Queer History

How Not to Erase Trans History

Claude C

In recent months history has been at the forefront of social media politics. One such blow-up was the debate about whether people of colour could be found the Roman Empire. There is plenty of evidence that people of colour did exist in the past, and did many amazing things. But what about trans people? Did they exist in the past, and if so how would we know?

At a first glance things don’t look hopeful. The media image of trans people is of someone magically transforming from a man into a woman with the aid of sophisticated modern medicine. Terms like Transgender, Non-Binary, and Gender Identity didn’t exist in the past, so how could anyone have “identified” as such?

The idea that trans people are characterised by full transition from one binary gender to the other has, for many decades, been pushed by the medical establishment. However, in recent years treatment protocols have become much more relaxed and patient-centred, allowing for a greater variety of identities.

It may seem that non-binary trans identities are something very new. However, a cursory glance at history will find the artist Claude Cahun openly rejecting both binary gender categories in the early 20th century. Looking beyond the history of Western cultures, the world is full of people who place themselves outside of the gender binary. Throughout South Asia, Polynesia, and various Native American cultures we find social structures allowing people to cross gender boundaries. These traditions appear to date back hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

A recent BBC radio programme, “Inside Transgender Pakistan”, highlighted the debate in Pakistan between those who embrace the Western model of full binary gender transition, and those who adhere to the traditional hijra culture, whose members see themselves more as a third gender. What we can learn from this is how trans people come to understand themselves, and their place in society, is highly culturally contextual.

The “Caitlyn Jenner model” dictates one particular way of being trans. The existence of non-binary people shows that not all Western trans people fit this mould. (See, for example, Trans Like Me by C.N. Lester). In other cultures, a third gender model may be more acceptable, but that doesn’t preclude some individuals having a more binary-gendered understanding of themselves.

Foucault had a point when he claimed, in his History of Sexuality, that the idea of the homosexual, and its cognate, the heterosexual, are late 19th-century inventions (terms coined by Karl-Maria Kertbeny). People from the past did not talk about their “sexual orientation”. This did not preclude them from indulging in same-sex relationships.

Did people from the past who transgressed gender boundaries see themselves as having a gender other than what they were assigned at birth, even though the word “transgender” hadn’t been coined? Without testimony we can’t be certain, but we can see what others say about them. The 1st century Jewish scholar, Philo of Alexandria, talked about:

“Those of them who […] have desired to be completely changed into women and gone on to mutilate their genital organs” (On the Special Laws 3:42).

Philo is talking about the Galli: the devotees of the goddess Cybele, who underwent ritual castration and lived the rest of their lives as women. Apuleius portrays a group of Galli as what sounds to us like highly camp, sex-mad drag queens (The Golden Ass 8:26-30). Then again, Apuleius was a satirist, and any trans woman will instantly recognise his characterisation from modern TV comedy shows.

The Galli don’t get to speak for themselves. Almost all we know about them was written by well-to-do Roman men. That Patricians should look down upon the Galli is not surprising. Exactly the same happens to trans women today.

Women historians can be more open to understanding. Lynn Roller, an expert on the Cybele cult, has likened the behaviour of the Galli to modern-day hijra, and Gwendolyn Leick has speculated that similar cults may have existed in ancient Mesopotamia.

The argument that modern medicine is a defining characteristic of trans identities is often used to claim that modern trans people are an entirely separate category from anyone in the past who may have transgressed gender boundaries. Past cultures had no knowledge of plastic surgery, and could not synthesise hormones. This does not mean that medical intervention did not take place.

Roman medicine understood several different methods of castration. It seems likely that only a minority of the Galli had their penis removed. However, the removal of the testicles would have acted as surgery and a primitive form of hormone therapy as it deprives the body of testosterone. The creation of human eunuchs dates back at least to the Assyrian empire and possibly much earlier.

How, then, are we to identify and understand trans identities from the past? It is important that we should not fixate on modern Western concepts of what being trans is about (especially if those concepts are fast becoming outmoded). What we can do is focus on behaviour.

Historians who are not trans may not fully appreciate the level of risk and commitment involved in gender transition, particularly when there is no legal protection, and no religious cult you can join for support. It is not easy to live full-time in a gender different from that you were assigned at birth.

During the American Civil War, many people assigned female at birth fought in the armies of both sides, presenting as men. Their reasons were many and various; including wanting to be with loved ones, and being desperate for a paid job. They undertook massive risk beyond that of simply being a soldier. Only a small number, such as Albert Cashier, continued to live as men after the war. That difference in behaviour, while not proof of identity, is highly significant.

It is important to be open about motive. If we assume that all gender transgression is a “deception”, or that cross-gender behaviour can only be evidence of sexual preference rather than gender identity, we are erasing the possibility of trans people in the past. Where the cross-gender behaviour is consistent, we have to have an explanation as to why the subject is taking so much extra risk.

We can also look at the social structures in ancient (and modern non-Western) cultures that make space for people to transgress the gender binary. That we find these identities in so many different cultures is surely evidence that being trans is a fundamental part of human nature, and what we have is a long history of society’s attempts to come to terms with that.

Cheryl Morgan is a writer, publisher and broadcaster. She is co-chair of OutStories Bristol, an LGBT* local history organisation. She has delivered papers on many aspects of trans history and trans characters in literature, and is a regular speaker at LGBT* History Month events. You can find Cheryl on Twitter @CherylMorgan.

Image: Claude Cahun, self portrait [via Flikr].

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The State of Marriage – Progress or Decay?


