Are some LGBTQ histories being overlooked?
Exploring the lives of historical people with diverse sexualities and gender identities can be revealing – but also fraught with difficulties. Matt Elton spoke to five historians, who cover a range of time periods, to discuss some of these issues
What challenges are there in charting the experiences of LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer] people in the periods you study?
Florence Scott: I work on England in the early medieval period, and the biggest challenge I have is a lack of evidence. There are very few surviving written sources for this time compared with other periods, and those that exist tend to be religious documents. As the church was very wealthy, it was the biggest producer of written material at this time, so most documents pertain to the elites in society, and have a religious focus. Hence individual people’s lives, and their experiences of gender and sexuality, are captured only very rarely in the written source record. That’s a huge pitfall with studying LGBTQ people in this period, because the lack of source material can lead people to assume everybody had a heterosexual or cisgender [having an identity aligning with their sex at birth] experience.
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Tim Wingard: I focus on the later Middle Ages, and encounter many of the same issues that Florence does. The lack of source material is a huge problem: there’s not much evidence offering insights into people’s own experiences of their sexuality. Instead, we often have to use legal records drawn up in the different courts, particularly in England, in which you can see LGBTQ people interacting with the law. There are a couple of famous examples. One is the questioning of Eleanor Rykener, a ‘cross-dressing’ sex worker, in one of London’s courts in 1395.
The limitation with this material is that it’s very much written about LGBTQ individuals by other people, and tends to take a very hostile stance towards them. So we have to work quite creatively to actually understand these people’s own experiences of themselves and their identities.
Channing Joseph: As Tim says, you have to be creative with the records in order to understand people’s experiences. I often start with journalistic sources that offer glimpses into early queer culture in the United States, including drag balls and arrests of their participants. I then try to learn as much as I can about the people described in those reports and, through them, about the world in which they lived and the communities of which they were a part.
Even if you did have letters or diaries written by LGBTQ people, it’s unlikely they would have written “I identify as…”, with the blank filled in. The focus in previous centuries was not on identity or emotion, but on how they were enacting their identities in the world. We often approach the past from a single contemporary perspective and ask: “How did these people identify? Were they gay, were they trans, were they non-binary?” And the answer to that is there is no answer. It’s a bit like asking: “What was New York like 500 years ago?” There was an island, but no New York City. In the same way, our modern terms for identities may not have existed in the past, but people behaved in recognisable ways. This approach can offer us insights into what I call queer ancestors and the precursors to identities we use to make sense of the world today.
Fleur MacInnes: My research looks at the 1970s and 80s, so a lot of the people I focus on are still alive. That in itself raises a whole set of historical issues, especially when it comes to ensuring that I don’t cross any boundaries by telling stories about people in a way they might not agree with, or put them in danger by revealing information they don’t want made publicly available. Because even though the events could have happened 40 or 50 years ago, those are still people’s lives, and the way in which their stories are told can still affect them to this day.
Anthony Delaney: I’m generally quite lucky in my area of expertise, because there was a fair bit of discussion about gender and sexuality in the Georgian era. This means there are quite a lot of 18th and 19th-century sources on LGBTQ people, and in many cases they echo a lot of the discussions we’re having in the present day.
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One of the things I do find inconvenient is that the burden of proof for discussing and analysing queer histories is far higher than it is for other histories. So, for instance, we are required to go to great lengths to justify and quantify that the individuals or relationships we’re looking at are actually part of queer history. That burden of proof is just not there for what we refer to as ‘normative histories’ – though I find that term a little reductive. We seem to just assume that identities and relationships in the past were heterosexual and, in order to deviate from that, the responsibility as queer historians is far higher. I’m not sure why.
Are there people whose stories don’t get told, or particular people who do or don’t get to tell LGBTQ stories?
FM: The answer to both questions is yes. In my research, for instance, little of the history of trans people after the 1950s focuses on people who didn’t medically transition in some way. I think that’s because our modern understanding of trans people is often defined by that medical process – but it means that it’s very difficult to find accounts of non-binary people. If our understanding is defined by moving from one fixed gender identity to another, there’s not much space for people whose gender identities may not have fit within those parameters.
Moving on to who tells these stories: as a young, white, non-binary person who has only ever lived in Britain, I have a very specific view of transness and queerness and, as much as I try, I’m never going to have a full range of understanding. So it’s really important to be aware of who is talking about LGBTQ history. It’s particularly hard to find stories of black trans women in the UK, because those communities are even more marginalised, due perhaps to the ways in which issues of ethnicity and gender and class intersect. There are also very few black female historians – yet such missing groups of people would be able to research those histories better than I can because they’re part of those communities.
