LGBTQ+ History



Chimwemwe Chirwa


How and Why LGBTQ+ History is Hidden

To understand how and why much of LGBTQ+ history has been forced underground we must recognise how systems of power such as religion, laws and legislations, language, and documentation from historians has shaped and influenced how much of LGBTQ+ history is visible and available.  


How systems of power in the past shaped LGBTQ+ history:

LGBTQ+ historians labelled those that went against the power structures of the past as living non-normative lives. This means for much of the LGBTQ+ community in history who went outside the Heteronormative, Patriarchal, gender norms, law and religious powers of the past would be labelled non-normative.


The Law and Religion:

Oppressive laws that have existed in the past such as the Buggery Act enlisted by English parliament in 1533 meant gay men lived in fear of capital punishment under what the Act defined as ‘unnatural sexual act against the will of God and Man’. 

Buggery remained a capital offence until 1861 which meant much of queer narratives and lives went underground and Molly Houses were formed as secret meeting places for those who were ostracised by society for living outside the social norms; Same sex partners, gender nonconforming individuals and People of Colour all benefitted from Molly Houses as a safe space to meet in a society that oppressed them. 

This illustrations depicts an event that took place in 1901 when 41 men wearing dresses and suits described on the broadside as ‘homosexuals’ or ‘Mollys’ were discovered cavorting in a dance hall on the Calle de la Paz, Mexico City. Source: Met Museum

LGBTQ+ historical figures even went to such extremes to hide their sexuality and gender identity by ordering their letters to be burnt after their death.

Anne Lister (1791-1840) a significant lesbian figure in British history kept such letters and diaries which discussed her same-sex desires and wrote in code for her own privacy and safety. 

Portrait by Joshua Horner of Anne Lister, who was nicknamed ‘Gentleman Jack’. Source: GLBTQ Encyclopedia

Listers decedents who cracked the code to the diaries after Anne’s death concealed their contents for the sake of the family’s reputation and Anne’s legacy. 

Even in recent history in 1988, Section 28, a piece of legislation which banned conversations about same-sex relationships and the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools was passed by Thatcher’s government which meant LGBTQ+ history was concealed in education up until its repeal in 2003.


Heteronormative and Patriarchal society:

Historically women were condemned more so when they challenged gender roles than sexual ones – women who cross-dressed or lived as men were perceived as more of a threat to patriarchal society, and in several cases severely punished.

Women’s sexual fluidity was seen as less of a threat if it didn’t interfere with pre-existing Heterosexual and heteronormative hierarchies. 

Scholars have shown that Same-sex relationships were permissible if a woman was married, widowed, or in some way adhered to those sexual hierarchies organised around men. 

Transgender, non-gender conforming people and gay men had to live their lives in secret more than lesbian women that followed these hierarchies and gender norms of the time. 


Language and Literature:

How we talk about LGBTQ+ figures in the past has been a topic of debate for decades. 

Early LGBTQ+ historians were unafraid to point out the existence of ‘homosexuality’ in ancient Greece and 15th century London, however this language of identity wasn’t available during these periods of history. 

Detail of men drinking and embracing from a tomb painting from Paestrum. Photograph: Corbis

When language was available for sexuality and identity such as ‘lesbian’, ‘trans’ and gay’ there was reluctancy to use this language stemming from homophobic unwillingness to change heterosexual legacies. 

This is partly because the power systems of the past restrained how LGBTQ+ historians documented non-normative figures.

Many LGBTQ+ figures and histories of the past have been hidden to uphold and focus on heterosexual narratives. 

Scholars believe Shakespeare was gay through analysis of sonnets and poems containing puns that relate to homosexuality, but this has been repressed to suit heterosexual narratives. 


How the term ‘queer’ broke the constraints of repressive and narrowed narratives of LGBTQ+ history:

Although historically weaponised against LGBTQ+ people as a slur, the word ‘queer’ has been reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community. 

Queer is a useful term not only for sexualities but also to describe gender-nonconforming and transgender people, making it a useful term for analysing people, societies or behaviours in the past which diverge from the heterosexual and gender norms. 

In the 1990s Queer Theory helped shift from simply documenting historical existence of LGBTQ+ people across time towards the idea of how society shaped the LGBTQ+ community in the past. Queer historians are more focused on how people navigated gender and sexuality in different ways at different times.

With Queer Theory only developing in the past three decades, queer experiences have often been overlooked by LGBTQ+ historians of the past which results in much of LGBTQ+ history being lost. Without Queer Theory we may never have made connections between how colonialism and capitalism play a part in the history of queer people of colour which is even more underground than white LGBTQ+ histories because of these systems of power. 


Modern- and Present-day LGBTQ+ Histories:

Despite the repeal of Section 28 in 2003 its negative effects still live on to this day and there has been challenges to accessing LGBTQ+ education for all. 

Scotland and England became the first ever countries to make LGBTQ+ history compulsory in school curriculums. 

When LGBTQ+ lessons started in 2019, Anti-gay hate crimes in Birmingham doubled amid protests over the lessons. 

Two in five (40%) LGBTQ pupils are never taught anything about LGBTQ issues, and almost half (45%) are bullied for being LGBTQ. 

Young people who attend religious school often don’t have access to LGBTQ+ history as it is viewed pejoratively. 

LGBTQ+ history was hidden because much of LGBTQ+ lives of the past were driven underground from oppressive systems of power historically. 

Historians faced challenges when it came to language and labelling non-normative figures and much of LGBTQ+ history is hidden because they simply didn’t have language and adhered to keeping heterosexual legacies. 

The History of LGBTQ+ people of colour is hidden because LGBTQ+ historians before Queer Theory focused on simply documenting historical existence of LGBTQ+ people over how society shaped and influenced their community in the past.

Queer theory is a critical breakthrough for LGBTQ+ history and should shape the way we teach and deliver LGBTQ+ histories to young people in education and wider society to have a deeper understanding of LGBTQ+ history.