On the surface, 2017 represented a peak in a progressive movement to reform marriage around the world. Marriage and family law – and the social practices from which they stem and to which they contribute – have seemed to become more and more similar across the world over time. And marriage appears more equitable, for people of all genders and sexual orientations, than ever before.

In Germany and Australia, same-sex marriage was finally legalised after years of resistance. Meanwhile, across the Middle East and North Africa, in Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon, new laws were introduced which meant that rapists could no longer be exonerated upon marrying their victims. And in India, the Supreme Court voted to outlaw the Islamic practice of talaq – unilateral divorces issued by husbands who declare talaq three times, which brought India’s policy on Islamic divorce in line with that in most other countries.

Not least, 2017 saw the crescendo in a long-standing global debate about marital age, which has often focused on the rights of girls. Germany banned marriages involving minors – and also decided not to recognise most underage marriages conducted abroad. The United States, where marriage as young as 10 years old is allowed in some states, has seen a legislative movement and broader social pressure against the practice.

For reformers, these changes to marriage law signified progress, as older norms about heterosexuality and patriarchy gave way to new values. For critics, by contrast, the changes to marriage across the world in 2017 denoted moral decline. Despite the apparent gulf between these critiques, they nonetheless pointed to a common theme: marriage was seen as a marker of civility.

How one married – or dissolved their marriage – denoted one’s status as both civilised and modern. Indeed, recent developments in marriage have been tied to the modern history of imperialism and statehood and the specific understandings of civility associated with each.

That history unfolded over three main points: around 1800, with the Napoleonic wars and the spread of civil law codes across Europe; over the course of the nineteenth century, and culminating around 1900, with the age of empires and the spread of laws and norms through imperial connections; and, over the second half of the twentieth century and the early twenty first, with the rise of new international organisations and social movements and the new language of human rights associated with both.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the collision of war, state building and Enlightenment thought drove a boom in the writing of new law codes that placed marriage and the family at their centre. Perhaps most significantly, in 1804, France introduced comprehensive rules on marriage and divorce as part of its civil code, largely as a reaction against the radical changes introduced as a consequence of the revolution a decade earlier.

The French code civil assumed that the family was both monogamous and based on the rule of men; any other family structure was potentially uncivilised. The code and the thinking behind it would have a tremendous impact across Europe and around the world. It was transported throughout the continent and across France’s expanding empire by Napoleon’s troops, and it shaped legal systems elsewhere, such as in Ottoman Egypt.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, similar ideas about marriage continued to spread around the world in large part due to Europe’s expanding empires. And, these ideas were shaped by encounters between imperialists and their subjects which helped to confirm notions about a chasm between civilised and barbaric marital practices.

Earlier observers like Montesquieu had looked around the world in the eighteenth century to decry polygamy and child marriage. By the late nineteenth century, a concerted movement against these practices took shape, as in the British outcry over the 1884 case of the Indian child bride Rukmabai as well as through the efforts of missionaries.

And yet, imperial authorities also argued that colonies would need to allow for local differences in marital practices, through a system known as personal status law, because the various cultures – and especially the various religions – around the world seemed so different that they could not be reconciled.

By the end of the Second World War, many had come to question whether cultural differences should be honoured when it came to marriage and the family even if this meant that human rights might be endangered. The rights of women and children, in particular, took centre stage in these discussions, shaping the wording of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and subsequent international conventions.

Over the course of the 1970s, as new social movements latched onto the language of human rights to defend their causes, it became increasingly clear that rights to and within marriage and the family would be redefined on a global scale. Accordingly, courts began declaring certain marriage practices void when they seemed to undermine human rights.

This was the case, for example, in December when the European Court of Justice ruled that European countries could choose not to recognise talaq divorces carried out abroad – alongside other ‘private divorces’ that were seen as undermining their own moral codes – even if they had been conducted legally at the time.

By the end of 2017, it seemed that marriage had been made more progressive and equal for many around the world. And yet, the reforms to marriage continue to be shaped by specific notions of civility and modernity that have circulated over the last two hundred years and have been shaped by efforts to build nation states and empires.

These ideas could be found, for example, in both the heteronormative assumptions behind the movement to legalise same-sex marriage and in arguments against the legal recognition within Europe of foreign marital practices like talaq or the marriage of minors. Not least, while marriage seems to have become more progressive than ever before, in some ways, it has become less accessible. As couples increasingly choose not to marry due to difficult financial and social circumstances, to a certain extent, marriage has become the preserve of the privileged.

Julia Moses is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield and currently based at the University of Göttingen’s Institute of Sociology as a Marie Curie Fellow, where she leads the EU/Horizon 2020 research project ‘Marriage and Cultural Diversity in the German Empire’ (MARDIV / Grant #707072). She recently published Marriage, Law and Modernity: Global Histories (Bloomsbury, 2017) and is currently completing a book titled Civilizing Marriage: Family, Nation and State in the German Empire.

Image: Child in white wedding dress, November 2015 [Via WikiCommons].

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Finding Jesus in Video Games


Christmas is a time when Jesus becomes prominent in our media consumption. However, you may not be aware that Jesus appears not only in films that explore his birth and death, but is also widely present in the trope of the Christ-figure in film, television and perhaps surprisingly, video games.

Video games have matured since their early days when they were perceived as entertainment made for children, and specifically male children. Nowadays the UK video game market boasts a population of 3.2 million people, and was estimated to be worth £4.33bn in 2016. There are 2,175 active games companies in the UK, and here in Sheffield we have over 40 active games companies. [1] The use of historical people or events—and the more or less accurate ideas people have about them—is widespread in video games.[2]

Christ-figures in older games

Christ-figures have been a part of gaming history since the early 80s with games such as 1981’s Ultima, and later in the 90s-00s with iconic video game character Gordon Freeman of Half Life (1998) and JC Denton in Deus Ex (2000). However Christ-figures are most prominent in role-playing games (RPGs) and games in which the player can ‘embody’ the player-character. Unlike in film, Christ-figures in games are often women, and some are also portrayed as LGBT characters.

Final Fantasy X (2001)

Final Fantasy is a long-running series of RPG/Science fiction games made by Japanese studio Square Enix. They are well known for their immersive and dynamic worlds, their long play time, and their very specific set of in-game tropes. In 2001 their tenth instalment was released, Final Fantasy X, which featured Yuna, a female Christ-figure. Yuna is a Summoner who, by sacrificing herself, has the power to defeat a gigantic monster named Sin. Yuna can be identified as a Christ-figure not only through this intended sacrifice, but also by the “priestly” actions she performs, as well as through motifs such as a battle against corrupt governments, dedicated disciples, and her ability to walk on water.

Mass Effect (2007-2017)

The first game in the science fiction Mass Effect series featured an interactive narrative in which the player could control the character of Commander Shepard. Shepard was one of the first Christ-figures within games where players could chose to play them as LGBT. This was a massive step forward in video game design, let alone depictions of Christ-figures in media.

Bioshock Infinite (2013)

Irrational Games’ Bioshock: Infinite told the tale of ex-soldier, now Private Detective, Booker DeWitt. Set in 1912, the player controls DeWitt as he journeys to the fictional city of Columbia, a place steeped in religious zealotry, racism and danger.

DeWitt himself, along with the lead female characters of Elizabeth and Daisy Fitzroy can all be read as Christ-figures. Elizabeth is a literal damsel in a (metal) tower and Daisy is a radical revolutionary. All three characters are determined to take down the theocratic leader of Columbia, Zachary Hale Comstock.


Sadly, whilst Infinite attempts to present an anti-American Exceptionalism allegory, in the end it fails when (similarly to Final Fantasy X), it restricts female characters by not allowing them to carry out their heroic sacrifices. Both Elizabeth and Fitzroy (who is killed by Elizabeth) take second chair to the player-character of DeWitt, who sacrifices himself in a scene that resembles a Christian baptism ceremony.

Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014)

Inquisition is made by the same studio behind the Mass Effect series, BioWare, and like Mass Effect, Inquisition features a lead character that can be read as a Christ-figure. As much as Mass Effect flirted with the Christ-figure trope by referencing the “good Shepard”, Inquistion is less subtle with its references. For example, the promotional art for Inquisition featured the cast of game characters in an image that reinterprets Leonardo di Vinci’s L’Ultima Cena (the Last Supper).


As well as this clear reference to the life of Jesus, Inquisition makes repeated references to Jesus through the game’s narrative (a heroic saviour figure who must use their ‘God-given’ abilities to save humanity), and its promotional materials which suggest themes of leadership and courage.

Inquisition, like Mass Effect, provides the opportunity for players to play as lesbian, gay or bisexual. These romantic story lines, however, are often prone to problematic stereotypes (such as gay narratives that portray homosexuality as inherently negative in the eyes of family members). Despite this, Inquistion is one of the most diverse Christ-figure games within the ‘blockbuster’ genre of AAA games.[3]

The presence of Jesus in video game media (as himself or in the Christ-figure trope) suggests that the view of the historical Jesus as an example of sacrifice and heroism through altruism still has importance in our collective cultural narratives. While many of the games that feature a Christ-figure still rehash negative stereotypes, they are continually pushing the Jesus trope into new and interesting pathways.

Emily R Marlow is a 2nd year WRoCAH (AHRC) funded PhD candidate at the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) at the University of Sheffield. Her thesis looks at Jesus & Christ-figures within video games. Her research has covered games such as Bioshock: Infinite, Mass Effect, DragonAge: Inquisition and The Witcher 3.

Header image and image 1: DeWitt and Elizabeth in Bioshock: Infinite [via Flickr].

Image 2: Promotional art for Dragon Age: Inquisition, reinterpreting Leonardo di Vinci’s L’Ultima Cena (the Last Supper) [via FANDOM].

[1] “The Games Industry in Numbers”, [] accessed 13/12/2017.

[2] See, for instance, this recent discussion about the role of World War II history in the popular game Call of Duty:

[3] A “triple A” game is a game released by a mid to large sized games company, it is used to designate a games’ quality of production and promotional release.

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“My dear Bess” – The relationship between Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and Lady Elizabeth Foster


Born on the 7th of June of 1757, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is often regarded as one of the most acclaimed women of her period. Married to the Duke of Devonshire at seventeen, Georgiana was catapulted into the fashionable lifestyle of England’s high society and became a national celebrity. Nevertheless, her involvement in politics, her gambling addiction, ad the fact that she lived with her husband and Lady Elizabeth Foster, her close friend, in what has become known as a “ménage à trois” also exposed her to severe criticism by some of her contemporaries.

With July 2017 marking the anniversary of the (partial) decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit the life of this intriguing historical figure, as well as the ways in which we have imagined her throughout the years. And when we look at the modern interpretations of Georgiana’s life, it becomes clear that they actually tell us more about ourselves than they do about the Duchess.

