Being ambitious with LGBT history 

A couple of years ago I was taking a group of Year 12 students around the National Portrait Gallery when, unusually, I found myself lost for words. We had reached the 17th century gallery and I immediately made a beeline for my favourite portrait of the Duke of Buckingham. My audience was expectant and I was all ready to embark on my spiel, when I realised I wasn’t quite sure how to introduce him. The snappy, attention-grabbing thing to do would be to describe him as ‘James I’s boyfriend,’ but something made me shy away from that. The nagging inner voice that gave me pause was not one of the ingrained wariness that sadly still limits full discussion of LGBT history in many cases, but was something much harder to ignore. This was my inner historian saying ‘hang on a second, would the Duke of Buckingham, and James I for that matter, have understood their relationship in the way you want to describe it?’ 


As it stands, most teaching of LGBT history in the UK tends to be done during LGBT History Month. As with Black History Month, in an ideal world there would be better integration of these topics in the curriculum year-round, but with the continual pressure on curriculum time, it remains a valuable space for us to introduce stories that would otherwise not be explored. However, because of the limited time available and its separation out from the rest of the curriculum, a lot of the resources out there (many of which are very good) focus on securing representation by introducing key historical figures linked to the LGBT community. Additionally, because of some of the issues with interpreting the evidence left to us concerning pre-modern ideas of gender and sexuality and the constant danger of anachronism, most available resources focus on more recent developments in LGBT history. The danger of this is that it feeds into an idea that a sort of ‘Dark Ages’ prevailed before the turn of the 20th century; a belief that carries its own distortion of history. 

As I was planning the resources that we use for our History+ enrichment programme this year, I resolved to try and be a bit more ambitious. I decided to develop some resources that would allow me to include a broader swathe of the history of gender and sexuality in the UK , that would introduce some of the fascinating questions that historians working on the history of sexuality and gender grapple with and, most crucially, that would be as rigorous as the sources and resources I design for my students as part of their ordinary history lessons. 

The first key problem I wanted to address was the sense that the history of gender and sexuality is somehow set apart from the wider history curriculum, to be looked at once a year and then set aside. To approach them this way obscures the fact that ideas of gender and sexuality in the UK have had as rich and important a story of change and continuity as the religious beliefs, political structures and economic systems that are explored in the wider curriculum. It also ignores the fact that  in many cases these attitudes and beliefs have had as significant an impact on the lives of the people of the past as have the developments already mentioned. History teachers have done a lot of work complicating the narrative of progress that students expect when covering topics like the Civil Rights Movement in the US. I wanted to give students a similar insight into the complexities of change in attitudes to gender and sexuality. 

The obvious thing to do was to draw up a timeline, but I wanted to develop it further so that it showed the fluctuation in rates of persecution over time and the context in which it occurred. I therefore drew up my timeline around a central red line that became darker at points where persecution increased. However, as I did not want the story I was telling to solely be about persecution, I also wanted my timeline to reflect how attitudes to variations in sexuality and gender have been conceived differently over time. The reading I had done had revealed a complex web of attitudes which I had to try and simplify down so that they worked with the resource I had planned. Historians of gender and sexuality will no doubt wince at the generalisation, but I eventually came up with five concepts that broadly described attitudes to differences in sexuality and gender identity. These were respectively ‘sin’, ‘crime’, ‘community’, ‘pathology’ and  ‘identity’ and I used my timeline to indicate when these ideas emerged and how they ran alongside and sometimes replaced each other with different coloured lines on my timeline. My hope was that this resource would allow students to visualise change and continuity clearly and also to ask historically grounded questions about ‘why’ change did or did not occur, identifying key turning points, exploring why persecution was higher at some moments rather than others and why and how ideas about sexuality and gender were reformed and replaced 

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The Timeline

Another key debate in LGBT history is the question of terminology that tripped me up in the National Portrait Gallery, ‘how far can we use contemporary terms like ‘gay’ ‘lesbian’ and  ‘trans’ when talking about people from the past? The first thing to bear in mind is that most of the terms we use would be completely unfamiliar to people living even in the early decades of the 20th century. Even more importantly, the idea of an individual having a clearly defined sexual-orientation and ideas about the relationship between sex and gender that we take for granted are primarily products of the 19th and 20th centuries. Projecting this terminology and the ideas that underpin it onto people of the past may sometimes seem necessary for clarity, but in order to make the diversity, fluidity and unfamiliarity of how the people of the past thought and acted I wanted to develop some resources that would allow me to bring these questions to the fore. I therefore used the events I had included in my timeline to develop three concept maps, focusing on the medieval, the early modern and the period covering the 18th and 19th centuries, allowing students to dig into these periods in particular and centring the concept maps around some key questions that would allow students to explore the differences between the beliefs of each period and of their own. 

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An example of one of the concept maps – focusing on the Early Modern period

This represents little more than a starting point, but my hope is that I will be able to use some of these resources to make my teaching of the history of sexuality and gender as historically rigorous as my teaching of the history of the Reformation or of the Cold War; both during LGBT History Month but better still, throughout the rest of the year. 

As for the next time I visit the National Portrait Gallery with a group of students, I’m still going to take them straight to see the Duke of Buckingham, but we might have to linger a little while longer in front of it, while I explain that it’s all a bit more complicated and interesting than they might have imagined.

Links to the resources: 

es to gender and sexuality in the uk – a timeline

medieval attitudes to gender and sexuality

early modern attitudes to gender and sexuality

18th and 19th century attitudes to sexuality and gender

Further resources are available on my Google Drive

Suggested Reading (And Listening):

Peter Ackroyd – Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day 

Matt Houlbrook – Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 

Rebecca Jennings – Tomboys and Bachelor Girls: A Lesbian History of Post-War Britain 1945-71

Lilian Faderman – Surpassing The Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present 

Brian Lewis – British Queer History: New Approaches and Perspectives 

History Is Gay Podcast:

You’re Dead to Me – LGBTQ History with Greg Jenner, Dr Justin Bengry and Suzie Ruffell: