In Room 53 of the British Museum in London sits a small silver goblet that dates from about 15 BC – AD 15. The Warren Cup depicts ‘two male couples making love’. The descriptive panel underneath the cup tells us that one side shows an erastes and an eromenos, an older, active lover and a younger, passive lover. It also tells us that ‘Concepts of age in sexual relationships were very different from our own’. Indeed, concepts of sexual relationships in general (and other kinds of relationships) were very different to our own; gender identities and same-sex love have been described in many ways across different historical periods, locations, and contexts. What we might now term as ‘LGBTQ histories’ are not easily defined, nor are the historical identities and behaviours they might refer to. Should we describe the Warren Cup, which depicts men engaging in sexual acts together, as ‘gay’, or label it as an ‘LGBTQ object’?
How do we find, describe and contextualise histories of same-sex love and gender identity more generally in academic and public histories? This is no easy debate. Last year I wrote a piece for the New Statesman that sparked a lively and enthusiastic Twitter discussion about LGBTQ terminology in history (see the Storify here). The discussion showed that historians, public and academic alike, put great consideration and emotional investment into their choices of terminology. Differences aside, it showed that terminology has the ability to empower historians and consumers of history; whether to claim (or reclaim) a past on one’s own terms, or to accurately represent an often marginalised history, our choices of terminology are personal and political.
In order to raise – and potentially answer – questions about how historic terminologies work across different spaces, places, and times, I spoke to four individuals who work on various aspects of histories of same-sex love and gender identity. Each of their responses highlight the complexities of finding and writing about the past. They also reveal potential tensions in translating different historical, social, and cultural contexts into something that can be understood by others today.
Elena McGrath questioned how we can translate LGBTQ terminology from one context – historical, linguistic, cultural – to another:
In 2011 I attended a party for Mujer Publica, a publication of the Bolivian anarchofeminist collective, Mujeres Creando. There, one of the presenters argued that because queer was a colonizing term that emerged out of the global north, it did not speak for Bolivians who experience same-sex love, nor did it honour local struggles against oppression that have produced their own vocabularies. Her preferred term was marica/maricón, playing on the Spanish word most often translated into English as ‘faggot’. She suggested that maricónes experience exclusion, belonging, and political opportunity in ways that are different from ‘queers’, in part because of their relationship to global structures of power. A Bolivian marica lives with threats to her well-being not shared by the queer North American. By insisting that a unified queer movement could not exist across North-South global borders, the speaker highlighted struggles other than sexual that also generated oppression in her life.
I bring up this contemporary argument for two reasons: first, it questions our ability to translate from one language, cultural context, and struggle to another, and two, because it highlights the politics inherent in the language we choose. Queer, gay, and ‘LGBT’ are not just contemporary, they are political words. They emerged out of the struggles of people against cultural scripts of heterosexual family. As scholars like Claire Hayward and John D’Emilio have argued persuasively, these struggles are historically produced, and we risk doing damage to the particularity of historical experience if we try to apply them throughout time. At the same time, one of the reasons many queer scholars try to reclaim a queer history is that they are looking for family—we desire kin in the past to help ground our queer families and inform our queer struggles in the present.
I don’t mean that we shouldn’t try to find queer pasts, but I do think we should interrogate our desires to do so. What happens if we ask what relations of power structured exclusions in a particular time and place? What if instead of looking for identity, we looked for resonance? Interrogating anachronism is a very productive methodology for both politics and history. Who could belong, and who passed on what terms? Did experiencing or enacting same-sex desire preclude participation in structures of power? Did gender operate on a binary, and how did conformity or rebellion manifest itself? Were exclusions around gender linked to sexual attraction? What struggles did historical actors see themselves within, and who were their political allies or chosen family? When we see silences in the archive, were those silences imposed then, or in the years since? What we find may surprise us, and may even help us envision new ways to imagine change in our own society. A term like queer implies a society that associates same-sex love with gender non-conformity as a particular kind of social transgression, and that has not existed in all times and places.
