Hannah Ayres – PhD Sociology (University of Warwick)
‘Queer things cannot have straight histories.’(Marshall, 2014: 1)
This blog post discusses just a few ways in which queer history is important. This may seem obvious to some, but it appears queer history is still contested, misunderstood, and even erased. If you want just one example of this, look no further than when Plymouth Citybus ‘rebranded’ their company’s Pride bus into a ‘Thank You NHS’ bus. Many queer individuals saw this not only as a display of how corporations monetise Pride, but also as an erasure of the history of the pride flag, originally created by Gilbert Baker in the late 1970s. The bus company have since apologised but this remains an ongoing controversy as a dangerous LGBTQ+ versus the NHS narrative has been created. Some have now begun to claim that the use of the rainbow to support the NHS acts as a reclaiming of the symbol from LGBTQ+ communities (Bartosch, 2020). Clearly there is a strong imperative to protect our histories.
As well as more troubling reasons for establishing why queer history matters, there are also positive reasons! Here at Queer History Warwick we are coming up to our two-year anniversary and I thought it pertinent to look at why I feel queer history matters, and why a group like ours is important.
My Queer History
Personally, my discovery of queer history came quite late into my life, I started to get into it when searching for PhD ideas. Whilst I identify as bisexual (and have done for a long time), this is something that I kind of kept to one side, as a source of silent shame. During my MA I discovered 18th century Molly Houses after a recommendation from my previous supervisor. I poured through books and documents on these vibrant, maligned communities and found the gender non-conformity in this history fascinating. It was this gender diversity I wished to explore, and it was this that also made this project unfeasible – there was just simply not enough sources. It was the disappointment from this realisation that led me to my current project as I wondered how queer histories could be re/presented in institutions such as museums with scraps of information as the majority of the sources. How do queer publics then react to these re/presentations? Since starting my PhD I have made many personal leaps and bounds, in part because of queer history. Researching queer individuals, events, texts etc. have allowed me to grow and become more outspoken, more open to discussing who I am and what I care about. I even came out to my family during the course of my PhD (for Christmas I received a book on queer history and a rainbow mug, for me a symbol of their acceptance). Personally, queer history has been a lifeline, something to hold onto when I feel like I lacked direction or support and I feel it can be integral for others’ lives in several ways, far more than I will discuss here.
Though the idea of queer ancestry can seem ahistorical as it often utilises modern terminology and identity labels to describe those in the past, many individuals still find community and home in a queer past. I particularly like this quote from Jeffrey Weeks (2012:539) to emphasise this point:
‘What makes queer history popular, I think, is not so much the idea of a continuous past of which we are part, but the acknowledgement that we are different, and yet can still find startling moments of identity that highlight our common human aspirations across the chasm of time.’
It is the moments of connection and recognition that queer individuals cling to. Through my own research into queer re/presentation in museums, I find that queer individuals delight in connecting with the past. In my research I use a visual method called photovoice; this involves participants going around a queer exhibition or tour and taking pictures of things they identify with. One of my participants took a selfie with a water jug of Sappho and articulated that they do so out of the desire to visibly insert themselves into this history, this lineage. Some individuals and communities have had their queer history even more deeply hidden, here I specifically refer to people of colour (particularly women), individuals with disabilities, and trans individuals. There are some that have worked to make accessible resources so that individuals looking for these queer histories don’t have to spend much time trying to find them, for example the rukus! Archive in London and the Museum of Transology, now based in the Bishopsgate Institute. Heather Love (2007:8) states that queer readers will try to rescue isolated figures from the past to save them, she also states that is a potentially futile effort as we cannot actually jump through time to save these individuals. I think that what we can do is save them from being forgotten or lost to history. I also do not think that this just has to include ‘good or ‘positive’ queer histories, it is just as useful to shine a light on more ‘negative’ queer histories, as the Bad Gays podcast and the work of academics such as Anna Hájková and Kate Davison show.
