I love finding little gay things in history. Whenever I do, I feel a vindictive triumph over the gaping vacuum of queerness in my education. I have achieved a victory against my enforced ignorance. The teaching of history takes on a structure of factual recall in early years—remembering when wars took place, this name, this location and what they ate; all the things we relish in the present. But as we revisit history, shades of grey begin to appear. The practice of history requires design with raw materials of evidence cobbled together in patterns. What do we find when we dig beneath these patterns—what does it mean? Only recently in my life has this next stage, historiography, emerged. Who is history for? How is it conducted? Who records it, who recites it, who interprets it?
I enjoyed playing with these concepts in their abstract form, pondering the past being informed by the present, and having an evolving interpretation. I loved the idea of new, fresh investigation always being laid on top of the old in endless layers of new knowledge. At the same time, I was experiencing this process in real concrete time-—on the internet. Tumblr: It’s an ugly word when you want to be serious, but it cannot be denied that this was my first- embarrassingly rudimentary- introduction to queer theory as a teenager. Posts whispered to me in secretive lowercase: ‘shakespeare was bi’, ‘virginia woolf loved a woman’, and a rattling earthquake deep in the recesses of my skull: ‘the ancient greeks were gay’.
Initially, these little tidbits irked me. They struck me as smug and self-satisfied. They seemed to say ‘Ha! Bet you didn’t know that!’. Even though I was out of the closet at this time, my first reaction to a queer interpretation of history was not favourable. I couldn’t conceive that school, my one true love, could have kept this from me. The notion was offensive. However, the complacent absence of queerness from my education became glaringly obvious. In studying the development of societies originating thousands of years before us It occurred to me that to deny queer people a history was tantamount to denying us an existence. My first attempts to construct my own interpretation of history—one that meant something to me—was with the help of other teenagers over the internet who also had to find these things out for themselves. I had to seek permission to think of history as gay.
With substantially more robust queer theory under my belt these days, the queering of history is integral to my understanding of my own queerness. It’s moved me from using specified labels for myself to using none, purely to remove myself from my old ideas of sexuality and gender labels as concrete pillars of the human experience. Because truthfully, statements like ‘shakespeare was bisexual’ are making a lot more assumptions than they appear to be. The word ‘bisexual’ is doing heavy lifting here, and the mistake is to assume its concreteness, that ‘bisexual’ is an ever-fixed mark representing attraction to more than one gender. On the occasion of its first recorded use in 1859, the definition of ‘bisexual’ was much closer to our understanding of the term ‘intersex’. At the beginning of the twentieth century it was more synonymous with androgyny. Its current use emerged in the 1970s in the UK. The basic error here might be a categorical one i.e. because Shakespeare existed before the word was coined, the word doesn’t apply.
The more nuanced approach is to acknowledge the word ‘bisexual’ as having a specific cultural function that doesn’t apply to Shakespeare. Another example would be the Ancient Greeks. I would consider it a gross simplification to refer to their society as ‘gay’, especially in an academic context, as the modern concept of a gay person would not map on to the Greek model. The Ancient Greeks viewed homosexuality as a developmental phenomenon, associated with both a strict gender binary and social hierarchy. A young boy, the eromenos, took on a feminine role in the relationship, and an older man, erastes, took on the masculine. Men in the ages between had wives and children. The Greeks had their own word for these homosexual relationships, pederasty. Author and professor Emily Skidmore uses the term ‘queer embodiment’ to describe figures of history that exhibit sexuality and gender expression outside of the norm, especially those that might be thought of as transgender. It acknowledges the gap between their reality and ours, it honestly represents the limitations of our words, our labels. At the same time, it provides the connective tissue between modern LGBTQIA+ people and our history. It solicits space for our existence.
So, my official stance is that to use labels like ‘gay’ and ‘trans’ to describe figures in history should be done very sparingly if at all, and with a strong appreciation for the cultural relativism involved. And yet I find myself to be a horrible hypocrite. After re-reading Peter Pan a few years back, I went online to learn more about the book’s history. I found this description of the author, J. M. Barrie from Nico Llewellyn-Davies, a dear friend:
“I don’t believe that [Barrie] ever experienced what one might call ‘a stirring in the undergrowth’ for anyone—man, woman, or child”, he stated. “He was an innocent—which is why he could write Peter Pan.”
A word I have for this kind of ‘innocence’ burns in me to be acknowledged. Barrie also maintained a long correspondence with author Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Treasure Island. They never met but were very affectionate. In one letter, Barrie writes:
“To be blunt I have discovered (have suspected it for some time) that I love you, and if you had been a woman…”
He leaves the sentence unfinished. And now my historical impartiality is struggling. The image of J.M. Barrie living his brilliant life as a homoromantic asexual man who was blessed by his queerness to write one of the most beloved children’s books of all time is sacredly precious. The appeal of it is unspeakable.
Even though it is often an inaccurate description, there is a wonderful intimacy in using ‘our’ words for them. It seems important to acknowledge that the impulse to do this is not something that comes about out of pure ignorance or stupidity. It is an intelligible desire to connect to our estranged history of queerness and I cannot reproach it. After all, the teenagers on the internet weren’t scholars; most of us were pre-Judith Butler. We were looking for ourselves in a version of history that seemed desperate to squeeze us out, to leave us drifting on the outskirts. But now that we are grown up, it’s time for us to add our knowledge to the pool. And part of this will be to show integrity in the ways we discuss ‘queer embodiment’ in its ever-changing manifestations. If queer history is going to be good history, it deserves better than any kind of simplification. Give yourself a place in history, use your own clumsy, modern words, it’s okay! Just remember—it can’t be like this forever.