Fifteen years after the publication of Amanda Foreman’s biography, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and five years after Saul Dibb’s movie, “The Duchess” the 2013 documentary “Secrets of Chatsworth” granted us once again access to the most intimate details of the life of Georgiana of Devonshire. The section of the documentary dedicated to Georgiana begins with the narrator’s gripping statement that the true secrets of Chatsworth are to be found in the archives containing “hundreds of letters by one duchess [which reveal]… her manipulation by a back-stabbing best friend”. As sad music plays, the narrator proceeds: “Stuck in a suffocating marriage, and despite the attention of celebrity, Georgiana was lonely. So when she met Lady Elizabeth Foster in 1782, she thought she had found a true friend.”

According to Foreman, whose interview followed: “Lady Elizabeth Foster, known universally as Bess, was the quintessential snake in the grass.” This use of harsh language to describe Bess is characteristic of the general portrayal of her as a cold-hearted, designing woman, and Georgiana as a helpless victim. The representation of Georgiana as a gullible woman, deserving our pity, presents a striking contrast to the generally accepted depiction of her as an intelligent, insightful woman.

The different biographies written about Georgiana present contrasting accounts of Bess’s nature, something which can be explained by the fact that each author identifies somehow with the person they are writing about. Foreman accuses Bess of being a bad friend to Georgiana and “incapable of reciprocating her feelings in full measure”, whilst Caroline Chapman (author of Elizabeth & Georgiana: The Duke of Devonshire and His Two Duchesses) sides with Bess. Both authors are very open about the admiration that they feel for their subjects. 1

Foreman explains that her resoJoshua_Reynolds_-_Georgiana,_Duchess_of_Devonshirelution to write a biography about Georgiana stemmed from her dissatisfaction with the works previously written about her: “None of the books… portrayed the Georgiana whose voice I felt I had heard.” 2 As Foreman writes: “Previous accounts portrayed her as a charismatic but flighty woman; I saw her as courageous and vulnerable.” 3 Foreman’s admiration for Georgiana may be a reason for her comparatively less-sympathetic portrayal of Bess, whom she sees as one of the causes for Georgiana’s unhappiness.

Chapman, much like Foreman, presents her frustration with previous accounts of Bess as the reason behind her decision to write the biography: “Indignation is an excellent spur to a biographer, and I feel indignant that Bess has been so often unfairly portrayed in the past. Of her love for the Duke and Duchess, and of her fidelity to them in thought, word and deed, I am entirely convinced.” 4

Whereas Foreman sees Georgiana as someone who was neglected by the people she loved the most, Chapman regards Bess as a woman who “For almost twenty-five years of her life… lived in the shadow of Georgiana” and who, throughout history, has been falsely accused of taking advantage of Georgiana’s friendship for her own benefit. 5

United by destiny? Georgiana and Princess Diana

One of the trailers for the 2008 movie not only sustains this idea of Georgiana as the victim – presented by Foreman and disputed by Chapman – but also establishes a peculiar parallel between her life and that of Princess Diana, her indirect descendant. According to the trailer, these two women are “united by destiny” and by similar occurrences in their lives. The determination of the producers to establish this parallel is such that various aspects of Georgina’s relationship with Bess are either over-simplified or completely ignored, in order to present the Duchess as someone who, just like Diana, found that, because of another woman, she was trapped in a marriage in which happiness was impossible.

The willingness to make Georgiana seem as helpless in her marriage as Diana means that the result is a distorted portrayal of the relationship between Georgiana and Bess: Georgiana becomes someone who felt constantly alone due to a cold-hearted Bess who did not provide her with enough emotional support. The establishment of a comparison between Bess and Camilla means that Bess is portrayed as someone who was in love with the Duke but not with Georgiana, as someone who was simply her husband’s mistress and who, like Camilla, stole her husband from her. But the letters between the two women present a completely different reality.

“I adore and love you beyond description.” – the love letters of Georgiana and Bess

Jean-Urbain_Guérin_-_Georgiana,_Duchess_of_Devonshire,_with_Lady_Elizabeth_Foster_-_WGA10966 In 1782, Georgiana met Bess and the two began a relationship that would last until the end of their lives. In spite of some self-censorship due to fear of exposure, the letters contained the sort of passionate language which is found in letters exchanged between lovers: “God bless you my angel love, I adore and love you beyond description.” 6

The intensity of Georgiana’s feelings for Bess is clear in these letters, including one in which Georgiana writes of her fear that she might be separated from Bess: “I declare to God I am half mad… Oh Bess, every sensation I feel but heightens my adoration for you.” 7 Written in April 1783, when Georgiana feared that she may be forced to move to Ireland and leave Bess behind, Georgiana’s desperation is evident.

“The truth may never be known,” says the narrator in the documentary, but Foreman is of the opinion that “it is entirely possible” that Georgiana and Bess were romantically and sexually involved. Society certainly seemed to think so, since in 1784 there were rumours of a lesbian affair between the two women in Paris. 8 And, there is reason to believe that this kind of relationship was socially acceptable.

Thanks to Lilian Faderman 9, we know that ample evidence exists of widely accepted romantic female relationships in many eras. Faderman’s book, for example, contains several examples of eighteenth-century novels, diaries and correspondence between women where they can be found speaking “a language that was in no way different from the language of heterosexual love”.

