What annoys the FUCK out of me about the ‘all historians are out there to erase queerness from history’ thing on Tumblr is that it’s just one of those many attitudes that flagrantly mischaracterises an entire academic field and has a complete amateur thinking they know more than people who’ve spent fucking years studying said field.
Like someone will offer a very obvious example of – say – two men writing each other passionate love letters, and then quip about how Historians will just try to say that affection was just different ‘back then’. Um…no. If one man writes to another about how he wants to give him 10 000 kisses and suck his cock, most historians – surprise surprise! – say it’s definitely romantic, sexual love. We aren’t Victorians anymore.
It also completely dismisses the fact of how many cases of possible queerness are much more ambiguous that two men writing to each other about banging merrily in a field. The boundaries of platonic affection are hugely variable depending on the time and place you’re looking at. What people mock us for saying is true. Nuance fucking exists in the world, unlike on this hellscape of a site.
It is a great discredit to the difficult work that historians do in interpreting the past to just assume we’re out there trying to straightwash the past. Queer historians exist. Open-minded allies exist.
I’m off to down a bottle of whisky and set something on fire.
It’s also vaguely problematic to ascribe our modern language
and ideas of sexuality to people living hundreds or even thousands of years
ago. Of course queer people existed then—don’t be fucking daft, literally any
researcher/historian/whatever worth their salt with acknowledge this. But as
noted above, there’s a lot of ambiguity as well—ESPECIALLY when dealing with a
translation of a translation of a copy of a damaged copy in some language that
isn’t spoken anymore. That being said, yes, queer erasure happens, and it
fucking sucks and hurts. I say that as a queer woman and a baby!researcher. But
this us (savvy internet historian) vs. them (dusty old actual historian)
mentality has got to stop.
You’re absolutely right.
I see the effect of applying modern labels to time periods when they didn’t have them come out in a bad way when people argue about whether some historical figure was transmasculine or a butch lesbian. There were some, of course, who were very obviously men and insisted on being treated as such, but with a lot of people…we just don’t know and we never will. The divide wasn’t so strong back in the late 19th century, for example. Heck, the word ‘transmasculine’ didn’t exist yet. There was a big ambiguous grey area about what AFAB people being masculine meant, identity-wise.
Some people today still have a foot in each camp. Identity is complicated, and that’s probably been the case since humans began to conceptualise sexuality and gender.
That’s why the word ‘queer’ is such a usefully broad and inclusive umbrella term for historians.
Also, one more thing and I will stop (sorry it’s just been so long since I’ve gotten to rant). Towards the beginning of last semester, I was translating “Wulf and Eadwacer” from Old English. This is a notoriously ambiguous poem, a p p a r e n t l y, and most of the other students and I were having a lot of trouble translating it because the nouns and their genders were all over the place (though this could be because my memory is slipping here) which made it hella difficult to figure out word order and syntax and (key) the fucking gender of everything. In class, though, my professor told us that the gender and identity of the speaker were actually the object of some debate in the Anglo-Saxonist community. For the most part, it was assumed that the principal speaker of the poem is a woman (there is one very clear female translation amongst all that ambiguity) mourning the exile of her lover/something along those lines. But there’s also some who say that she’s speaking of her child. And some people think the speaker of the poem is male and talking abut his lover. And finally, there’s some people who think that the speaker of the poem is a fucking BADGER, which is fucking wild and possibly my favorite interpretation in the history of interpretations.
TL;DR—If we can’t figure out beyond the shadow of a doubt whether the speaker is a human or a fucking badger, then we certainly can’t solidly say whether a speaker is queer or not. This isn’t narrowmindedness, this is fucking what-the-hell-is-this-language-and-culture (and also maybe most of the manuscripts are pretty fucked which further lessens knowledge and ergo certainty).
Also, if there’s nothing to debate, what’s even the fun in being an historian?
All of this.
I had a student once try to tell me that I was erasing queer history by claiming that a poem was ambiguous. I was trying to make the point that a poem was ambiguous and that for the time period we were working with, the identities of “queer” and “straight” weren’t so distinctive. Thus, it was possible that the poem was either about lovers or about friends because the language itself was in that grey area where the sentiment could be romantic or just an expression of affection that is different from how we display affection towards friends today.
And hoo boy. The student didn’t want to hear that.
It’s ok to admit ambiguity and nuance. Past sexualities aren’t the same as our modern ones, and our understanding of culture today can’t be transferred onto past cultures. It just doesn’t work. The past is essentially a foreign culture that doesn’t match up perfectly with current ones – even if we’re looking at familiar ones, like ancient or medieval Europe. That means our understanding of queerness also has to account for the passage of time. I think we need to ask “What did queerness look like in the past?” as opposed to “How did queerness as we understand it today exist in the past?” As long as we examine the past with an understanding that not all cultures thought same-sex romance/affection/sexual practice was sinful, we’re not being homophobic by admitting there can be nuance in a particular historical product.
I know a lot of very smart people who are working on queerness in medieval literature and history. And yes, there are traditions of scholars erasing queer history because they themselves are guided by their own ideologies. We all are. It’s impossible to be 100% objective about history and its interpretation. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t good work being done by current scholars, including work that corrects the bad methodologies of the past.
@lazarusquince for old english content
also yeah, the key thing that’s helped me as a student of history is learning that using language outside of modern labels shouldnt erase queerness, but should complicate it.
Jesus Christ all of this