The participant I previously mentioned also stated in their interview that they felt queer history was less ‘standing on the backs of giants’ and more so a history of ‘little’ people lifting each other up, slowly and over a long time. I think this is beautiful sentiment, and potentially this is where the spirit of queer ancestry lies, being able to be visibly and proudly queer because of the work of others and the continuation of this work as not everyone can live so openly.
Another way in which queer history is important is through its power to re/present queer individuals and help to promote understanding. During my research at the Museum of Transology, when still on display at Brighton Museum & Gallery, participants stated that this exhibition presented an opportunity to teach and inform cis-gendered individuals. This was seen as particularly important as one of the aims of the exhibition was to emphasise the everyday trans experience rather than the more sensationalised media re/presentations. As expressed by Leslie Feinberg (1996) in the incredible book Transgender Warriors, re/presentation of queer history, particularly global queer histories, can increase awareness of the variety of sexualities and gender expressions and identity which can further enrich people’s lives. Often heterosexual and cis-gendered presentations are established as the ‘norm’ but these can be challenged through the display of queer histories.
Many academics have expressed similar sentiments with regards to queer re/presentation. Richard Sandell (2017) devoted a book to discussing how museum re/presentation of queer people could help support human rights endeavours. Queer re/presentation also prevents queer individuals from feeling like their current realities are being ignored, or that they did not exist in the past (Heimlich & Koke, 2013). David Lowenthal (2015:102) states that, in general, an ‘awareness of legacies and histories beyond the confines of our own kinfolk, our own country, enlarges empathetic understanding.’ In other words, knowledge has power. Although we cannot control what is done with this knowledge, we can make our histories, and our existence, unavoidable and firmly established.
I wanted to end this blog post with a little note on the importance of continuing to write, study, promote, produce, analyse, and discuss queer histories. I agree with Feinberg (1996:xii) when zie said that ‘it is time for us to write as experts on our own histories. For too long our light has been refracted through other people’s prisims.’ A lot of work has been done on queer history since this time in both academic and public circles and ‘each year and every generation add their own traces to the scene, giving the past a sense of cumulative creation’ (Lowenthal, 2015:122). J. Halberstam (2005:27) asked for more academics to not only interpret queer culture but also to begin to ‘participate in the ongoing project of recording queer culture’ and I can see this happening all around me, there are so many projects now that it is easy to lose track. Previous work includes projects from Justin Bengry, Richard Sandell, Jennifer Tyburczy, J. Daniel Luther, Jenny Ung Loh, Nikki Sullivan, and Craig Middleton. As my participant articulated, queer history to them was many individuals standing on each other’s shoulders to lift more people up and I am excited to see the future of queer historical work. To finish, I want to name but a few projects that I have yet to have mentioned: Sue Lemos’ MA thesis on queer Black British histories; Nick Cherryman’s work on drag; Somak Biswas’ and Sara Bamdad’s Queer and Coloured oral history project; Queer Britain as a whole and their newly announced project on collecting queer experiences of COVID-19 through oral histories and, finally, the Vagina Museum. This is just some of the projects that I have seen but there are so many out there, the future of queer history seems incredibly promising to me.
Bartosch, Jo (2020) Reclaiming the rainbow. [online] Available from: https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/05/27/reclaiming-the-rainbow/ (Accessed 28 March 2020).
Feinberg, Leslie (1996) Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Boston: Beacon Press.
Halberstam, J. (2005) In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press.
Heimlich, Joe & Koke, Judy (2013) Gay and Lesbian Visitors and Cultural Institutions: Do They Come? Do They Care? A Pilot Study. Museums & Social Issues: A Journal of Reflective Discourse, 3 (1): 93-104.
Love, Heather (2007) Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Lowenthal, David (2015) The Past is a Foreign Country: Revisited. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Marshall, Daniel., Murphy, Kevin P., & Tortorici, Zeb (2014) Queer Archives: Historical Unravelings. Radical History Review, 120: 1-11.
Sandell, Richard (2017) Museums, Moralities and Human Rights. London: Routledge.
Weeks, Jeffrey (2012) What is Sexual History? Cambridge: Polity.