What are the challenges of telling LGBTQ history?

Recent years have seen LGBTQ histories increasingly take centre stage, from the Stonewall riots to the queer pasts of National Trust houses. But what are the challenges of telling such stories? We assembled an expert panel to find out

The road to equality Protesters march in New York City, 1976. The gay rights movement in the US is one of LGBTQ history’s most famous stories. (Photo by Granger/Shutterstock)

What are the challenges of telling LGBTQ stories? We assembled an expert panel to find out…

The panel

Matt Cook is professor of modern history at Birkbeck College, University of London. His books include Queer Domesticities: Homo- sexuality and Home Life in 20th- Century London (Palgrave, 2014)

Channing Gerard Joseph teaches journalism at the University of Southern California, and is writing a book on the leader of the world’s first queer resistance organisation

Jen Manion is associate professor of history at Amherst College, Massachusetts, and author of Female Husbands: A Trans History (Cambridge, 2020)

Angela Steidele is a German freelance writer who has published several books on LGBTQ people, including Gentleman Jack: A Biography of Anne Lister (Serpent’s Tail, 2018)

Interview by Matt Elton, deputy editor of BBC History Magazine

Matt Elton: Over the past few decades, popular history has increasingly embraced lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer [LGBTQ] narratives. Do you think it tells those stories well, or are there moments that still get overlooked?

Matt Cook: I think we’ve seen the development of really important narratives that have made LGBTQ lives visible. Yet at the same time, we have become increasingly aware that separating these strands from wider histories is very problematic.

We tend to base the timeline of LGBTQ history around big, clearly gay and queer moments, such as the 1969 Stonewall riots [a series of demonstrations that took place after New York police raided a gay bar].

But in a way, you could say that the most significant moments might instead be the expansion of the British empire and the way in which it exported a whole series of sexual norms and ideas of respectability around the world, or the inception of sexology [the study of human sexuality] as a science. But they don’t tend to be part of LGBTQ history as it’s popularly understood.

So while I would celebrate the upsurge in LGBTQ history, I’d add the need to see it as part of broader social, cultural and economic changes. That includes the emergence of LGBTQ history itself, which is a product of the counterculture and social history movements that emerged in the 1960s and 70s.

Channing Gerard Joseph: I want to echo that point. When we teach American history in schools, we’re not teaching the LGBTQ aspects of, for example, the Civil War, Reconstruction, or the civil rights movement. All of the aspects of history that we teach in schools should reflect the roles played by LGBTQ people and movements.

Angela Steidele: This is quite a difficult question, because how can we know what we’re overlooking when we’re overlooking it? There is still so much research to be done, and the problem is where to look. Archives in Europe are open, but what about archives in [countries with greater restrictions such as] Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and so on?

Jen Manion: I think what’s been really exciting in the past decade is how much the LGBTQ community, and especially young people, has been really interested in our history. I see it especially in the transgender community: people are really hungry to understand the longer lineage of these kinds of experiences, and what a trans life was like before modern times.

That doesn’t mean it’s translating to mainstream society or general history writing, but I see such enthusiasm from within our community about documenting and learning about our histories.

The idea of what a man and a woman are has not always been the same, and two men or two women loving each other has meant different things at different historical moments

MC: I completely agree. There’s been a similar upsurge in the UK over the past 10 or 15 years. The wealth and breadth of the histories being explored, including at a community level, is incredibly exciting – but it’s also happening in some of our national heritage institutions. The National Trust is now exploring the queer threads of its past, for instance [the organisation launched a major campaign to explore its LGBTQ history in 2017, and a series of other initiatives have followed].

One of the most interesting things to emerge from this is the idea that sexuality and gender themselves have a history. In other words, the idea of what a man and a woman are has not always been the same, and two men or two women loving each other has meant different things at different historical moments. There’s an incredible richness in exploring those shifts in meaning.

ME: Is there a tension surrounding who gets to tell these kinds of stories, and who controls these narratives?

JM: As someone who’s carved out a life bridging the worlds of being an LGBTQ rights activist and a professional historian, I can say that there’s still incredible distrust within the queer community about what publishers and professional historians do with the records of our lives. Our history is so important, so it’s about trying to convince people that there is value in having their records held by an institution with the resources to protect and catalogue them and make them accessible.

CGJ: My research focuses on journalism, and when we look at newspaper records of, for example, raids on gay bars or arrests of drag queens and female impersonators in the 19th and early 20th centuries, those stories are primarily being told by straight, white, cisgender [someone with a gender identity that corresponds with their sex at birth] people of a particular class. It’s interesting that we’re reliant on such records to find out about LGBTQ people of the past.