By the time she met Bess, Georgiana was already no stranger to this kind of relationship. In her visit to France in 1775, Georgiana became intimately acquainted with Marie Antoinette and the Duchesse de Polignac. As Foreman states in the biography, rumours about their relationship swirled around the Court at Versailles. 10

According to Foreman, the French court was a “highly charged feminine atmosphere” where physical contact and expressions of affection between women were socially acceptable. 11 In Paris, “kisses and embraces were part of the ordinary language of communication” and the three women openly wore tokens of each other’s affections, such as locks of hair. When she returned to England, Georgiana also established a passionate relationship with Mrs Mary Graham. Once again, the romantic language of their letters is undeniable: “I want to say above all that I love you, my dear friend, and kiss you tenderly.” 12

Considering their intensity, it is perhaps surprising that eighteenth-century society was so willing to accept these romantic relationships between women. Faderman explains that it was not the sexual aspect of lesbianism, but the women’s attempts at seizing what were considered to be male prerogatives that were the cause of society’s condemnation. According to Faderman, as long as women appeared feminine, “their sexual behaviour would be viewed as an activity in which women indulged when men were unavailable”. 13These relationships would be dismissed as “an apprenticeship… to heterosexual sex” since “in men’s phallocentric world it was inconceivable that a woman’s sexual pleasure could be significant if the male were absent”. 14 Another eighteenth-century prejudice was that these female friendships simply provided confidantes for talking about men.

 Contemporary portrayals of Georgiana and Bess

the duchess

The most disturbing aspect of the 2008 movie is that these prejudices are duplicated in the portrayal of Georgiana’s relationship with Bess. Beginning with the moment in which Georgiana receives the marriage proposal from the Duke, the movie concludes with her return to her husband after the end of her affair with Charles Grey and the birth of their illegitimate daughter. Throughout the entirety of the movie, Grey is portrayed as the only person with whom Georgiana has a fully sexual and romantic connection. The relationship between Georgiana and Bess is sanitised to such an extent that Bess is not her lover but simply her confidante, to whom she tells the most intimate secrets about her relationship with Grey.

Bess is there simply to facilitate the heterosexual relationship between Georgiana and Grey. She first teaches Georgiana that sex with men can be “rather pleasurable,” and then leaves her unsatisfied and instead summons Grey, the one who is capable of sexually satisfying Georgiana. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that all The Duchess’s screenwriters were male…

Far less controversial, but still problematic, is the portrayal of their relationship in “Secrets of Chatsworth”. In it, Bess is described as a “fake” and Georgiana as the only person who did not realise this because she was “desperate… for companionship”. In the documentary, Foreman claims that “Anyone who knew Bess knew that her real ambition was to drive out Georgiana, ensure her destruction, and get the duke for herself.”

However, this is not consistent with what we know about their relationship. Foreman even argues in her biography that when the Duke found out about Georgiana’s debts in 1787 Bess was torn between helping Georgiana and convincing the Duke to separate from her. And the documentary mentions Georgiana’s exile abroad in 1791, where she gave birth to Grey’s child, but not the fact that Bess accompanied her. Yet it is significant that Bess chose to be with Georgiana through this difficult period in her life, despite the separation from the Duke it entailed, lasting for several months.

Although only eight minutes of the documentary are devoted to telling the story of Georgiana’s life, an amount of time that does not allow for complexity, there is still something problematic in the way it ends: with the declaration that, when three years after Georgiana’s death Bess became the new duchess of Devonshire, she “finally got what she wanted”. This unforgiving account portrays Bess as an absolutely ruthless woman, who was not even sorry to see her close friend and almost certainly lover die from an extremely painful illness, as she cared for nothing else but usurping her position in society. 15

The characterisation of Bess as a conniving, unfeeling woman, together with the idea that Georgiana was only drawn to Bess out of desperation due to her husband’s neglect, denies Georgiana any agency, self-awareness and knowledge of the people closest to her.

The ménage à trois

The truth is that there is no reason to believe that Georgiana, Bess and the Duke of Devonshire were not all perfectly happy with their arrangement. According to Faderman, men accepted the fact that married women established romantic relationships with other women, as this allowed them to find comfort without harming the essential fabric of society. This could be the reason why the Duke accepted Georgiana’s relationship with Bess.

In spite of Foreman’s declaration that theirs was not a “traditional lesbian relationship” because they did not wish to run away together, it should not be forgotten that they had several issues which made such an idea impractical: money, their standing in society, and their children, with whom they would inevitably have lost contact in the case of any formal separation.

Unlike Foreman, however, Chapman argues unreservedly that the only romantic and sexual connection was the one between the Duke and Bess. She claims that Bess “cannot have foreseen that a summer spent in their company would lead to a friendship lasting until Georgiana’s death, or that she would fall in love with the Duke”. 16 Chapman is convinced that the relationship between the two women was one of friendship and nothing more.

Chapman is also quick to dismiss the idea that the letters between the two women are indicative of the existence of a romantic and sexual relationship. Chapman argues that, although romantic language in the correspondence between two women seems odd to us, it is simply what women did and does not mean anything. And yet, the conviction that these women simply adopted this kind of affectionate behaviour towards each other because it was the convention, or what was fashionable, is naive.

It is also ridiculous to completely reject the possibility that women who lived together and expressed their feelings romantically ever engaged in a sexual relationship. The fact that they do not conform to our modern expectations does not mean they did not have a ‘lesbian relationship’.

Thomas_Gainsboroguh_Georgiana_Duchess_of_Devonshire_1783But although, as Chapman argues, the portrayal of Georgiana as victim and Bess as villain is over-simplistic, it is extremely likely that Bess was jealous of Georgiana’s status. And yet, there is no reason to conclude from this that Bess wished to cause her destruction. It is true that Georgiana’s family did not approve of Bess. However, even though this has been attributed to insight into Bess’s real intentions, it could also have been due to lack of it.

