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Bringing to light queer people in history



I've always loved history. As a child I would spend weekends at the local historical society with my sister. My favourite bit, the thrill I lived for (and still do), was when I would come across something that would remind me that these historical people were as human as any I know now.

Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman JackWhen I saw the trailer for the HBO/BBC One historical drama series Gentleman Jack on Twitter I retweeted it with the comment, 'is HBO reading my dream diary?' Gentleman Jack is based on the real life diaries of Anne Lister, sometimes described as the 'first modern lesbian', who was a landowner in the 19th century.

I could barely believe it was going to exist. A whole TV show based on a historical queer woman and her relationships. There are so few that I know of I could probably list them offhand.

As soon as the pilot came out I was on the couch watching it. There was something so soothing about watching a woman in period dress be so canonically queer on screen that I just sank into it, even when the tone of the show itself felt a little weird.

Near the end of the pilot Anne (played by Suranne Jones) declares she will 'endeavour to make wealthy little Miss Walker ... my wife'. It's a moment that is slightly off-putting for its mercenary reasons (Anne is going after this love interest partly because of her money), but also triumphant in how sure Anne is of her own identity, even as the people around her are pressuring her to change. Gentleman Jack doesn't shy away from the fact that Anne is far from a perfect person, but she's so queer and real it's hard not to feel a little validated watching it.

Growing up, I didn't get know about many women who are like me or Anne. While in the past few decades there has been a push to uncover the hidden histories of LGBTQ+ people, often these histories languish in niche sections of bookshops and libraries.

And more broadly, historical figures who had ambiguous sexual identities are often classified as straight until 'proven' queer, though this burden of proof discounts how historians in the past have dismissed their subject's queerness and how family members or LGBTQ+ people themselves would destroy evidence like diaries and letters. Lister's diary most likely survived because it was written partly in code.


"These stories are valuable and shouldn't be limited to a field of specialised knowledge that you have to research to uncover."


Even when established historical queer figures get their own biopics, their queerness and queer relationships are often straightwashed, and often cisgender straight people are put at the centre of the narrative.

Consider the infamous case of The Imitation Game, which supposedly portrays the life of gay computer scientist Alan Turing but focuses solely on his friendship with cryptanalist Joan Clarke. Or Bohemian Rhapsody, which handles the sexuality of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury so clumsily that in terms of representation it's basically a Pyrrhic victory.

While queer fictional characters can make up some of this gap, historical narratives are important too. When I was in year seven, I researched the early 20th century blues singer Ma Rainey for a school project. As I listened to her music and read about her life, I felt a strange connection to her that I couldn't quite explain. A few years ago, I learnt that she was bisexual — a fact that was omitted from the resources I had access to back then. I can't help but wonder what it would've been like to recognise that connection for what it was a bit sooner.  

I know a lot about queer historical figures now because I've actively searched for them. It's both ridiculous and a little sad that it's only when I went to university that I discovered that Leonardo da Vinci was gay, or that I learned the stories of people like Julie d'Aubigny, Sylvia Rivera, Tallulah Bankhead or Audre Lorde.

These stories are valuable and shouldn't be limited to a field of specialised knowledge that you have to research to uncover. Hopefully we will see more mainstream media that delves into the diverse stories of people who existed in the real world, because we all deserve to get that thrill of seeing ourselves in history.



Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

Main image: Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, representation, Anne Lister, LGBTIQ, Alan Turing



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Existing comments

Why focus on homosexual people? Why not just focus on people?

Linda Behan | 08 June 2019  

Neve, arent you putting the cart before the horse?Couldnt you concentrate on the creative narrative rather than continually pushing the "queer" slant? As for Bohemian Rhapsody, if it was so clumsily dealt with then why did it win an Oscar and a Golden Globe? The answer is that the portrayal of bisexual orientation and subsequent weaknesses/addictions were incidental to the music, the writing and the concert spectacle. It was the creativity of Freddie and Queen and the actors performances that created the ultimate magic of the film.

Francis Armstrong | 10 June 2019  

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