This blog post is written by Lauren Wells. Lauren is a postgraduate researcher in the school of History. Her thesis explores male to female cross-dressing in Yorkshire from the end of the nineteenth century until the eve of the Second World War.
To celebrate LGBTQ+ history month I organised a ‘Queer Histories’ event in collaboration with West Yorkshire Queer Stories, a Leeds based oral history project. Researchers came together to discuss sources, terminology, and methodologies for researching, writing, and collecting histories which tackle subjects outside of binary narratives of gender and sexuality. We covered topics from translating Ancient Roman words for men who engaged in same-sex sex, to multiple-gender attraction in 1980s Britain. The discussions that took place throughout the day circled back to the argument that LGBTQ+ history is not just about finding trans, bi-sexual, or non-binary individuals in the past but is also about challenging assumptions surrounding gender and sexuality and furthering knowledge of how gender and sexuality influenced everyday experiences.
Acknowledging that human experience is not easily categorised is one of the reasons researching LGBTQ+ histories is important, particularly when thinking about histories which move beyond binary models of gender and sexuality. By ‘queering’ the past we are able to highlight that individuals not only identified in a myriad of ways but also acknowledge the instability of binary identities. Our society has been conditioned to categorise individuals based on their gender identity and sexuality. ‘Queering’ the past challenges this. For example, through analysis of male to female cross-dressing, an act which is now considered to sit firmly within LGBTQ+ culture, I have uncovered a wide range of experiences. These have included stories of men who competed for the prize of ‘best female impersonator’ in local carnivals in a way that, rather than undermine their hetero-normative masculinity, could emphasise their conformity to hegemonic masculine ideals. Another example is the story of Clement Mitchell, who deserted the army and then lived, worked, and ‘went courting’ as a woman, his story is preserved only because he was arrested for fraud, theft, and desertion in 1909. These stories represent a diversity of experience for men who wore female coded clothing and although they could both be categorised as ‘men who cross-dressed’ this doesn’t mean their experiences are the same. This type of history challenges the fundamental idea of what it means to be a woman or a man and furthers knowledge of how those identities are formed at any given moment in time.
LGBTQ+ history does not only work to destabilise the normative constructions of gender on which our society has been built, but it can also help members of the LGBTQ+ community to feel seen and validated. For those who are cisgendered and heterosexual, the privilege of seeing themselves reflected constantly in popular culture, in educational materials, and in history is something which is not only taken for granted but often goes unchallenged. Although popular culture in Britain is slowly changing and queer identities are reflected in more spaces now than ever before, history is one of many spaces which can help validate and acknowledge LGBTQ+ experiences and identities, particularly those which do not fit into singular or binary categories.