Last term I took a module entitled ‘Gross Indecency to Gay Marriage? Gender and Sexual Minorities 1885 to the Present’. The module focused on the experience and persecution of the LGBTQ community and it was eye-opening, frustrating and really really interesting. When I told my mum about it, I remember she asked me ‘But how is that History? I thought History was Kings and Battles and War?’. In that moment, I realised how desperately we needed to work to promote LGBTQ History month, and others like it. My mum wasn’t being rude or ignorant, but she didn’t understand why it is so important to study and remember these types of histories.
In my opinion, exposure is the best and only option. It is 2019, and times have improved massively. People are out and proud, and though there is still evidence of persecution and hatred, people are also celebrated and loved. But being LGBTQ doesn’t mean you are automatically accepted as such; unless your appearance fits within the stereotypes of your sexuality (which is fine and great don’t get me wrong), then the majority of people tend to assume you’re straight. This assumption is not intentionally damaging but it does point to a bigger issue, that being straight is seen as the norm, and anything else is unusual, or wrong. That is simply not the case, and if we want to create a society where people feel safe to be who they are, we need to change that. I believe in studying history, in identifying and celebrating people of the past who possibly identified as LGBTQ, we can help to challenge this narrative.
People talk a lot about representation in the media, and how seeing yourself in a character can help your own personal journey. Actors who portray LGBTQ characters are constantly thanked for providing a story in which LGBTQ viewers feel like their experiences are being portrayed. The more exposure these stories get in the media, the better, because they are challenging the heteronormative narratives that societies still largely accept. But History can do the same thing. Alison Oram wrote an article about members of the LGBTQ community who find solace visiting historical sites where the past inhabitants had a queer background. Effectively what this meant, was that LGBTQ individuals were comforted by places in which queerness seemed to have occurred. This may seem abstract to some, but the intrinsic need to see yourself in other people or even other places is so important when you are trying to accept who you are, especially in a world where you are immediately deemed different. As Historians, if we research and tell the stories of queer individuals from the past, we are proving to the LGBTQ community, and society as a whole that people who aren’t heterosexual are not different or abnormal, but instead part of a long and valid history.
Debates have raged on in the study of sexuality, about whether historians, should place modern labels on people in the past. I completely understand the issues of this, people who lived two centuries ago were not aware of definitions for homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexuality (etc.), and by labelling as such we are taking their autonomy away from them. I think the reason LGBTQ History month struggles sometimes, is because people are unsure how to write the stories of these people, for fear of labelling them incorrectly and causing offence. One famous (and more recent) example of this is Freddie Mercury. The lead singer was constantly labelled as a gay man both before and after his death, despite the fact he never openly identified as such. Some have argued that Freddie identified as bisexual, and in labelling him gay the media is exhibiting bi-erasure against him, whilst others state it is more complex than that.
A billboard article concludes this problem in the best way, by stating that whilst Freddie’s queerness cannot be denied, it is still shrouded in mystique. It seems to me that the best way to tackle LGBTQ History is to allow for a little mystery. Not everyone in the past has to fit within strict 21st century definitions, this is not helpful, especially as more and more people are transcending these definitions every day. Instead what we must do, is identify those people, like Freddie, whose queerness is evident, even if their specific sexuality is not. We have already identified that many people view heterosexuality as the ‘norm’, the best way historians can challenge this, is by highlighting people in the past who defy this stereotype. People of all sexualities have existed throughout the centuries, we can prove this without forcing labels upon them, and in doing so we celebrate LGBTQ history properly.
LGBTQ History month is important, because it pulls these histories to the forefront of people’s minds. In today’s society, people are aware of the LGBTQ community, they know it exists and many people accept it. LGBTQ History months is able to validate this community by proving that even when it wasn’t accepted it still existed. In doing so, these histories cement the LGBTQ Community into the narrative of our society which they have previously been excluded. LGBTQ people do not exist because they finally have a space do so, they have always existed in various forms, and always will, regardless of whether people want them to or not. Having a month in which to celebrate this hopefully helps garner respect for their place in society, and in the stories of the past.
This LGBTQ History Month I saw more events advertised than I have ever done before. At the University of Birmingham there were talks and lectures available to all students, and the month was publicised relatively well. People are trying to heighten this exposure, and I feel the more we work on this together, the more we fight to have the stories told, the more changes we can make. I urge all institutions, Universities, museums, galleries, The National Trust and whoever else involved in History to not be scared to embrace this month, or these histories. Exposure is the key to acceptance, by proving that these people are valid and real, always have been and always will be, we can fight persecution and bigotted ideas, and change opinions for the next generations. This is what I love about History, its ability to prove people wrong, to validate overlooked people of the past, and help people learn from their mistakes.