So, in a way, the tension that you mention is built into the process of historical research, because our stories have been told through a specific lens for a very long time. It’s similar to the ways in which many of the available stories we have in African-American history are told by slaveholders rather than the enslaved people themselves. If we want to tell our own stories, we have to do a lot of work to find them, and to translate them for ourselves and for the public.

AS: The term “homosexual” was coined in Germany in the German language: it was first used in a pamphlet in 1869 by Austrian- Hungarian activist Karl-Maria Kertbeny.

So my country, Germany, is the home country of this first gay emancipation movement, which led activists to start researching historical homosexuality. All of this was completely destroyed by the Nazis, who killed them all or drove them into exile. And now, this story, which could make us proud, is forgotten in Germany, where activists today look to the US and Britain for inspiration. Our pride day, for example, is called “Christopher Street Day” [after the street in New York in which the 1969 Stone- wall riots took place] – so we’re going back not to our own history and our own gay emancipation movement, but back to New York. The fact that even activists tend to forget their own history shows us how important the work is that we have to do.

MC: I agree. We need to think about how we can access a whole range of different voices and not be seduced by the dominant voices and narratives that are constantly told and retold. As you say, Angela, the Stonewall narrative can occlude some of the earlier emancipation history, including in the German context – but it’s also important to understand how histories of nations, and national legal systems, have played a part in LGBTQ history. We can’t separate it from those things.

ME: How culturally specific is our understanding of these lives? Do we need to have a broader, more flexible view of these histories?

AS: As historians, we are always children of our time, and the categories via which we understand things are both a help and a curse. So it’s vital to challenge everything, and ourselves, when asking historical ques- tions. It would be great if looking to history could help us reshape our maybe too-narrow conceptions of sex, gender, and so on.

CGJ: It’s interesting to look into the past to discover all the buried terms that were previously used to describe queer and gender-nonconforming people: “inverts”, for instance, or “homosexualists”.

These terms were used in certain time periods when people were struggling to categorise and understand gender identity. They are not terms that people tend to use for themselves today.

But there are other phrases used by these groups themselves. In the 1920s and 30s, for instance, there were lots of headlines in the black press reporting on what they termed the “pansy craze”. Terms such as “pansy” and “queens” were used by people who expressed gender and sexuality in a variety of ways, and I think they would be startled by some of our prescriptions about how we think about it today. I often wonder how they would feel if they heard themselves described as part of the LGBTQ acronym, grouped together as one thing, and whether they would recognise themselves.

JM: The factor that complicates this question for me is the role of homophobia and trans- phobia, because while we are immersed in this material and care about respectfully exploring queer and trans pasts, there are people who just want to silence and suppress them. There are people who argue that if you can’t produce a document that definitely references [a historical figure’s] sexuality, you’re imposing your activist agenda on history. That’s a really powerful, destructive force that has kept queer history marginal- ised for decades – and, I’d argue, out of schools for decades. It’s something that I think we have to fight against.

There is really an assumption that if you’re researching somebody of the past, the default person was cisgender and heterosexual

CGJ: Within a conservative academic context, there is really an assumption that if you’re researching somebody of the past, the default person was cisgender and heterosexual. If you’re going to assume that they are anything else, then you need really high standards of evidence to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are what your intuition tells you, as a person who lives in a queer body.

In a way, it’s a case of advocating for our own intuitions as historians when we see ourselves reflected in history. But it’s also sort of pushing against the assumption that someone has to be straight and cisgender, unless proven otherwise beyond a shadow of a doubt.

MC: All of this really hits on something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, which is the need to problematise the idea of the “normal”. When we look to the past, we tend to think that [what we now think of as being normal] is very stable and exists across time. But actually, if you start interrogating the idea of what is normal, then I think you begin to answer some of those issues by saying: well, if we question the whole idea that norms are stable, then you get much more of a dance going on between queer and normal. And you might be able to actually, I think, start to see the past in a different way and not necessarily assume that all married men and all married women were necessarily heterosexual. That wasn’t a term that neces- sarily meant anything – it wasn’t the reason why people were getting married.

AS: I think this discussion could be so inspiring for mainstream history. Terms such as “man” and “woman”, for example, are still used monolithically as if everybody under- stands them and means them in the same way. But, actually, we don’t.

MC: This is where the arts and culture have been so key, because often it’s been the only place in which queer people have found a voice. There’s a wonderful archive in London called the Rukus! Black LGBT Archive [housed at the London Metropolitan Archives], for instance, that’s full of art and poetry and photography – because for years black queer people in the UK had no voice or representation, even in the gay press.

So it’s really important to take art seriously as a way of recording people’s voices, their hopes and dreams, fears and losses. These kinds of evidence are sometimes frowned on within the historical profession, so it’s about making a persuasive argument for looking at the past through different lenses and in creative ways, and for taking various forms of storytelling really seriously.

This article was first published in the April 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine

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