A crowd of cartoon people celebrating Pride, with LGBTQ+ history

What’s in a Name? The problem of how to study LGBTQ+ History

One of the adages that comes up every LGBTQ+ History Month is that the LGBTQ+ community is a modern-day phenomenon, or that there are more of us now than there ever were ‘back in the day’. While it is quite ludicrous to say that at some point within the past one hundred years people suddenly started to experience same-sex attraction or that they began to question the gender they were assigned at birth, this view has been and is integral to the study of LGBTQ+ history. Firstly, it demonstrates the extent to which these stories from before the 1960s have been intentionally erased from public consciousness, most famously with Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28 ruling, which prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ and its education by British schools. On the other hand, the view that the LGBTQ+ community is a recent development isn’t completely false. The labels that we use to identify ourselves through sexuality and gender are comparatively new and, given the persisting controversy surrounding sexuality and gender issues, they are also full of connotations which are not necessarily appropriate to use when describing individuals and groups of the past.

French philosopher Michel Foucault, in his landmark work The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 (1976), put forward an argument that LGBTQ+ historians and theorists have been grappling with ever since. He makes the case that the 19th Century marked the birth and classification of “the species and subspecies of homosexuality”; same-sex desire and gender-defying behaviour were no longer considered merely sins when committed, something that anyone could theoretically do, but rather as identifying psychological or biological features of the person committing. This is when, he argues, sexuality as we conceptualise it today took root.

This has proven to be a challenge for many historians and theorists tackling the history of sexuality, especially when such a large part of LGBTQ+ history is an attempt to identify experiences which are like our own today in the past. This has been a fight for external recognition as much as for internal pride; during the trial of Oscar Wilde, for example, he cited ‘David and Jonathan’, ‘Plato’, ‘Michelangelo and Shakespeare’ when asked to define the ‘love that dare not speak its name’. The court loudly applauded this defence, demonstrating how this narrative construction has been used to justify LGBTQ+ identities to the wider public, as well as providing comfort and relatable historic models for those within the LGBTQ+ community. While this approach has good intentions, given the often private or prohibited nature of sex and desire before the 1960s in general, let alone queer sex and desire, a general lack of documentary evidence makes this process extremely difficult. 

Ian McKellen and James Laurenson perform as Edward II and Piers Gaveston in Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II.
Ian McKellen and James Laurenson perform as Edward II and Piers Gaveston in Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II.
Image © Central Press/Getty Images.

The famous example of Edward II, who was supposedly killed in a homophobic manner for having a queer relationship with Piers Gaveston, illustrates some of the intrinsic problems in writing a history of ‘inverted sexuality’. To contextualise, Gaveston and Edward were close since childhood, so close that Edward’s father sent Gaveston into exile. Upon succeeding to the throne, Edward granted Gaveston the earldom of Cornwall and assigned him as regent when he went to France, much to the chagrin of the established nobility. In the typically vague mediaeval style, contemporary sources say that Edward loved Gaveston ‘beyond measure’ and compare the relationship to that of brothers, which does not necessarily confirm or deny the allegations. There is no conclusive evidence surrounding the actual nature of their relationship, and some historians have argued that the portrayal of their dynamic as homosexual in character reflects more a contemporary hatred of Gaveston as well as the influence of dramatists like Kit Marlowe, as opposed to records directly related to the relationship itself. While this scepticism is valid and necessary, and the use of homophobic rhetoric to delegitimise the powerful is a recurring theme throughout history, to deny the possibility of a homosexual relationship between the two is also problematic. Regardless of what happened physically between the two men, which we will never be able to know, their relationship was queer in the sense that they prioritised eachother over all others to the concern of the establishment.