A lack of sympathy towards Bess might have been due to a lack of understanding of their relationship. If Georgiana’s family did not know (or chose not to believe) that the two women were romantically involved, then Bess would have appeared to them as nothing but the Duke’s mistress, an intruder and, as such, the only thing standing between Georgiana and a happy marriage.

It is perfectly possible that Georgiana was not just aware of, but perfectly comfortable with, her sexual feelings towards Bess. In the biography, Foreman quotes a letter written by Georgiana to her son, Hart, in which she says: “I see in you still more perhaps than even in them [her daughters] what my youth was.” 17 If Georgiana is referring to her son’s homosexuality here, then this indicates that she did not strive to hide or deny the romantic nature of her attachment to Bess.

Whether this was the case or not, upon her death in 1806, Georgiana left Bess an unmistakable proof of her affection and confidence in her: she made Bess the sole guardian of her papers, fully aware that this would give her some stability for at least the amount of time it would take to sort through them. This indicates that not only was Bess not resented but also that she had Georgiana’s blessing to become the next duchess of Devonshire.

The fact that Bess and the Duke waited three years after Georgiana’s death to get married is also significant. Their decision to wait for so long is indicative of a deep respect for Georgiana’s memory, and it invalidates the idea that Bess waited impatiently for Georgiana’s death and the moment in which she would become the new Duchess of Devonshire.

Our imposition of a modern viewpoint on what a lesbian relationship is supposed to look like has kept us from recognising Georgiana and Bess as the important queer historical figures that they were. Outdated ideas about relationships between women have also simplified the two women, resulting in Georgiana being portrayed as gullible and Bess as cruel and cunning. Georgiana’s obituary in The Morning Chronicle on the 31st of March of 1806 read: “A woman more exalted in every accomplishment of rapturous beauty, of elevated genius, and of angelic temper, has not adorned the present age.” Georgiana was clearly an intelligent, perspicacious woman. Perhaps we should start believing it.

Rita J. Dashwood is a third-year PhD student in English Literature at the University of Warwick. Her thesis, Women in Residence: Forms of Belonging in Jane Austen, investigates the various kinds of relationships between women and property in Jane Austen’s novels. Rita has presented papers at international conferences both in the UK and in Brazil, and has recently been awarded the 2017 BSECS President’s Prize at this year’s annual conference. Additionally, one of her papers was recently published in Jane Austen and Philosophy, edited by Mimi Marinucci and published by Rowman and Littlefield. You can find Rita on Twitter @rjdashwood.

This piece belongs to a series of History Matters blogs by LGBTIQ+ scholars, and about the queer past. As Britain marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967, History Matters is proud to highlight the rich spectrum of work on LGBTIQ+ history in the academy and beyond. All of the blogs will appear here, as they are posted.

Header Image: Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (seated, left) and her sister Viscountess Duncannon (later Countess of Bessborough) (standing) at the gaming table in Devonshire House in London, 1791 by Thomas Rowlandson [via WikiCommons]
Image: Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, 1775-1776 by Joshua Reynolds [via WikiCommons]
Image: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, with Lady Elizabeth Foster, circa 1791 by Jean-Urbain Guérin [via WikiCommons]
Image: “The Duchess” Film Poster, 2009 [via WikiCommons under fair use]
Image: Portrait of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, 1783 by Thomas Gainsborough [via WikiCommons]


  1. Amanda Foreman, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire (London: Harper Collins, 1999), p. xvi.
  2. Foreman, Georgiana, xv.
  3. Foreman, Georgiana, xvi.
  4. Caroline Chapman, Elizabeth & Georgiana: The Duke of Devonshire and His Two Duchesses, (London: John Murray, 2002), p. x.
  5. Chapman, Elizabeth & Georgiana, p. ix.
  6. Foreman, Georgiana, p. 70.
  7. Foreman, Georgiana, p. 115.
  8. Foreman, Georgiana, p. 167.
  9. See Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (London: Women’s Press, 1985).
  10. Foreman, Georgiana, p. 41.
  11. Foreman, Georgiana, p. 41.
  12. Foreman, Georgiana, p. 52.
  13. Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men, p. 17.
  14. Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men, p. 29.
  15. The accusation becomes even more serious when we consider the descriptions of Georgiana’s pain during the last stages of her illness. A letter from Georgiana’s sister Harriet read: “Any thing so horrible, so killing, as her [Georgiana’s] three days’ agony no human being ever witness’d” (Chapman, Elizabeth & Georgiana, p. 177). Contrary to these descriptions of Bess, her letters express the support and care which she provided Georgiana during this painful period: “Crowds come to inquire, some we see but most of the day I am at her bed side” (Chapman, Elizabeth & Georgiana, p. 174).
  16. Chapman, Elizabeth & Georgiana, p. 29.
  17. Foreman, Georgiana, p. 388.
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A Genealogy of Bisexuality; Androgyny, Behaviour, and Suspicion.


People can be very quick to dismiss the idea of bisexuality as a phase, as greedy, or in some way invalid. This biphobia results from a lot of (sometimes purposeful) misunderstanding of bisexuality. But what do bisexuals mean when they say that they’re bisexual? Amongst bisexual activists and scholars, bisexuality commonly means the sexual or romantic attraction to people of more than one sex or gender. Bisexuals might experience changes in their sexuality over time, and that the way in which people experience sexual and romantic feelings might change wildly from person to person and gender to gender.

But bisexuality didn’t always mean this. In the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century psychoanalysts and biologists like Sigmund Freud, Havelock Ellis, and others used the word bisexual to refer to a particular conflation of gender and sexuality. The belief at the time was that anyone who was attracted to someone of the same sex had the brain of a different gender in the wrong body.


So, someone who we would consider a lesbian today was actually seen as a woman with a man’s brain, and would have been called an invert. Bisexuality was seen as an androgynous combination of sexuality and gender, and psychoanalysts like Freud believed that bisexuality was the base, immature, level of sexuality, which people would mature out of to become heterosexuals or homosexuals.

In the mid-twentieth century, sexuality studies saw a new school of thought where sexologists were more concerned with contextual sexual behavior of individuals, as opposed to dissecting the way in which their attractions developed. Alfred Kinsey is one of the most famous sexologists in this new tradition of scholarship. 1

Alfred_Charles_KinseyKinsey developed the Kinsey Scale, a system of measurement which suggested that the majority of people were not exclusively heterosexually-behaving, or exclusively homosexually-behaving, but rather somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Kinsey presented bisexuality more as a system of behavior, not necessarily linked to individual or social identities, but linked to acting on libido, circumstance, and attraction at particular points in time.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, lesbians and gay men began to visibly and subversively fight for their basic civil rights within the United States. Bisexuality became more of a social identity, with individuals choosing to claim their identities more and more. However, due to internal pressures within the LGBTQ+ groups, bisexuals were often thought of as traitors due to the perception that they benefited from heterosexual privileges that lesbians and gay men could not access.

Consequently, bisexual voices were silenced, either by pressure from the LGBTQ+ community, or due to bisexuals ‘passing’ as heterosexual, lesbian, or gay, depending on their social contexts. Within the LGBTQ+ community, bisexuality was seen as a neither-here-nor-there identity, possibly even traitorous given the association with heterosexuality and normative culture. As a result, bisexuality was met with suspicion, leading to bisexuals hiding their sexualities and thus finding little community and validation.

At present, bisexuality is slightly more socially accepted. No longer seen as linked to gender, bisexuality is considered to be a sexual orientation in the same way that being gay, lesbian, or heterosexual is seen as a social identity. Although bisexuals still experience biphobia, bi-invisibility, and monosexism, there is a growing bisexual community that supports and validates one another.

Bisexuality is also increasingly being brought into the conversation within LGBTQ+ organisations and equality campaigns. The representation, acceptance, and validation of bisexuality as a valid sexual orientation, all serves to benefit bisexual inclusion and bisexual mental health. However, the remnants of previous schools of thought are still seen, woven into responses to bisexuality. Common narratives around bisexuality include;

The need to accept bisexuality as a valid sexual orientation is critical to improving bisexual mental and physical wellbeing, which currently is significantly worse than lesbian and gay mental and physical wellbeing. Perhaps the next great understanding of bisexuality can incorporate a more lackadaisical approach; it doesn’t matter how you define yourself if it makes you happy and well. You are valid, and your feelings should not need to be quantified to someone else to be justified.

Rosie Nelson is an ESRC funded Sociology PhD student at the University of Bristol. Rosie adopts a critical queer theoretical lens to interrogate the construction and maintenance of a bisexual identity amongst British bisexuals. Rosie’s particular research interests revolve around the way bisexuals interact with gender, gender expression, social location, coming out, and institutional representation. You can find Rosie on Twitter @roropanolo.

This piece belongs to a series of History Matters blogs by LGBTIQ+ scholars, and about the queer past. As Britain marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967, History Matters is proud to highlight the rich spectrum of work on LGBTIQ+ history in the academy and beyond. All of the blogs will appear here, as they are posted.

For more on the history of bisexuality, please see:

Angelides, S., 2001. A History of Bisexuality, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Eisner, S., 2013. Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, Berkeley: Seal Press.
Garber, M., 1997. Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life, London: Penguin Books.
Harrad, K., 2016. Purple Prose: Bisexuality in Britain, Portland: Thorntree Press.
Klein, F., 1993. The Bisexual Option, New York: The Harrington Park Press.

If you would like access to any support related to the content of this blog, please see:

Header Image: Bisexual Pride Flag [via Wikicommons]
Image: Female Bisexuality Symbol [via Martin Strachoň / Wikimedia Commons]
Image: Alfred Charles Kinsey [Via Wikicommons]


  1. Kinsey’s sexuality studies considered the sexual behavior of American men and women.
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Finding my place in queer cultural history through the ‘post-Cold-War’ period


II’ve been researching the 1990s since the beginning of my academic career, when I wrote my PhD on popular music and national identity in Croatia after the break-up of Yugoslavia. 1 As a queer writer and academic who was born in the early 1980s, I’m also someone whose consciousness and identity were shaped by the queer cultural politics of the 1990s – or by the lengths I went to in trying to distance myself from them.

Some queer historians become historians to investigate a personal past. My experience was the opposite, or so I thought: sometimes, while reading archived Croatian newspapers and magazines from 1990 to what was then the present during my PhD, I’d note abstractly that an issue’s cover date in 1996 or 1997 coincided with a personally significant day, or realise that, if I’d been the same age and Croatian, this or that pop video instead of this or that performance on Top of the Pops might have played a part in the protracted process of me trying to prove that, even though I kept noticing androgynous-looking women, I wasn’t queer.

At the same time, on a macro level, I’ve always believed that the histories of the Yugoslav region and the society where I live are much more connected than most British public discourse in the 1990s about the former Yugoslavia would suggest. During the Yugoslav wars, Cold War east–west geopolitics overhung older, semi-orientalised tropes about ‘the Balkans’ in the minds of many commentators who implied that Britain and the Balkans travelled at two separate historical speeds.

The more expansive and transnational view of the 1990s as cultural history that I take now has as much to do with Britain as the Balkans, and sometimes more. The period we can now name as ‘the post-Cold-War’ was defined by changing ideas about conflict and security, and how gender might determine who participates in conflict in what ways, who ought to protect whom, and who threatens whom. Also important were narratives of capitalism and progress that held out the hope of prosperity to many more young (and older) people than felt it in the 1980s or feel it today; rapid changes in the technologies through which people experienced popular culture and communicated with each other (it is already an imaginative leap for a student in their late teens to put themselves in the trainers of a young person the same age organising a night out in 1991); and also by the visibility and ambiguous position of queer identities in media and society. This, it turns out, is where I come in.

The project I conceived a year or two ago on how representations of the Yugoslav wars fed back into Western cultural imaginations of conflict, and how Western cultural imaginations of conflict also circulated through the Yugoslav region, needed me to start defining what did distinguish the 1990s or the ‘post-Cold-War’ as a period.

Meanwhile, the conceptual contribution I wanted it to make – what can cultural historians and scholars interested in the aesthetics of international politics learn from feminist and queer media studies? – sent me back to scholarship in feminist film theory and in cultural memory that was being written during the 1990s and was being produced within the very historical context I was trying to understand. Meanwhile, as a researcher embedded in 2016, I was becoming ever more conscious of how easily queer visibilities in the past and present can be erased, and starting to explore the 1990s’ and 2000s’ interlinked transformations of media technology, imaginations of conflict, and queer politics creatively in ways that even began pointing to new linkages in my academic work.)

Jackie Stacey’s Star Gazing (on women’s identification with Forties and Fifties women film stars) or equally Graham Dawson’s Soldier Heroes (on boys’ identification with military and imperial heroes through adventure play) both came out in 1994. Both books have passages that read like darts of recognition; both books have passages that my own embodied knowledge leaves me annotating, ‘What about masculinities?’ or ‘Can’t this happen with women?’

Together, they help me pursue a hunch that the dynamics of identification that can make people so invested in the characters and narratives of popular culture and the dynamics of emotional attachment to the nation that states and militaries depend on, have a lot in common with each other

A thread of articles and book chapters in feminist and lesbian ‘gaze’ theory (which inform how I understand identification with the nation and with militarism) came out between 1994 and 1997: work by scholars like Caroline Evans and Reina Lewis on identification, desire and spectatorship (theorising things like what the pleasures of looking at fashion spreads in the British lesbian magazine Diva might have been for lesbians in the mid-90s).

In other words, in the mid 1990s, people were already writing about and answering questions that had been confusing me for years at exactly the same time – when I still had no idea they could even be spoken, let alone asked with academic authority. (I still wouldn’t even have dared touch a copy of Diva at the newsagent, in 1997, in case it meant I was a lesbian…)

And yet the first encounter with Croatian popular music that I remember, through the Eurovision Song Contest, is already entangled with my own history of queer spectatorship and not-coming-out. I would have seen Croatian entries in the 1994 and 1995 Eurovisions, but the first one I remember seeing is Maja Blagdan’s performance of ‘Sveta ljubav’ in 1996, for reasons that would have been quite obvious to me at the time. 2

Blagdan went on to be one of the first Croatian singers I wanted to find out more about, and so the trajectory towards me becoming able to write a book that a BASEES prize panel judged ‘exceptional in both its originality and its careful research’, a book which has helped to inspire younger researchers to develop their own projects on post-Yugoslav nationalism, music, media, or sport, doesn’t just involve me as a historical subject trying to understand how a new nation like Croatia could suddenly appear out of what had seemed to be an old one like Yugoslavia. It also involves me as a queer viewer and teenager at a very specific moment, when lesbian visibility coexisted with an intense cultural anxiety over women as agents of the gaze towards other women.

Historicising the theoretical work I wanted to use for one project, in other words, has already pointed me towards another: what was the relationship between queer women and popular culture in the 1990s? This feels all the more urgent, not just because it belongs to a Very Contemporary History that’s already different from the present, but also because it denotes a past I managed to simultaneously live through and push aside.

Catherine Baker is Senior Lecturer in 20th Century History at the University of Hull and specialises in post-Cold-War history, international relations and cultural studies. Her books include Sounds of the Borderland: Popular Music, War and Nationalism in Croatia since 1991(2010), The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s (2015) and an edited volume on Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR (2017). Her next book, Race and the Yugoslav Region, is forthcoming from Manchester University Press. She blogs at and you can find Catherine on Twitter @richmondbridge.

This piece belongs to a series of History Matters blogs by LGBTIQ+ scholars, and about the queer past. As Britain marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967, History Matters is proud to highlight the rich spectrum of work on LGBTIQ+ history in the academy and beyond. All of the blogs will appear here, as they are posted.

Image: Zagreb Pride, 2010 [via WikiCommons].


  1. This was published in 2010 as my first book, Sounds of the Borderland.
  2. Not having had the foresight to press ‘record’ at the start of the song on the video tape where I used to collect highlights of Top of the Pops, I expected with disappointment never to see again, until a viewer who had written to the BBC about Terry Wogan speaking over the singing meant they played thirty seconds of it a few weeks later on Points of View.
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