Labeling the Past: Historians and the Assignment of LGBT+ Identities

Author’s Note: Some of the terminology used in this post may be unfamiliar to you; please refer to the short glossary included below for a few definitions.

So you know that thing that people sometimes do when writing about history where they kind of make a little game out of trying to guess whether certain historical figures were straight or not?

Yeah… I’m gonna need us all to cut that the heck out. Stop tittering over Alexander Hamilton’s letters, stop rummaging through Abraham Lincoln’s autobiographies, stop rifling through the lives of historical actors.

“But,” I hear some of you social justice-savvy folks already crying in outrage, “what about combating erasure?” What about returning agency to the countless individuals who have had their identities carelessly and senselessly painted with the omnipresent brush of heteronormativity? What of our work as advocates of the now-voiceless? To you, I say this: this post is not directed at you. My beef is not with responsible writers of LGBT+ history who have faithfully combed through the writings of so many straight-washed figures who, in their own time and in their own words, asserted their non-straightness in order to remember such figures for who they were. Your work will always be vital and commendable. Instead, I address this piece to those who, unencumbered with any concrete evidence from the historical figure in question, insist nonetheless on playing a thoughtless game of “Spot the Gay” with the past. My frustration with this practice is twofold: it is both irresponsible scholarship and disrespectful. Let’s tackle each problem in turn.

Is this rainbow an allegory for the promise of peace after a storm…or a hidden clue pointing to a secret gay identity? The Peacemakers (1868), via Wikimedia Commons.

Irresponsible

Well-intentioned scholars seeking to highlight the silent legion of forgotten and ignored LGBT+ individuals throughout human history can stumble into the briar patch of confirmation bias, cherry-picking, and hasty generalizations. Writers less-nobly inspired may simply be looking to add a layer of scandal or intrigue to a piece teetering on spindly academic legs  and possessing little analytical substance. For a few despicable souls, labeling a famous (or infamous) historical figure gay, a lesbian, or bisexual can stem from a wish to denigrate their character through attachment to what is believed by the writer to be a shameful orientation. Whether motivated by a search for representation or crass shock value, the choice to draw hasty conclusions based on minimal evidence is indicative of poor scholarship.


Disrespectful

Guessing a historical figure’s sexuality when they themselves have not defined it in their surviving writings is not only unreliable; it is also disrespectful. Imagine if you had to guess whether Mohandas Gandhi would have been more of a Star Trek or a Star Wars person. It’s virtually impossible to do with any kind of authority, right? Sure, we can dig through what remains of his writings and the words of those close to him for clues as to the kind of stories he preferred to read or listen to. We can look for vaguely-analogous decisions he may have made when consuming literature. We can even attempt to wager a guess based on broad storytelling trends of the culture in which he existed. But at the end of the day, no scholar can conclusively argue what his choice would be. Now imagine being so flippant as to make such a guessing game out of a person’s sexual orientation. Ultimately, the only acceptable evidence of a person’s sexuality is their own written or spoken understanding and identification of it, and so historians must refrain from affixing labels of sexuality to those who are powerless to object.

 

Ultimately what this discussion comes down to is this: to guess sexuality is to demean the very agency of the person you are studying. We must never trivialize or take lightly the personhood of those who came before us, just as we must not do so with those around us today. In what will most likely become a common theme on this blog, we can only hope to deal with what sources exist; to study each historical actor in their own words, in the context of their own time. Anything further is an insertion of ourselves into the material, and I hope that my thoughts here have exposed such irresponsibility for further consideration.

 

Glossary:

Heterosexual: attracted romantically and/or sexually only to those of the opposite binary gender as oneself (men to women, women to men)

Heteronormativity: the societal normalization of heterosexuality and the accompanying othering of all other romantic and sexual orientations

Bisexual: attracted romantically and/or sexually to two or more genders, which may include one’s own gender

Gender: the self-defined masculinity, femininity, or non-binary (neither male nor female) identity of a person; this identity is not synonymous with biological sex

LGBT+: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender +; a community of non-cishet (non-cisgendered, i.e. not aligned with the gender assigned at birth, and/or non-heterosexual) persons based in common experiences and struggles

Erasure: the conscious or subconscious effort to overlook or deny the existence of a group of people

4 thoughts on “Labeling the Past: Historians and the Assignment of LGBT+ Identities

  1. Thank you, for pointing this out and for clarifying your position. I don’t want to say that historical digging should be left to the professionals (what qualifies a professional?) but certainly more care needs to be taken when deliberately investigating these matters to take historical context into consideration. Conformation bias, as you rightly pointed out, is a huge issue with this and when combined with ignorance, willful or otherwise, of historical practices, customs, and phraseology, the results are unfortunate.
    The painting you included with this post is a perfect example, the rainbow became a gay symbol with the creation of the rainbow flag for the first pride march in 1970 whereas in 1868, when the painting was completed, the biblical symbolism of a promise of peace would have been immediately obvious. With this in mind the question of any subtle gay symbolism becomes utterly incredible.
    I think another part of the problem is that some of the people who go ‘looking for’ LGBT+ historical figures are themselves a member of the LGBT+ community looking for someone they can identify with to feel more connected with history. While this is certainly a sympathetic cause it can quickly lead to cherry-picking and conformation bias, again as you quite correctly pointed out. Of course, this problem can go in the other direction with a large number of researchers being cishet men who can have a tendency to be quick to draw historical parallels to their own experiences thereby, whether inadvertently or not, leading to erasure.
    I believe there was an instance in the matter of Viking burial remains in which the existence of female Viking warriors was completely overlooked due to the fact that the excavators saw skeletons buried with full battle gear and assumed male without bothering to examine the remains. Of course this has nothing to do with sexual orientation, but there are undoubtedly many similar cases of examinations of love letters between two men which were dismissed as ‘brotherly affection’.

    1. Your point about LGBT+ community members seeking representative reflections of themselves in history is a cogent one, Riley, and one that also came to mind for me when brainstorming this post. It is certainly a complicated issue; although we can hardly blame members of such a marginalized group for being overly eager in their search for representation, they nonetheless must be held methodologically accountable.

      1. Of course! And I feel that as society becomes more accepting of the LGBT+ community there will be more researchers and historians from that community who will be able to conduct in-depth research to come to more accurate or well-informed conclusions. Also the tendency to slap labels on people for “shock value” will hopefully wane.
        As a tangent, if I may play devil’s advocate, you mentioned labeling people according to “their own words”. What should be done about people whose personal papers don’t survive? Or who never wrote anything about their sexuality for fear or discovery? Could an assertion ever be made in those instances or would it always be a theory? (I recognize this is a complex issue and I am nitpicking, but I am interested in your thoughts.)

        1. I definitely agree with your prediction that as society becomes more LGBT-inclusive, scholarship on LGBT+ issues will develop and mature. To respond to your “devil’s advocate” query: if there are no known and usable primary documents of historical figures in which they explore their sexuality in their own words, then our analysis of their sexualities can only ever be theories. There are no definitive “clues” of not-straightness that may be relied on; such assumptions are based solely on (often homophobic/lesbophobic/biphobic) stereotypes. Even if we can find primary documents by an individual’s contemporaries that guess at their sexuality, these sources can only be discussed as hearsay.

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