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Random Thursday: Who Owns History?

I’ve probably written on this topic before, but it’s one that’s very much at the heart of much of my historic research (and historical fiction), and one where I’ve watched a lot of evolution of approach in academia over the decades.

One of the strongest preoccupations driving the early beginnings of LGBTQ history--actually, let’s be bluntly honest and call it “gay and lesbian history” at those early beginnings--was the identification of historic figures who could be “claimed for the team.” The building of team rosters, as it were. Given an awareness of the strong forces of heteronormativity in most historic cultures, and of how evidence for non-normative sexuality tended to be left unrecorded, suppressed when discovered, discounted, and all the other techniques of erasure, there was a tendency to take any scrap of evidence for same-sex desire and to count it as overriding the rest of a historic figure’s life story.

On an emotional level, the impulse was understandable. After so long of being told that we were historic aberrations, that we had no history--in the face of even researchers of gay and lesbian history assuring us that sexuality was entirely a cultural construct and that our own identities had no meaning outside our own little window of space-time--there was a fierce...let us say, “pride” in reaching back into the ages and staking a claim: “this person was one of us, we are like them, they were like us.”

But a big problem with the metaphor of ownership is that it’s grounded in the framework of tangible, physical control and co-location. If I own an object, no one else can own it. In the realm of “owning” historic figures, this metaphor leads to the notion that if one is going to claim a person in the past as gay or lesbian, then they cannot be anything else. They cannot belong to anyone else. And if they do belong to another group, then they have been taken away from us--stolen, in the language of physical possession.

The other side of the “ownership of history” problem is the ways in which the pool of potential “owners” shifts over time with shifting understandings of intersectional identity (and even--to the extent that social constructionism is valid--shifts in the existence and nature of identity-categories). Thus, in the initial exuberance of the “owning gay and lesbian history” movement, next to no consideration was given to questions of bisexuality or to gender identities rooted in something other than physiology or to differences in the experience and expression of desire. In part, this was because there were a lot of conversations around those topics that simply hadn’t evolved sufficiently yet. In part, it was due to the relative(!) social power of gay and lesbian academics compared to those studying bisexual or trans topics. In part, it was a realization (conscious or not) of the necessary power of extremes: that certain progress of historic understanding could not be made without the shock value of statements like “Leonardo da Vinci was gay and Queen Christina of Sweden was lesbian” as opposed to presenting a more nuanced (and more accurate) but less controversial position.

I came back to contemplating this topic earlier this week when author Cheryl Morgan brought my attention on twitter to an article she had written considering Radclyffe Hall (and her semi-autobiographical character Stephen Gordon in The Well of Loneliness) as a trans man rather than as a butch lesbian. I touched more briefly on this consideration in my commentary on Esther Newton’s 1984 article about Hall and her best-known character.

How then, as a lesbian and a lesbian historian, is one to react emotionally to the hypothesis that the author of what is probably the most iconic early novel of lesbian identity might equally (or more?) validly be understood as a trans man? I say “emotionally” very deliberately. From an academic point of view, data is data and analysis is analysis. But emotionally? That’s something different. That depends on how one constructs historic similarity and category membership.

This emotional question has haunted the relationship between lesbian and transmasculine identities literally for thousands of years. At the very least, since Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe presented the only possible and imaginable resolution (much less the only happy one) to being an assigned-female-at-birth person in love with a woman was to identify as--and physically transform into--a man. In researching lesbian-like themes in pre-modern history, one of the emotional frustrations for me is this recurring trope: that to love a woman inherently means that one must be a man. It wasn’t the only pre-modern understanding of same-sex desire, but it was certainly the one most prevalent in literature. (This is a topic I keep meaning to come back to in more depth, but it's rather fraught and I don't think I'm ready yet.)

To claim those literary characters and their real-life counterparts (such as Eleno de Cispedes or Catherina Linck) as “lesbian” under the metaphor of historical ownership is to deny the very obvious transgender interpretation and to “steal” them from transgender ownership. But to categorize every literary character who received a magical/divine sex change in order to facilitate their Happily Ever After with a woman, to categorize every “passing woman” or “female husband” or “mannish Amazon” as a trans man (or as being significantly toward the transmasculine end of a gender continuum) is to ignore the immense pressure of cultural models, historic misygyny, and the erasure of less visibly transgressive persons from our understanding of history.

This is where I keep circling back to my thesis that the underlying issue in these emotional conflicts is not that of identifying the precisely correct category membership of historic persons and characters, but of abandoning the idea of “historic ownership” based on categorical assignment. I remain quite skeptical about the idea that the internal experience of gender and sexuality is socially constructed, but I’m quite happy to embrace the notion that the categories we use to organize and label those experiences are entirely organized via the larger and ever-shifting cultural conversation. In my own lifetime, I’ve seen massive changes in the organization and understanding of categories and category membership on the lesbian end of the scale. How then could I assume that the categories understood and used by people in previous centuries would correspond sufficiently to the ones we use today such that we could argue over ownership?

It is too simplistic to say that we should abandon the idea of “owning” history entirely. To do so runs too great a risk of a de facto “ownership” by the most powerful and privileged cultural forces--the ones most able to take over the conversation and talk over the other voices. One only needs to look at the histories of non-dominant cultures and peoples in an ethnic/racial context to see the danger in that direction. But I think it’s important not to see “historic ownership” as a zero-sum game. Radclyffe Hall can be an icon for both lesbians and transmen. Iphis and Ianthe can be a mythic narrative for both. The early modern cultural model of “passing women / female husbands” provided a conceptual space for both lesbians and trans men to negotiate their way through a hostile society. History is not a ball that only one person can play with at a time.

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