One way in which to deal with this absence of documentary evidence is to consider American critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s theory of a spectrum between the ‘homosocial’ and the ‘homoerotic’. In short, Sedgwick points out that Western narratives of history have almost exclusively been dominated by discussions of relationships between men, and that these relationships have tended to be ‘homosocial’ rather than ‘homoerotic’ in nature. Occasionally, the boundary between the social and the erotic is blurred, such as in the case of pederasty in ancient Greece (as I mentioned in my last column); the extent to which this ‘verging towards the erotic’ is tolerated contemporarily is very much determined by how damaging it is to existing power structures. Therefore, while it is true that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that Edward II and Gaveston were engaged in a homoerotic relationship, the intimacy of their friendship was enough to disrupt the homosocial system of the English aristocracy they participated in. Whether or not the pair had sex is, in reality, irrelevant – what matters more historically is that their contemporaries were willing to believe that they had, and used this alleged homosexuality as part of the justification for supporting Edward’s murder, the murder of a King when they were supposedly appointed by God, and as a reflection of his weakness as a monarch.

Returning to Foucault’s suggestion that there is a distinction between homosexuality as a sin and homosexuality as a characteristic of a person, sometimes called the ‘act versus identity’ argument, analysis of both the historical and contemporary reputations of Edward II and Gaveston (together with others as well as others such as Queen Anne, Michelangelo, and Julius Caesar) prove that there was an element of identity prescribed to them even without the pseudo-scientific basis on which Foucault argues modern sexualities are built. All of these figures, however, have been branded by centuries of historians for various political, social, and religious reasons, meaning that finding the truth is complicated for the modern student. 

The importance of not imposing a strict, ‘modern’ term onto a historical figure or group remains even for those of us who are trying to create a fairer narrative of history. There are many debates, for example, about people who were assigned female at birth, had sexual relations with women and yet themselves presented as male. The generally accepted historical consensus about these people is that they simply presented as men to make their homosexuality ‘socially acceptable’, and/or for economic reasons (i.e., getting a job in male-dominated industry). In 1766, for example, there was a newspaper report published in London about a woman called Mary East who, living with her supposed best friend, took on the public disguise of “James How” after the couple tossed a coin to decide which one would act the husband in order to be able to be a couple in public, specifically a couple who ran a pub for years without the clientele suspecting anything. While this example shows that this consensus can be applicable, there are plenty of cases, such as Catherine Vizzani/Giovanni Bordoni, throughout history of people actively presenting as a gender different to that which they were assigned at birth, including in private, as well as public, life. To place these people within this same single, narrowly modern narrative would undermine the complexity and idiosyncrasy of these individuals’ identities and lifestyles.

So, the question is: how can, and should we, refer to ‘queer’ individuals before the arrival of modern history? Unfortunately, there isn’t really a right answer to this, and each historian approaches this issue in their own way, often falling into heated debates about terms rather than focusing on the history itself. The umbrella term ‘queer’ is widely accepted within academia as a more capacious version of ‘LGBTQ+’. While this is often useful, both for some members of the community as well as for historians, the derogatory origins of the word and the resonance that has with some people over others must be taken into consideration and, when dealing with specific historical contexts and figures, ‘queer’ essentially becomes meaningless exactly because of how broad a term it is. Ultimately, it is the job of historians of sexuality to let the people of the past speak for themselves without passing judgements or placing modern comparisons, rather than trying to create a historicist narrative; the terminology used ought to change on a case-by-case basis as per the fluctuation of people’s conceptions of themselves before the modern period.


Bibliography

Boyd, N. A. ‘Bodies in Motion: Lesbian and Transexual Histories’ in The Transgender Studies Reader, ed. Stryker, S. & Whittle, S., (Routledge: New York, 2006)

Blackmore, C. ‘How to Queer the Past Without Sex: Queer Theory, Feminisms and the Archaeology of Identity’, Archaeologies 7, 75–96 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11759-011-9157-9 

Butler, J. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’, (Routledge: New York, 1993)

Butler, J. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, (Routledge: New York, 1990)

Cook, M. et al., A Gay History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Men since the Middle Ages, (Greenwood World: Oxford, 2007)

Jennings, R., A Lesbian History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Women since 1500, (Greenwood World: Oxford, 2007)

Foucault, M., The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: The Will to Knowledge, trans. Hurley, R. (Penguin: London, 1998)

Sedgwick, E. K., Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, (Columbia University Press: New York, 1985)

Sedgwick, E. K., Epistemology of the Closet, (Penguin: London, 1994)

Testimony of Oscar Wilde: https://www.famous-trials.com/wilde/342-wildetestimony