Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer. (Part 4. Methods and Evidence.)

Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer

Theme 3 – Methods and Evidence 

One consequence of the marginalisation of the queer community and its history throughout much of the 20th century has been the development of historical methods that draw on distinctive sources of evidence. The pre-modern history of sexuality can be explored through a similar range of sources that might be consulted by social historians, such as pamphlets, trial records, literary sources, eyewitness accounts etc, with all of the strengths and weaknesses these sources of evidence possess. However, the marginalised and officially proscribed nature of some expressions of sexuality and gender identity can lead to specific questions such as whether the presence of a particular group in historical records means that they are emerging at this point, or that they are a pre-existing community that has suddenly been subjected to increased official persecution. 

As for the modern history of gender and sexuality, alongside other groups whose histories have been sidelined, many of the first historians of modern queer life operated in the context of their community rather than within formal institutions of historical study. The need to preserve this history has led to the development of substantial archives based on what might be described as ‘ephemera’, such as flyers, zines, articles of clothing and makeup which preserve aspects of the social, political and emotional lives of community members. Many of these archives have since been absorbed, at least in part, into established institutions of historical study, but their community origins have had a significant impact on what was preserved. 

The other consequence of the marginal nature of the writing of queer history has been the prominence given to oral history. This is also linked to the practice of consciousness-raising in activist circles from the 1970’s and the community context in which much of the writing of modern queer history was initially conducted, which lent itself to the trust and dialogue which allowed historians to successfully record personal accounts. Whilst it is not free of specific disciplinary problems that historians have to navigate, the use of oral history by queer historians of the modern era has ensured that a wide range of voices and perspectives have been preserved

How could this work in the classroom? 

As in the case of terminology, some of the distinctive disciplinary questions posed by the types of evidence queer historians use can present us with opportunities in the classroom. Interesting approaches linked to pre-modern evidence might include using them to try and partially reconstruct the attitudes and perceptions held by the people of a particular period. Sources such as trial records might also be fruitfully examined as negotiated texts, exploring how the different participants in the record view questions of gender and sexuality and whether those views clash or are resolved. 

The hugely diverse range of evidence used in modern queer history has significant potential for interesting history teaching. Enquiries focused on ephemera could include questions such as ‘what can a t-shirt tell us?’ This would not only help the students explore the particular part of modern queer history that was the subject of the enquiry, but would also expand their perceptions of what historical evidence can be. Likewise, including oral testimony into lessons could serve to introduce voices that the students might not otherwise hear, but could also lead to interesting discussions about what this kind of evidence might reveal and how it might be shaped by the joint participation of speaker and interviewer. 

What next? 

Hopefully the above has given you a rough framework of the discipline of queer history, an outline of some of the key themes it includes as well as a few ideas! The best next step, when considering how best to include it in your curriculum, is to engage with some of the scholarship linked to particular periods or questions. I am happy to give specific recommendations and I have put a list of the books I used to write this primer below. I also have begun to put some of the resources I have developed into a folder on my google drive, which you can download, adapt or critique as the inclination takes you, and the link is below.



Barker and Scheele, Queer, A Graphic History (Icon Books, 2016) 

Beachy, Robert,  Gay Berlin, Birthplace of a Modern Identity (Vintage Books, 2014) 

Beccalossi and Crozier ed. A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Age of Empire (Bloomsbury, 2014)

Choma, Anne, Gentleman Jack, The Real Anne Lister (BBC Books, 2019)

Peakman ed. A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Enlightenment (Bloomsbury, 2015)

Symonds, J.A. A Problem in Greek Ethics (Project Gutenberg, 2010) 

Weeks, Jeffrey What is Sexual History? (Polity Press, 2016).

A fully referenced copy of this post is available in the folder below.



Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer. (Part 3. Terminology.)

Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer

Theme 2 – Terminology 

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw, in modern Europe at least, the emergence of the idea that someone could have a ‘sexual identity’; from this came an eruption of new terms, some invented by the sexologists and social scientists investigating sexuality and some from the communities they studied. Many of these terms, such as homosexual, heterosexual, gay, lesbian, transgender are ones we still use today. Others, such as ‘urnings’ and the ‘third sex’ have fallen out of use along with the concepts they sought to express. 

This illustrates one of the problems with describing the queer past, the language we use (and the ideas that are smuggled within it) emerged out of a particular historical moment. It is not language that many of the people of the past would have understood or used to describe themselves. This becomes more serious when we consider that language often expresses and indeed shapes experience, imposing our terminology wholesale on the past therefore is likely to result in a distorted understanding of how sexuality actually operated. 

How then can we talk about gender and sexuality in the past? While on occasion the evidence may supply historically specific terms that the people in the past used themselves such as ‘mollies’, more frequently terms are imposed upon the people of the past by hostile observers or no specific terminology is available at all. In many cases too strict an avoidance of using modern terminology can lead to the distortions that emerge from a lack of clarity. A good example of this is provided by the case of the efforts to commemorate the life of Anne Lister. 

In 2018 the York Civic Trust unveiled a plaque honouring her at Holy Trinity Church in York, however the wording of the plaque, which described Lister as a  ‘gender-nonconforming entrepreneur,’ quickly provoked controversy.  It was felt that, in their desire to avoid using the term ‘lesbian,’ which Lister herself had never adopted, the Trust had in fact erased the multiple sexual and romantic relationships with women that were a key part of Lister’s experience and self-perception. The challenge then is to walk the tightrope between using modern terminology that forces us into inaccurate descriptions of sexuality in the past, and not being able to meaningfully describe it at all. 

How could this work in the classroom? 

The question of terminology might initially appear to represent yet another barrier to discussion in the classroom, however, if dealt with directly, it can instead act as a route through the labyrinth. 

If possible, the people of the past should be described in terms that they would have used and understood, however, these terms may not be available and even if they are, may be completely obscure to students. 

In these cases, I tend to employ modern terminology with caveats. This involves making it clear to students that while we might describe this person or community in a particular way today, this would not have been language that the people of the time would have used and indeed, using it might prevent us from fully understanding their experience. This approach resolves the issue of starting off with language that might alienate the students, but it leaves the door open for the use of evidence that demonstrates ways in which the experience of people from a particular period was more complex than we might expect and for discussions to be had about how we might best describe their lives. 

While avoiding both anachronism and incoherence, using modern terminology strategically, but making its limitations clear can also offer opportunities. The question of how the language we use shapes our view of the past is one that has relevance across the subject, but which can seem forbiddingly abstract or complicated to discuss with students. Opening up a discussion about what terms we use, their strengths and their limitations in relation to queer history can therefore be a useful way of accessing this historical debate in a manageable way.

The next post in this series, on methods and evidence: https://freshalarums.wordpress.com/?p=302

A fully referenced copy of this post can be found in the folder below.


Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer. (Part 2. Sex, gender and sexuality as historical categories.)

Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer

Theme 1 – Sex, gender and sexuality as historical categories 

The idea of sex, gender and sexuality as concepts that are shaped by the societies in which they operate, and which therefore can be altered as societies change over time is one that can have a big impact on how you approach teaching these topics. Its consequences should lead you to be wary of taking certain approaches, but can also bring opportunities. 

Taking concepts like sex, gender and sexuality as historically changeable does make the approach of focusing on ‘great men’ (and some women) of queer history less meaningful. This is something that has caused controversy within the academic field. Early historians of homosexuality and activists for gay rights pointed to figures from the past who they identified as homosexual such as Alexander the Great and Frederick the Great to counter negative stereotypes about (primarily male) homosexuality. Similarly activists in the 1950’s and 60’s also sought to ‘reclaim’ figures from the past in order to counter reactionary historical narratives of the growing acceptance of homosexuality as symptomatic of the West’s social and moral decline. This approach was challenged from the 1970’s onwards on the grounds that social context was crucial in understanding sexuality and gender identity throughout time. Therefore a figure like Alexander the Great and one like Oscar Wilde, for example,  were living in societies that were so different that attempting to present their sexuality and gender identity as essentially the same was at best meaningless and at worst actively anachronistic. This has created a tension within the academic field between the necessity for a ‘usable’ past and the need to avoid anachronisms that will filter down into the classroom; as a general rule however, it does mean that care should be taken when discussing individuals living in very different societies or historical periods. 

Nevertheless, approaching sex, gender and sexuality as social categories that can change over time does allow for the possibility of studying the distinctive nature of how they operated within particular historical periods and for investigating why and how they changed. Historians like Carolyn Dinshaw have therefore engaged in research on contexts like the medieval world, exploring the complex set of codes and beliefs that governed expressions of sexuality and gender identity across different communities in ways that are far removed from modern preconceptions. Others have focused on periods of rupture and change, examining phenomena like the emergence of communities of homosexual and/or gender non-conforming people in London or other European cities in the 17th and 18th centuries. Here the focus has been on trying to uncover how the individuals involved saw themselves, but also on whether anything like a ‘modern’ understanding of homosexuality had emerged.  Notions that sex, gender and sexuality are changeable not only across time but also across cultures and geographical regions, alongside the adoption of postcolonial approaches, has also had a significant impact on current research. This has led to attempts to understand the role colonisation has played in shaping notions of sexuality and gender identity both in imperial centres and colonised regions and to study the history of gender and sexuality of different societies on their own terms. 

