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.



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