Queer(ying) Historical Fiction

Hannah Ayres – PhD candidate in the Sociology (University of Warwick). She is also Convenor of the Queer History Reading Group for the 2019-20 academic year.

“At its best, historical fabrication is both creative and act of faith… We need to remember that its fictions are integral to its strengths, while at the same time not forgetting that they are indeed fictions.”

David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country: Revisited [1]

The focus of this article is a Twitter thread that went viral in the latter half of 2018. Originally written by playwright Guillem Clua (@guillemclua) from Barcelona, Spain, itgained further popularity when translated into English by user @strangelyurie. The thread revolves around this photo:

Figure 1: The grave of Emil Muler and Xaver Sumer

The thread tells an evocative story of an investigation into why these two men, Emil and Xaver, were buried together. This picture is of a real grave that is located in a German cemetery in Sighisoara, a city in Transylvania, Romania. [2] The accompanying story weaves a beautiful queer historical tale using archival material and photos of real people. This thread ended up at the centre of a controversy as it had not specifically labelled itself as historical fiction and many people took the story to be real or ‘true’.

The historical fiction in this instance really brought home for me the importance of queer history. This was not my immediate reaction; originally this article took a much different stance. I felt that this thread had deceived people and invalidated the work archivists, activists, historians and museum workers put into producing and defending queer history. After taking a few months to get deeper into my research, I looked at what I had written with a new perspective. One could argue that history and historical fiction are more similar than any would like to admit – both are stories woven using archival material. The major difference with history is that the point of it is to be fact-checked and be subject to academic rigour. In this case, the historical fiction concocted by Clua was also subject to this.

The thing that really got to me was the reaction this queer fiction provoked. There was an outpouring of appreciation from readers and an emphasis about the connection people felt to these individuals. The backlash from discovering that this thread was fictitious also stemmed from this connection that people had felt. One user wrote, “I cried real actual tears reading this and to find out it is fiction. I feel cheated…” Another stated, “…a certain twilight-style fan fiction currently doing the rounds uses real people to pitch its fantasy.”

Queer history, regardless of its fictional quality, provides a connection for queer (here used as an umbrella term in lieu of LGBTQ+) people as it disrupts heteronormative narratives of the past and allows queer people to find themselves in a history that has often left them out. The popularity of the story showed the need for future queer histories, especially emotive ones that are accessible to the public. Academics and public history institutions should work hard to provide queer people with a well-researched past that is accessible and such work should be further publicised.

I imagine that me equating fiction and history may cause some tension for readers, especially those disciplined in history. Coming from a background of historical study myself, I understand the work that goes into producing any history. This workload increases with regards to queer history, as José Muñoz points out:

“Instead of being clearly available as visible evidence, queerness has instead existed as innuendo, gossip, fleeting moments, and performances that are meant to be interacted with by those within its epistemological sphere – while evaporating at the touch of those who would eliminate queer possibility.” [3]

Doing queer history often means reading between the lines and trying to find things that are not explicitly evident; because of this, queer history is often accused of not having the ‘legitimacy’ of other histories. Justifications, evident in articles such as Judith Bennett’s article on the term ‘lesbian like’, [4] are ever present. When queer history has to jump through so many hoops to be seen as ‘legitimate’, there is a friction present when a completely fabricated story comes forward without making its fictional nature clear. The thing is, this fictional story captured the public’s hearts and minds in a way that academic, and even public, queer history can struggle to replicate. It drew attention to queer history more widely and there were numerous popular tweets that utilised the popularity of the original tweet to promote histories that were similar.

The controversy did bring forward an interesting conundrum surrounding ethics. As the original past and the subsequent translation did not specify that they were fictional accounts, people thought that Emil Muler and Xaver Sumer lived the lives portrayed in the thread. When queer history emphasises the fact that it has often been erased or rewritten, it is ethically troubling that the post ended up doing this to Muler and Sumer. Guillem Clua took this further and encouraged people to build a memorial and leave flowers in the memory of Clua’s fictional characters. Whilst this again emphasises the potential power queer history can possess, it must be asked, is this entirely appropriate?

When I brought the first draft of this article to a research module I took part in, one comment stuck with me. A fellow attendee said something along the lines of “they’re dead, so why does it matter?” I would purport that this matters because it completely rewrites the history and life of these individuals. Regardless of the intention of the post, it should have stated that it was a work of fiction – although admittedly it may not have gained the same sort of traction.

Mike Stuchbery (@MikeStuchbery_) is a popular historian and writer that commented on the threads use of social media. Stuchbery condemned this thread for abusing the culture of Twitter to deceive people into thinking that the story was factual. Whilst we do not know the original intention of the author, this thread showed that there is clearly a public craving for queer history and if accessible, this history can be widely spread. Stuchbery made the point that Twitter is so fast paced that people rarely take the time to look deeper into the information given to them – especially if that information speaks to something they want. I would refute this. Everybody may not have ‘looked deeper’ but many took the time out to read the thread – the culmination of over 100 individual tweets – and this shows that people cared about what they were reading. Academics, activists and public history institutions should be utilising social media to disseminate queer history more universally and engage with the public.

This thread shows to me that queer academic and public history should be looking to historical fiction for guidance about how to engage the public in queer history. People want to connect to what they perceive as their history and often require an emotive reason to build this connection. Filling texts with jargon and inaccessible material will push the public, students and academics away. Instead, texts should be constructed creatively and have a personable aspect to them, in a similar way to Clua’s thread.

[1] David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country: Revisited (Cambridge, 2015)
[2] Anya Crittenton, ‘Untold love story of two World War I soldiers buried together is beautiful’, 12 December 2018, www.gaystarnews.com
[3] José Muñoz, ‘Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts’, Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, 8:2 (1996): 6
[4] Judith Bennett, ‘‘Lesbian like’ and the social history of lesbianisms’, in Feminist History Reader, ed. by Sue Morgan (Oxon: Routledge, 2016), 244-259

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