How could this work in the classroom? 

The first consequence for teaching queer history in the classroom relates to historical figures. They should be placed clearly within their context, which means that broad overviews of queer history that focus on timelines of key individuals should probably be avoided. This does not mean that rigorous and meaningful enquires can’t be developed with particular individuals at their heart, nor that people from different historical contexts can never be used to illustrate change over time, however it is crucial that things like differences in the way that people described and presented themselves, acted, the language they used and the ideas they invoked receive close attention. 

One of the chief opportunities that emerges from exploring sex, gender and sexuality as concepts, subject to change across time, is the prospect of exploring why and how these changes occurred. Enquiries tracking change and continuity across long periods of time, exploring how different models for understanding gender and sexuality influenced by religious beliefs, state intervention, the growth of communities, medical perspectives and the emergence of identities and political activism could be highly illuminating; similarly ones focusing on differing rates of persecution and acceptance. More focused enquiries on particular turning points such as the criminalisation and decriminalisation of homosexuality, the growth of communities in urban settings, the impact of medical developments, political conflicts and key legal changes all have significant potential. 

Likewise, exploring the distinctive ways in which sex, gender and sexuality were expressed in particular historical periods also opens up opportunities for enquiries focused around similarity and difference and historical evidence that could build up a richer and more nuanced picture of societies in the past. Focusing on evidence in particular could also raise questions of interpretation, opening up discussions about the challenges presented by historical evidence that was produced by individuals with very different ways of seeing the world to ours. 

The tension between avoiding contorting the people of the past to fit modern expectations of sex, gender and sexuality and not going so far in the other direction that it is impossible to talk about this topic at all can be resolved in part with careful planning. Another useful method for resolving this tension is to make some of the key disciplinary questions a focus within your lessons. One of the easiest ways of doing this is by highlighting the terminology you use. 

The next post in this series, on terminology – https://freshalarums.wordpress.com/?p=295

A fully referenced copy of this post is available in the folder below.


Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer. (Part 1. The Shape of the Discipline.)

Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer 

Part 1 – The Shape of the Discipline. 

Sometimes, as a history teacher, you get lucky; realising that you want or need to include a particular historical subject in your curriculum, a quick google or consultation of the edutwitter grapevine yields rapid results. Into your lap falls a silver-bullet of a book, containing just the kind of material you’re looking for stitched into an exciting interpretation that you know the students can really get their teeth into. The enquiry takes shape in your mind’s eye before you’ve turned the final page. Sometimes however, your life is not going to be made quite that easy sometimes, there is no one miracle book. Or, if there is, while reading it you are struck with the nagging sensation that this is just one window into a complex disciplinary world, and in order to do justice to it, you must open more. 

This has been my experience when thinking about how to include queer history in my curriculum. Not only does the discipline contain a dizzying array of scholarship covering multiple time periods and locations, which is written with varying levels of accessibility, it has also been shaped by distinctive theoretical debates and by its own dramatic history as a field of study. When I have been asked therefore, about how to approach including queer history as a whole, or particular topics within it into a secondary history curriculum, my response has often resembled a lengthy reading list. 

This may have had its uses, but I am conscious that it’s not always the most helpful response considering the time-pressures we are all under. I am equally conscious that the topic-specific works that I have encountered and use might refer to particular questions, theories or debates that shape queer history, but do not always fully explain them to the uninitiated. I therefore set myself the task of condensing some of the things I have read into something like a primer, aimed at other history teachers. This  would set out a short history of the discipline and outline some of the key themes that emerged from that history that might have to be navigated when teaching this subject. Below is my attempt at doing so. It is not by any means a complete account, but I hope it might serve as a first stepping stone for those of you who have started thinking about queer history and how you might include it. 

A Very Brief History of Queer History: 

One of the key tools someone writing the history of a phenomenon needs is the language necessary to describe it. The modern language of gender and sexuality can be broadly said to date from the late 19th to the early 20th century; a development that allowed the first steps to be taken in exploring its history. 

