From Sappho to It’s a Sin: 9 LGBT+ histories, chosen by experts

To mark LGBT+ History Month in the UK, we asked a panel of expert historians to pick some books, films, TV and podcasts that offer new insights into key moments and overlooked stories from around the world

Terracotta plaque which is believed to show the poet Sappho rejecting an amorous advance by her contemporary who is also from the island of Lesbos. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)

As part of LGBT+ History Month in the UK, we asked a panel of historians on the HistoryExtra podcast to recommend a selection of books, films, TV shows and podcasts.

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Listen to the full episode – which covers the big questions of LGBT+ history, here:


1

Transgender History and Queer Injustice 

Recommended by Jen Manion

These two books are among my favourites – I teach them all the time and they’re also really accessible. One is Transgender History by Susan Stryker (Seal Press, 2017), which is an introductory overview of the transgender rights movement in contemporary US society. 

The other is probably lesser known, but it’s called Queer Injustice (Beacon Press, 2011) and it was co-authored by historians, lawyers and activists. It’s a beautiful synthesis of queer history and experience in the US in relation to the criminal justice system. And part of what it does is capture a more diverse group of our communities’ experiences. But it also reminds [us] that, up until very recently, being queer was criminalised: people were incarcerated for their love, and that it’s actually just a very new phenomenon that homosexuality does not subject one to criminalisation, even in modern times.

Jen Manion is associate professor of history at Amherst College, Massachusetts, and author of Female Husbands: A Trans History (Cambridge University Press, 2020). You can read more about female husbands here

2

 It’s a SinBad Gays and Gay New York

Recommended by Matt Cook

The first thing I’d like to recommend is It’s a Sin, the Channel 4 series that has just been screened and is available online. It’s a five-part series about the Aids crisis in Britain. And what I think is so brilliant about it is that it captures through film and fiction the emotional pulse of that moment. It really took me back to the late 1980s and early 90s, and it made me think about how film and theatre and literature can sometimes really capture imaginatively a historical moment in a much more vivid way than the Stanford history of the Aids crisis, for example.

There’s a wonderful podcast by Ben Miller called Bad Gays, all about figures who we might not want not be so proud of but are still a part of a story and part of the complexity of history. Some of the most appalling racists and misogynists were also queer, and I think we need to think about the complexities of that. And that’s also part of this heritage, this history that we’re talking about.

The other absolute classic which I use in my teaching all the time is George Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890–1940 (Basic Books, 1994). It really shows how context matters: it’s all about how queer lives are shaped by patterns of immigration, by class, by wealth, by the geography of New York, the piers and the docks and so on. think it’s a kind of classic of a kind of an integrated history – and it’s a great read as well.

Matt Cook is professor of modern history at Birkbeck, University of London, and the author of books including Queer Domesticities: Homosexuality and Home Life in Twentieth-Century London (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)

3

Sappho, Shakespeare and Annette von Droste-Hülshoff

Recommended by Angela Steidele

I would recommend going back to the sources. Let’s read the poetry of [seventh-century BC Greek poet] Sappho. She is the first female voice in literature that we can grasp with a name, and she was talking about the love she gave her name to – Sapphic and lesbian love. Another recommendation for sure is always Shakespeare – for example, Twelfth Night. 

And then I would like to highlight a German poet of the first half of the 19th century. Her name is Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. In Germany, she’s famous, but I think she’s rarely translated because even in German, she’s quite difficult. But she wrote wonderful love poems, and we know from the letters and sources that they were addressed to women. But in the published version, she eliminated the sex and gender – and by that she transcended love and made it free of all expectations, taboos and problems, and wrote universal love poems.

Angela Steidele is a historian and biographer whose books include Gentleman Jack: A Biography of Anne Lister (Serpent’s Tail, 2018). Angela discusses Anne Lister’s story on our podcast here

4

The Celluloid Closet

Recommended by Channing Gerard Joseph

It’s very difficult for me to choose one thing… but I did recently rewatch a very old documentary film which I think is worth a look for people who are interested in representation of queer people in film: The Celluloid Closet. It’s a documentary that aired on HBO in 1995, based on an earlier book by Vito Russo. It does a great job of showcasing [everything] from the early Thomas Edison film of two men dancing together [The Dickson Experimental Sound Film, c1894] to the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Most of the 20th century is basically represented with queer people being characters who were inevitably doomed, or would never be allowed any kind of happiness, or who were comic characters who acted as sidekicks or comic relief.

The documentary explores how, for a long period of time, queer people were sort of reading between the lines – looking for a representation of ourselves in Hollywood films through identification with those comic relief and doomed characters. Now, in the 21st century, we can hopefully imagine ourselves as lead actors in the centre of the story. I think it’s so important for us to be in the centre of the story – at last.

Channing Gerard Joseph is a lecturer of journalism at the University of Southern California and an award-winning journalist


You can hear more from this discussion in a special episode of the HistoryExtra podcast, available here