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AD: It’s really hard, in Britain, to unravel queer histories that include people of colour and, to some extent, working-class people. To get around that second issue, I’ve been getting craftier with how I approach historical sources, and focusing on material relating to houses and homes – where they’re situated, and what they were surrounded by. For instance, many of the working-class men we can learn about due to the raids on Margaret Clap’s molly house [a London tavern for gay men] in the 1720s also lived there, so that’s an example of a community for queer people who weren’t part of the elite.
We’re required to go to great lengths to justify that the individuals we’re looking at are actually part of queer history
I also think it’s vital, as queer historians, to not dismiss our ‘queerdar’ when it comes to the source material. We all bring ourselves into our work anyway, so why do we need to deny that element of ourselves when it comes to researching something intangible such as queerness that you somehow know is there? Dig a little deeper, see where you can go, find out what you can unravel.
CGJ: It’s obviously the case that some stories get overlooked, and it’s my goal to tell some of those stories. I think that, if you have an interest in telling a story, you should put it out there. If you say: “I’m not the right person to tell the story,” there’s a risk that no one else has the time or interest, or has even noticed there’s a story that needs to be told. If there are other people who are better qualified to do the telling than you, they always have the option of taking on the momentum from you.
I grew up in a time and place where there was no discussion – not at school, not in the media – of the experiences of people in the past who were attracted to members of their own sex. The idea that people in history experienced same-sex attraction or non-standard gender identities was a concept totally foreign to my education, and it gave me a sense that there were no people like me in the past. It’s distortion by omission.
There are many people who we would now describe as queer, whose same-sex relationships, cross-dressing or involvement in events such as drag balls were influential to cultural movements and traditions that still exist in America today. By not including discussions of them, we misrepresent what actually happened and what was important to creating the world that we live in.
The issue of who is represented in history can turn into a battle between marginalised people
FS: My research explores political, establishment sources to find queer themes within them. I think there’s sometimes an expectation that, if you’re doing ‘serious’ political history, you’re not going to be doing a queer interpretation – or that if you want to do queer history, it should be social history. Medieval history has, in the past, attracted some quite extreme conservative views, so I do sometimes wonder if I’m the first person to have interpreted some of the sources I work with in a queer way.
The issue of who gets to be represented in history can often turn into a battle fought between various groups of marginalised people. Gains in the recognition of particular sexualities or gender identities can sometimes unfairly overshadow other interpretations of history: someone claiming that a historical figure was trans or gender non-conforming can be interpreted as erasing other identities. That’s a real problem, because there should be room for everybody’s narratives and interpretations to exist in history.
TW: There is a huge problem with just how under-represented trans people are in the discipline of history. I’ve seen statistics from a year or two ago that suggested that there was only one out trans or non-binary person in a permanent position in medieval history at any university anywhere in the world. As this conversation demonstrates, there are more people at other, earlier-career stages of the profession – but there are still huge barriers to trans people accessing academia.
That’s partly down to attitudes. You run into a view that queer history is not worthy of research. Sometimes that’s well-intentioned – you’re told: ‘You shouldn’t be studying trans history because there’s no market for it; you ought to do something more serious to get ahead’ – and sometimes it comes from a more hostile place. But the other aspect of this is wealth. The trans community is disproportionately more likely to be alienated from family, so lacking family support or substantial income or finances themselves. That makes the career progression from undergraduate to postgraduate study infinitely more difficult.
This is obviously something that’s not exclusive to the trans community, and has just as serious an impact in preventing black people, disabled people and working-class people from becoming researchers. And it doesn’t have to be the case that everyone who works on every historical topic has to have a personal identification with their material. But it still results in a situation – particularly for medieval studies – in which a very large amount of the work being produced about medieval trans people is by cisgender people. I think it’s really important that communities are able to take ownership of their own histories – to play, if possible, the most important part in telling their own stories.
Florence Scott is completing a PhD on gender and queenship at the University of Leeds and is the author of the Substack newsletter and podcast Ælfgif-who?
Tim Wingard is a lecturer in late medieval history at the University of York, whose work focuses on nature, gender and sexuality in medieval England and north-western Europe
Channing Gerard Joseph is a journalist and queer historian whose work focuses on sexuality and gender identity from the American slavery era to the early 20th century
Fleur MacInnes is a third-year history PhD student at the University of Oxford looking into trans-feminine experiences of the women’s liberation movement in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s
Anthony Delaney is honorary research fellow at the University of Exeter. His work explores gender and sexuality, particularly same-sex households, in 18th-century England
This article first appeared in the July 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
Matt Elton is BBC History Magazine’s Deputy Editor. He has worked at the magazine since 2012 and has more than a decade’s experience working across a range of history brands.
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