This is the first in 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.
The first time I thought about LGBTIQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans*, Intersex, Queer/Questioning and other identities) representation was when I was teaching. It was a small group of around twenty first-year undergraduate students, and at the time we were focusing on Napoleonic France. Amidst the Code Napoléon, the Confederation of the Rhine, and the Battle of Nations, I happened to mention the theory that Napoleon may have fallen in love (or lust) with the strikingly handsome Russian emperor, Alexander I. This elicited a mixed response. Some students nodded, others jotted notes, a few stifled amused giggles. One in particular, however, visibly flushed and fidgeted. ‘Excuse me’, he butted in. ‘We shouldn’t be talking about this. I’m uncomfortable.’
Later, I wondered what should have caused such a reaction. In another course, someone had strenuously objected to studying George Chauncey’s Gay New York because there had been ‘hardly any gays’ in America then. Another queried why heterosexuals should learn about gay people. Both complained that the course ‘normalised’ homosexuality.
It was only later, that I realised that these students all had a point, albeit not the one they thought they were making. In a sense, we were normalising homosexuality, in the sense that we were introducing queerness into a space that these students had grown up believing was essentially queer-free.
Representation has long been an area of revision in fiction and, though entertainment still has its own problems to deal with, LGBTIQ+ characters and themes are increasingly visible. The same is not true of history, in which queer history remains a niche field, accessible only to those deliberately seeking it. Chauncey’s research into the open secret of New York’s turn-of-the-century gay, bisexual, and transgender subculture is unlikely to find its way into a ‘mainstream’ general history of New York, nor American culture. 1
Simply put: students will have difficulty knowing anything about this queer side of history if they don’t know to look for it. All too often, queer history is ignored, with the unspoken consensus seeming to be that queerness is a modern affectation. In the mind of the aforementioned student, it made little sense to be studying gay culture in New York City around 1900 because there was no gay culture in New York City around 1900. That it exists now was surely the result of modern liberalism, degeneracy, the decline of traditional values – or, in the current alt-right vocabulary, the ‘snowflake’ phenomenon. 2
Conversely, if LGBTIQ+ history is mentioned, it is used as a warning in a morality tale. Hitler began his murderous rampage largely as a result of his ‘repressed homosexuality’; the Nazis were ‘entirely controlled by militaristic male homosexuals’; Weimar Germany was debauched and depraved and its gay scene was a clear example; the Roman Empire fell due to a moral decrepitude on the inside, propagated by widespread homosexuality. 3
These narratives are, of course, hideous distortions. However, they borrow much from the camp devoted to denying historical queerness: if queer people did exist in the past, they were an aberration, and these examples demonstrate their disastrous strangeness. Both ideas undermine the ‘legitimacy’ of homosexuality and queer identity, either arguing that queerness has never existed before, or that, when it has, it was the purview of deviants, monsters, and the pitiably decadent.
It is this sort of intellectual baggage that students unknowingly bring into the classroom, and the lack of LGBTIQ+ representation in history classes accounts not only for those who respond to its sudden appearance with shock and discomfort, but also for those who try unsuccessfully to mask their giggles. In the first case, gay history is obscene. In the other, it is titillating, and learning about it is like being whispered a dirty little secret.
The fiftieth anniversary of the (partial) decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, and the sixtieth anniversary of the Wolfenden Report, afford historians the perfect opportunity to reappraise our approach to presenting the past to our audiences. Embodied in the decriminalisation was an implicit (if incomplete) acknowledgement that queer people were not some hideous subset of humanity; homosexuality was neither a temporary trend nor a debauchery that would destroy the fabric of society. In historical circles, we remain to some degree all of the above: unmentionable to the mainstream, the objects of snorted laughter, flushed cheeks and discomfort.
There are, though, some hopeful signs, and these are being driven by public interest. The passing of the Turing Law in Britain occurred in the context of a new appreciation for the mathematician Alan Turing, and his shameful treatment at the hands of a government that owed him much. Marriage equality in the United States prompted the online magazine Salon, via the History News Network, to write about James Buchanan as ‘America’s first gay president’. And the recent publication of a number of love letters between gay soldiers in the Second World War has brought the reality of LGBTIQ+ relationships into military history, one of the strictest bastions of queer-less hyper-masculinity.
It is incumbent upon this and the next generation of historians to ensure that these lessons, and more, are integrated into the historical curricula, so that queer history is no longer considered a trivial diversion that only interests queer people. Instead, queer history must be recognised as a vital component of a universal, human history. One can only hope that future students are not made uncomfortable by the presence of historical queerness, but rather by its absence.
Bodie A. Ashton is a research historian in the Faculty of Law at the Universität Passau, Germany, and a visiting research fellow in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Adelaide, Australia. He is the author of The Kingdom of Württemberg and the Making of Germany, 1815-1871 (London: Bloomsbury, 2017). You can find him on twitter @manwithoutatan.
Image: Napoleon and Alexander I, Adolphe Roehn,Entrevue de Napoléon Ier et d’Alexandre Ier sur le Niemen / Treaty of Tilsitz, 1807 [via Wikicommons]
- The same can be said of Robert Beachy’s Gay Berlin, which makes a magnificent case for the German capital also being the epicentre of a burgeoning and vibrant queer scene in the early twentieth century. This fascinating, colourful, vital Berlin is all but absent in the standard histories students and the reading public are most likely to come across – unless, that is, they are specifically searching for a gay history of Berlin. ↩
- The modern development of the queer lexicon, it should be noted, has arisen from the ability of the queer population to exist within public spaces and define themselves with greater freedom. The non-existence of the LGBTIQ+ vocabulary in earlier times does not imply that the people defined by it did not previously exist. Cf. David F. Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 490 n. 18. ↩
- The latter, which was also argued by none other than Richard Nixon, has recently reared its head in the marriage equality debate. ↩