Author: Chris Mowat (@)
This weekend, the LGBT History Project North East team put on a day of public talks at Newcastle Civic Centre (UK). There was a diverse range of presentation by both academics and non-academics on the history – as well as the present and the future – of LGBT+ and minority sexualities.
The Project makes its aims very clear from its tagline: “No longer edited, covered up or erased”. Gender and sexually diverse people have always been on the margins of history, passed over for a focus on the mainstream. This was particularly evident from Liz Rees’ discussion of Jennie Gray, born in Gateshead as Robert Coulthard in 1887. Through archive work, Rees was able to pull moments of Gray/Coulthard’s life, mostly newspapers talking of “his” arrest for “loitering in women’s clothing”. It is unfortunate, however, that it was only these moments of public “unmasking” that we are able to glimpse their life. Other talks took a more intimate nature, with people sharing their personal histories, and engagement with the LGBT+ community. You can find a storify of some of the live-tweets from the day here.
One thing that I am taking away from the event – beyond the knowledge directly shared – is the importance of validation. A few of the talks discussed representation and its importance for bringing understanding and acceptance for LGBT people (which, as keynote Lisa Power MBE put it, “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this sh*t”). But this is something that goes both ways, too: validation is something that makes us feel more confident in ourselves and who we are. It is perhaps easy to forget, when we are discussing the deep detail of whether Greek and Roman societies were “before sexuality” – and what that even means – that history and the classics can bring that validation. When an overview of bisexuality in history (briefly) mentioned that “even Achilles had a boyfriend”, the room was fascinated to hear an aspect of Homer’s poetry that is clearly less seen by the public eye. In academia, we can argue the precise status (and perhaps ambiguity) of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship, but we should not forget that that the very basis of that discussion can bring a sense of normalcy to someone who might otherwise feel alone, different or unaccepted by society.
The Classics can be brought to the public, at any level, to help them find themselves. That chance to see someone like yourself in the history books should not be underestimated. The LGBT+ community has come a long way in the past couple of decades, but now as much as ever its position of acceptance is precarious. History and the Classics can bring a strength to that community, another voice validating identities past and present: we’re here, we’re queer and we always have been.