Sexing the Past What is and How to Do LGBT History

Just too many labels?

As you may know February marks LGBT History Month with various hubs and events being set up around the country including Manchester, Liverpool and Brighton amongst others. Similarly, the beginning of March marks an annual conference in conjunction with Schools Out called Sexing the Past. Each year has a theme and as this year marks the 50th Anniversary of The Sexual Offences Act it seemed only proper to have this as the theme. Although the conference is a baby in terms of the larger circle of conferences, with this being only the 3rd event, it has drummed up some amazing support with great speakers including Professor Stephen Whittle, Professor Susan Stryker and this year’s speaker Diana Souhami.


My collection of badges from Conference!


Friday marked the official opening with the 3rd Allan Horsfall Lecture that was led by Diana Souhami who writes biographies of past women with a colourful and varied LGBT life.  Some of her biographies include Gluck: Her Biography, The Trials of Radclyffe Hall and Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter.

I was lucky to be Diana’s escort for the evening and we spent some time discussing her work and my research. Her talk was entitled, ‘Gluck, “no prefix, suffix, or quotes”, and Other Notable Lesbians’, it was with this title we were discussing the difficulties with labels and identities today and if or how we should implement them onto individuals. We concluded that there are too many labels today to be able to apply to every individual past. Manly because they lacked the awareness and linguistics to actually facilitate such labels. For instance, Radclyffe Hall called their self an ‘invert’, today many would (and do) suggest they were a lesbian. Now, if we flip periodisation and time and I was called an ‘invert’ instead of lesbian I think I would be offended, therefore we have to contextualise individuals and try to refer to them as how they referred to themselves.


Radclyffe Hall with lover Una Troubridge, 1927



With this discussion, several papers and subsequent discussions at the conference this weekend really focussed on the importance of labels and self-identity. A particularly brilliant discussion was with Kit Heyam, Jonah Coman, Blake Gutt and Cheryl Morgan in the session ‘Historicising Trans*’ which was fashioned when the speaker was unable to attend. One of the comments regarded that some history may not be seen as explicitly trans* but there can be a strand of it that engages with potential trans* identity. Just because it hasn’t been read in that way or a trans* reading is a bit out the box doesn’t mean that it cannot or should not be read in that way. I think the word cannot is particularly important in that ‘cannot’ suggests it’s possible to be done, but largely will not follow that route. However, when you engage with a reading of a queer individual trans* can be a plausible route.

A brilliant example from Blake was focussed in his research on Medieval French Literature where a King from a unknown land was seen to be giving birth and his wife was out in battle. Surprisingly, the heteronormative idealist who found the King and beat him for giving birth was the correct and heroic attempt. And not the possibility of a trans* King or a queer marriage with gender role reversals being practiced. Therefore, it’s a call for the historians to really engage with all potential identities that could be discussed and not just the obvious one of heteronormativity or a homosexual reading, really engage with the queer theoretical approaches.

Another example of this was Jonah’s idea of a ‘trans* Christ’ – which I found fascinating –  being that Christ at some stage is seen as a lamb, food, a fisherman, a carpenter and even the element of wind in Medieval images of him. However, it is virtually impossible to not see the phallic symbolism of the wounds on Christ’s side. The wound quite clearly looks like a vagina, and it is interesting that the Jesus died for our sins and was ultimately the birth of Christianity. Therefore, can Jesus be viewed as trans*? Similarly, in physical appearance Christ can be seen potentially feminine with his long hair and features. Who are we to say he was a HE, yet completely dismiss him as an animal or a piece of food (here I am thinking of transubstantiation).


Christ’s Womanly Wounds? (Liz Lorenz)


Both Kit and Jonah said that only when they were given the correct terminology and linguistics in a word that they identified with were they able to understand who they were as individuals, as identities and as people. Therefore, we could say, if Radclyffe Hall, or in my research Harry Stokes and James Allen, had to access to trans* as a label they would self-identify with that. To me it is not that easy to just apply this label. Instead, we should investigate them with the terms they described themselves and to me that is through their pronouns, their clothing, how they identified on census records and their familial, marital and social relationships. Historians need to respect the individual they are researching and engage with their lives from more than just a biological standpoint.

There was such a richness in variety to the conference with topics covered from medieval, to present, to Israel and Palestine, to Romans and the Twentieth Century. Papers from Lois Stone and Sarah Douglas looked at archaeology in trans* identities in pre-history and gender in Cypriot Bronze Age respectively, investigating how skeletons are sexed and what they tell us from the past. Fascinating and innovative research, but my concern was with the phrase ‘sexing the skeleton’, I mean we sex animals and flowers – is it really appropriate to simply ‘sex’ a human albeit remains of one?


Difference between male and female skeletons


I think no, we need to look at their background, their context, their relationships, employment, leisure time and look at what makes them them, not what is between their legs. A quote I particularly love comes from Virginia Prince who says, ‘my self-identity is between my ears, not between my legs’. (1) I think that this applies to all people irrespective of their gender identity or sexual orientation, in that we all want to be recognised for our abilities and prospects, not just if we have a penis or a vagina.

I think biological sex (chromosomal, hormonal) can get too focused on genitalia and in my area of research, only if in possession of a penis more than 1cm will that individual be seen as male. (2) Despite there being any hormonal or chromosomal discrepancies just physical genitalia is labels you as male or female. We have to move away from this primitive understanding of:

Masculine + male + penis = MAN

Feminine + female + vagina = WOMAN

There are all types of wondrous variations of those identities and as historians surely it’s our job to vacate this?


(1) Prince, V. ‘Sex vs. Gender’, [1973], International Journal of Transgenderism, 8:4 (2005), pp.29-32.

(2) Dregar, A.D. ‘Doubtful Sex: The Fate of the Hermaphrodite in Victorian Medicine’, Victorian Studies, 38:3, (1995), pp. 335-370.

Derry, C. “Female Husbands’, Community and Courts in the Eighteenth Century’, The Journal of Legal History, 38:1, (2017), pp. 54-79.

Dregar, AD. ‘“Ambiguous Sex” – Or Ambivalent Medicine: Ethical Issues in the Treatment of Intersexuality’, Hastings Centre Report, (1998), pp. 24-35.

Eaton, F. ‘Gender’s Two Bodies: Women Warriors, Female Husbands and Plebeian Life’, Past and Present, (2003), pp. 131-174.

King, L. ‘ “Now you see a great many men pushing their pram proudly” ’, Cultural and Social History, 10:4, (2013), pp. 599-617.



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