Diane Watt highlighted the critical role of using strategically anachronistic terms in writing ‘LGBTQ histories’:
We need to avoid policing queer history, but we do have to be reflective about the terminology we use, and we do need to justify or at least explain it. One approach that is often taken is to adopt, and sometimes adapt, the terminology specific to the historical time (and place) under discussion. Sometimes that is the terminology of those who set out to oppress or regulate historical ‘queers’; sometimes it is the terminology used by the people themselves. But that doesn’t work for all historical periods, and it doesn’t work equally for men and women. In the Middle Ages, for example, the term ‘sodomy’ could be applied to men and women, and it could be applied to a range of different activities, some of which we might not now recognize as related to the term. When we encounter the word ‘sodomy’ we don’t always know what is meant by it. At the same time, women’s same-sex desire and sexual activity is still largely invisible for this period, in part because it wasn’t seen as so significant in legal and religious terms, but this doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. Judith Bennett came up with the term ‘lesbian like’ to try to make the possibility of an early hidden history of women’s same-sex desire comprehensible, but some scholars dismiss her approach, which would encompass female companions, for example, or single women, as ‘lesbian light’.
In our edited collection, The Lesbian Premodern, Noreen Giffney, Michelle Sauer and I argued for a strategically anachronistic use of the term ‘lesbian’ in order to counter the absence or invisibility of women in early queer histories. Our title proved contentious and it made some of our contributors very uncomfortable. Indeed, their resistance is inscribed within the volume. Not all of the reviewers liked it either. But we wanted to challenge the assumption that medieval and early modern queers are usually male. (I was once told by a journal that I couldn’t use ‘queer’ in the title of my article because it was about women). And we were also being playful. Play can be an important but under-acknowledged aspect of scholarship. Through play we can engage an audience, drawing people into the debates. I don’t think The Female Same-Sex Desiring Premodern, or even The Lesbian-Like Premodern, would have worked so well.
It is useful to have terminology that is elastic, because the process of imposing firm categories is itself anachronistic. Is the Ovidian tale of Iphis and Ianthe, and its medieval and modern reinventions, a narrative about lesbian sexuality, or cross-dressing, or transgender or intersex experience? Or is it a combination thereof? It is as important to admit the limits of our terminology and categorisations as it is to admit the limits of our knowledge and understanding. But we must not allow others to use those limits to write queer lives out of history.
Rictor Norton argued that the use of anachronistic language is important in bridging gaps between the past and the present:
I’ve variously used the terms ‘gay history’, ‘gay and lesbian history’, ‘homosexual history’, ‘LGBT history’, and ‘queer history’ in my work to denote a coherent field of study. At the same time, I endeavour to use words known to the people about whom I write. Thus, for eighteenth century England I use terms such as ‘sodomite’, ‘molly’, ‘lesbian’, ‘sapphist’; for other eras I might use ‘pederast’ or ‘uranian’; and for other cultures and countries I try to include culturally specific terms. In my writing I begin with the word ‘gay’. If I present my writing to an academic audience who may be resistant to ‘popular’ terminology, I replace the word ‘gay’ with ‘homosexual’. In my own mind, none of the wide variety of terms available seriously distorts what I think of as my subject – ‘Gay History’ – or the historical methodology used to explore it.
The reason I don’t fret over semantic issues is that I take the view that (homo)sexual desire and (homo)sexual orientation are part of human nature and are therefore essentially transhistorical, albeit constrained, suppressed, or repressed by homophobic and transphobic discourses. The gay historian ought to bear witness to this homophobic history, but also to contribute to the liberation of gay history that has been systematically censored and suppressed and kept hidden by mainstream historians. The charge of anachronism too often serves as a tool for the suppression of gay history. The recognition of ‘people like us’ in the past consists not so much of projecting modern concepts into the past, as uncovering or recovering that past.
All fields of study benefit from the use of abstract categories that group things together for better understanding. ‘Homosexuality’ and ‘transgender’ make explicit a commonality that was understood in past times even if not named. Anne Lister seduced other women in the 1820s by sharing with them passages from Juvenal’s satires about men having sex together and acting like women, exploiting a shared awareness of a commonality between same-sex relations, and opposite-gender performances. The modern abbreviation LGBTQ underlines similarities as well as differences: surely it is better than a less anachronistic but more stigmatizing label such as the eighteenth-century term ‘unnaturalists’. I recognize individuals in the past who, long before the term ‘homosexual’ was coined, resembled drag queens, size queens, rough trade, tomboys, and butch dykes, and I think such terms can enhance our understanding of past behaviour and mentalities. People performed roles in the past just as they do in the present; sometimes we find it difficult to understand the roles, sometimes we see them with a flash of recognition, and a modern term can light the fuse of this revelation. If our academic role-playing precludes the use of modern and ‘popular’ terms, then our historical toolkit is all the poorer. The role of the historian is to throw a bridge of empathetic understanding across the chasm separating the past from the present. Fear of anachronism is a great impediment to building that bridge.
Sarah E. Watkins explored what the history of Rwandan bami and abatoni can teach us about historical terminologies and cultural contexts:
In my work on the politics of the Rwandan court, I write about the male lovers of the kings, or bami. Some bami had male lovers, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was position at court for an official ‘favourite’ of the mwami (king, sing.). This gave the mwami’s favourite a measure of power and prestige above other advisors because it signaled a special relationship. In most cases, this title went to a male lover of the mwami. These were called abatoni (umutoni, sing.). This doesn’t mean that it would be appropriate to call all of the mwami’s lovers abatoni. But this scenario provides an excellent example of approaching what western historians call ‘LGBTQ history’ within a context that is respectful of cultural and historical differences. That is, I describe the relationship as a relationship, not as an identity or a set of behaviours.
It would be ahistorical to talk about bami as ‘gay’. They would not have recognized themselves as such. They were, mostly, men who had sex with men (though not all of them did). They also had sex with women. But this sex happened within a broader context of relationships, kinship, ritual, coming-of-age, and a dynamic kingdom grappling with internal and external threats and conquest. The meaning of the umutoni changed over time, from the mwami’s most trusted advisor and lover, to a close advisor, to, now, a best friend.
This discussion of terminology brings up two concerns. The first is the divorcing of terminology from its history. How can we talk about ‘LGBTQ’ history outside of the contemporary world? This terminology is western to its core, both the words themselves and the cultural and social implications inherent within them. Yet today there are Africans who identify as ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’, ‘transgender’, or ‘queer’. So there are appropriate contexts for using these terms in African history. The second is a larger question about using sexuality as an organizing principle for historical study. How sex is understood by different societies in different time periods varies so widely that it is sometimes almost impossible to talk about it. The perception of desire and what we mean when we use the term ‘sex’ are so bound up in their particular circumstances that to bring them together under a single topic risks losing what makes them fascinating.
It is also vital for us to have these discussions. The consequences of the denial of African same-sex love, desire, and relationships is well known. The myth that such things have never existed in Africa and are the result of colonization and evil leads to atrocities every day. Claiming histories of same-sex relationships in Africa prior to colonization is a matter of survival for many LGBTQ Africans today.
So we face a daily conundrum. How can we write about the past in a way that the people who lived it would recognize themselves, while also remaining sensitive to the impact our writing can have today? There are no easy answers here.
This is a conversation that no doubt will continue as the present evolves and changes, and in turn, our modern terminology changes too. The questions raised about historical terminology are not just applicable to LGBTQ histories, but also to histories of sexuality more generally. Interrogating the past and questioning how it relates to the present are key roles of the historian, and a critical approach to terminology is central to this.
The distance between historical and contemporary terms for ‘LGBTQ’ can be limiting, in that they make finding such histories difficult, and some terms do not translate across time or contexts. As Jan Pimblett has explained, we must ‘truffle-hound’ the past in order to find LGBTQ histories. In turn, terms we use today to describe same-sex love might not be easily translated in the future.
However, each of the contributors have also shown that historical distance, strategic anachronism, and a critical approach to terminology can also be positive, and open up understandings of same-sex love and gender identity over time, space, and place. Perhaps there isn’t a solution to this; perhaps it isn’t even a ‘problem’. Rather, the complexities of both historical and contemporary terminologies provide us with opportunities to explore distance and resonance across different times and contexts. In turn, we can learn more not only about the historical past, but also about present understandings of ‘LGBTQ’.
Elena McGrath is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Wisconsin, whose research explores gender, race, and revolution in 20th century Bolivia.
Claire Hayward is a public historian, Further Education History Lecturer and researcher for Pride of Place. She recently completed her History PhD at Kingston University, with a thesis on LGBTQ public history. Her main research interests are the histories of gender and sexuality and public history, all of which she blogs about at exploring public histories. She tweets from @HaywardCL.
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