. M. J. Heisey and Dr. Shiho Imai. “Dr. Imai has been super supportive and really helpful and Dr. Heisey also was really helpful, she gave my research many different platforms. I got to talk to one of her modern American classes about my research, which was really great. Dr. Imai set up a Presidential Scholars Colloquium night. Dr. Baker was my academic advisor, and he was great,” Raetz said.
SUNY Potsdam has helped to foster a safe culture of creativity and learning for Raetz. “Potsdam has been really, really open and diverse, which is one of the reasons why I have loved attending here the past four years. I find that the LGBT community is very vibrant. We are not homogenous in any way shape or form, which is great. We have a very visible trans community as well as a cisgendered gay and lesbian community. There have been a lot of different races and ethnicities among the LGBT community here as well, so it’s a very diverse subset of people which I have really enjoyed interacting with to get other peoples’ perspectives,” he said.
Some of his other achievements include winning the Amelia Morey Essay Award for his 30-page paper about castration, an in-depth look at manhood and the body in late medieval and early modern Europe, specifically, Raetz examined how eunuchs operated socially after hormonal changes to their body at that time. “I got a lot of weird looks when I talked about that project, but it was super interesting and I really liked it, so that’s hopefully also what I’ll be studying in grad school,” Raetz said.
Another project he worked on with McIntyre will provide educational benefits to future SUNY Potsdam students. Raetz did extensive research and reading to help her create an edited book about Roger Williams—the 17th century founder of Rhode Island and advocate for religious freedom. “What Dr. McIntyre is doing with this project is she is taking just a sampling of his writings and putting it into a book for undergrad students to use in their history classes or in religious studies classes. It’s the first non-comprehensive text of Roger Williams that’s been assembled since the 1950s,” he said.
As an undergraduate, he was also very active as a student ambassador in the Office of Admissions, where he gave tours of campus to prospective students. “It has been nice to give back to the campus. I really love my department and the academic experience that I’ve had here at Potsdam. So I’ve loved getting to talk to families about my experiences and Potsdam in general, and hopefully influencing prospective students to come and enjoy Potsdam and get as much out of it as I did,” Raetz said.
For more information about the Department of History, visit: www.potsdam.edu/academics/AAS/History
Article and photos by Jason Hunter