Key individuals involved in this movement such as Krafft-Ebing, Karl Ulrichs, Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld would have primarily described themselves as ‘sexologists,’ participants in a field that sought to combine scientific and social enquiry into the topic of sexuality. However, as part of their work writers like Ellis and John Addington Symonds began to look to the past to find examples that they thought resembled the individuals and groups they were studying, or began to record the histories of the communities they were engaged with; in the case of Magnus Hirschfeld, compiling extensive archives in the process. These individuals however, were not operating with the working methods or aims with which a contemporary historian might approach this material. By and large these men thought that they were uncovering a ‘natural’ phenomenon that was rooted in human biology. As such, it was assumed that the categories of sexuality and gender that these writers developed out of the evidence in front of them might be subject to some historical change in their expression (the most historically aware writers like Symonds did emphasise the difference between their society and societies that they saw as having more accommodating or even celebratory attitudes towards certain forms of male homosexuality, especially Classical Greece), but in their essential characteristics they remained the same. Being homosexual in late Victorian Britain or in Weimar Berlin was therefore broadly the same as being homosexual in Renaissance Italy or Medieval England. 

They had their reasons for thinking this way, while these ideas still operated within a binary sense of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ expressions of sexuality, ideas of the ‘naturalness’ of homosexuality and variations in gender identity and a sense that these phenomena had existed throughout human history could also act as powerful weapons in the hands of activists. These could be deployed against the prevailing narratives of Church, State and medical establishment that homosexuality and variations in gender identity were unnatural perversions of normal, healthy human behaviour that had to be suppressed or cured. However, the presumption that variations in sexuality and gender identity were fixed natural phenomena also had the potential to turn any attempts to write a history of them into a dead end.

Increasingly savage persecution across Europe and in the United States put paid to most attempts to study gender and sexuality there during the early decades of the 20th century. It was only following the end of the Second World War that the situation improved enough for western scholars to look at the history of gender and sexuality anew. Yet new philosophies, social theories and historical methods had emerged in the meantime, and these made the perspectives of the historians returning to the history of gender and sexuality very different to those of the pioneering theorists of the late 19th and early 20th century. 

The first influence came via ‘history from below’. Interest in the histories of groups that had been neglected by a narrow focus on politics and social elites grew. This, combined with a new focus on the history of social structures and daily life meant that it was increasingly acceptable to conduct research into the experiences of ‘marginalised’ communities in the past, of which sexual minorities formed a part. Alongside this development within institutional historical study, people involved in the increasingly active movements for gay and trans rights in the 1960’s and 70’s began to record the histories of their communities as a way of preserving their past and asserting their identities and dignity, in the face of widespread indifference and hostility. The resources these groups would collect and the work they undertook would eventually go on to inform ‘formal’ historical research. 

The second influence was the emergence of social constructionism. Sociologists and sexologists began to reject the idea that gender and sexuality are ‘natural’ categories and are therefore broadly similar across human societies and throughout time. Instead, they argued that gender and sexuality were primarily shaped by their social context and that they could therefore vary hugely. This lit a fire under the study of the history of gender and sexuality as it opened up the possibility of exploring variations in how they were experienced and expressed within particular eras and also how they were subject to historical change.

As the conditions for conducting research on the history of gender and sexuality became more favourable, the theories underlying it and debates within the field became more sophisticated. Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s controversy raged over whether gender and sexuality should be seen in natural ‘essentialist’ terms or as entirely socially constructed. From the 1990’s however, historians influenced by queer activism that rejected attempts to ‘assimilate’ into heterosexual norms and by poststructuralist theories, added new perspectives. ‘Queer studies’ or ‘queer history’ put the divisions that had organised much of the research that had gone before such as ‘natural’ and ‘social’, ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ and ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ under the microscope. The result was not only a sharp rise in the use of scare-quotes, but also a sense that ‘mainstream’ gender identities and sexualities could be objects of study as much as those that deviated from them, and an increasing focus on historical questions such as where the idea of binary gender and sexual identities had come from. Historians have also increasingly taken for granted the possibility of individuals and groups having multiple identities and have explored sex, gender and sexuality as social phenomena that are performed in different ways in different contexts. 

These trends have continued into research being conducted today, which has also borrowed heavily from intersectional theory, studying how sex, gender and sexuality sit alongside other categories like race and class. Postcolonial approaches have also been deployed more frequently, studying how gender and sexuality have been experienced across the world, but also how European colonialism and globalisation have affected this. 

What does this mean for my classroom? 

The history of queer history has led to the development of a complicated discipline, however these complications also bring opportunities. In the next three posts, I am going to outline three broad themes that emerge from, and shape this discipline and explore how you could navigate them in in your classroom.

Thanks very much to Dr Emily Rutherford for lending her expertise in response to several of my questions while writing this post, her help in clarifying several key points was hugely appreciated.

The next post in this series on sex, gender and sexuality as historical categories https://freshalarums.wordpress.com/?p=288

A fully referenced copy of this post can be found in the folder below: