This is the first in History Matters’ series of blogs for LGBT History Month. All of the blogs will appear here as they are posted.
February is upon us again and with it comes LGBT History Month. Like other celebratory events such as Black History Month, Women’s History Month and Disability History Month, it offers the space to promote and prioritise the kind of history that can be perceived as outside the mainstream. The positives to such an event are clear, throughout February LGBT history is given a public platform that is denied for much of the rest of the year. Local archives, museums, community groups and members of the public often work together to unearth the stories that are hidden in boxes of documents and in people’s lives. It gets people talking about the LGBT past. So far so obvious…..
But there’s another implication to this sectioning off of the past that is potentially problematic both for the history of sexuality and social and cultural history more generally. Claire Hayward has recently blogged about the way that designating a specific month to a particular type of history has the potential to make it even more invisible for the rest of the year. It also has the potential to ghettoise types of history as only relevant to certain groups of people.
Considering the fact that I spend my historical life in the company of northern, working-class men who had sex with each other, I should be exactly the type of historian that LGBT history month is perfect for. But in many ways, I’m not. By it’s nature the event is politicised. It was set up in response to the repeal of the draconian Section 28 and continues to perform a valuable service in bringing LGBT issues, both historical and contemporary to the forefront of public debate. My men would not have understood how they fit into this reading of history.
I should explain. When I started my research, I thought that I was going to write a gay history of working-class men in the north of England. This is not what happened. The sources that I found and the world in which these men lived turned me from a historian of sexuality to a historian with an equal interest in sexuality, class, gender, regionality and the emotions. In fact, it turns out that for the majority of working-class, northern men in the first half of the twentieth century, issues of class, region and gender were intimately and inextricably linked to sexual practice and desire. I couldn’t begin to interpret their lives without taking this into consideration.
The majority of the men that I encountered had no problem fitting their encounters with other men into the rest of their lives. They didn’t affect their identity, sense of masculinity or their relationships with friends, families and sometimes even wives. In fact, it is probably more difficult for us to accept their ease regarding their sexual behaviour than it was for them to live it. In our world of self-reflection and identity politics such disregard for sexuality and what it might mean can seem bizarre. At the risk of falling into cliché, the often used quote ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’ seems particularly relevant to the study of same sex desire.
Perhaps because of the ambiguity of the sexual identities of the men who I research, they have been absent from LGBT history. But their experiences give us invaluable insight into a working-class culture that has been lost forever. In some cases, by the 1960s and 1970s the social and cultural circumstances that allowed for a different interpretation of the sexual ‘normal’ had disappeared. This does not just impact on the history of sexuality but on the social history of twentieth century Britain.
In her groundbreaking recent work, Disturbing Practices, Laura Doan has highlighted the challenges involved in the study of sexuality and LGBT history in particular. She has also offered solutions that may eventually place sexuality on a par with gender, class and race as a standard analytical category for historical study. Until that time, surprise yourself. Thinking carefully about LGBT history (in February or any other month) could create and answer questions you never knew existed. It did for me.
Helen Smith is a historian of sexuality, gender, class and region in modern Britain. She is currently working as an Associate Tutor and Research Assistant at the University of Sheffield alongside working on turning her thesis into a book. You can find Helen on twitter @DrHelenSmith and read her recent blog for Notches here.
Header image: Madrid Gay Pride Day, 2008 [Wikicommons]
Embedded image: LGBT History Month 2014 Logo [LGBT History Month Website]