By Kit Heyam |

My last post for this blog was an enthusiastic-bordering-on-evangelical account of my experiences in public engagement with the wonderful York LGBT History Month Group . Now February (LGBT History Month) is almost upon us, and while I’m really excited for our annual festival, it would be fair to say I sympathised with my friend Andy’s initial description of our programme as “terrific but tiring”.  Or as Russ, our eagle-eyed social media coordinator, tactically phrased it “busy but brilliant”! This year I will be compering our launch night in front of an audience of Yorkshire civic leaders (sadly, although we extended the invitation to  all the MPs in Yorkshire, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg appear to have declined).  I have also agreed to deliver three assemblies to an audience of secondary school pupils so the Lord Mayor of York should be a breeze. As I prepare for this baptism by fire I have been considering the advantages and limitations of LGBT History Month.

This year will be the eleventh anniversary of LGBT History Month in the UK, and the second year of the National Festival of LGBT History, which now covers six regional hubs in  England. Events are also taking place across Scotland throughout February. I think it would be fair to say that  it has been a success. It’s now rare to find a university, city or national newspaper that doesn’t acknowledge its existence – sometimes cursorily, but often with a seemingly genuine will to celebrate, educate and raise awareness. While I am overjoyed by all we have achieved, the academic in me struggles with the acronym LGBT and wonders whether its use to labelling this public event doesn’t perpetuate some of the latent problems facing the LGBT community today. As those whose academic research deals with non-normative sexual behaviour, gender expression or identity know only too well, it is inappropriate in an academic context to refer uncritically to “LGBT people” when dealing with periods and cultures in which conceptualisations differed. My own research into the medieval and early modern historiography of Edward II explicitly aims to situate Edward’s evolving reputation as someone who had sexual and romantic relationships with other men within the current scholarly understanding of the history of sex – which means writing about his “sexual behaviour” rather than his “sexuality”, and avoiding describing him as “homosexual” or “gay”.

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People outside of academia (and unfortunately many within) often struggle with the concept that using terms like ‘homosexual’ or ‘gay’ is problematic when examining the medieval/early modern period. Many people hear the statement ‘it’s unhelpful to call medieval people “gay”’ as ‘there were no gay people in the medieval world’: it’s all too easy to play into the hands of those who would dismiss LGBT+ identities as new-fangled, faddish or non-traditional. When I explain to people that I’m researching ‘representations of Edward II’s sexual behaviour’, one of the most common reactions is ‘There can’t be much evidence about that, can there?’ – and while this is  a comment many historians  face, it takes on something of a sinister edge when the subject in question is a queer one. As I patiently explain the significant silences and loaded classical allusions that make up my sources, I find myself wanting to ask, ‘Why would you assume there’s no evidence? Is it because you think medieval kings didn’t have sex, or because you think they didn’t have sex with men?’ As long as there are people who assume there were no “gay people” in fourteenth-century England, I’m convinced that the political value of LGBT History Month outweighs the potential problems with the acronym.

The relatively comprehensible nature of the “LGBT” acronym not only provides an obvious indicator of continuity, but also brings together people from different communities in a way a more academic signifier would not. Last year’s second “What is, and how to do, LGBT history?”  conference was a mixture of academics and activists, and was a welcome departure from the usual conference bubble of carefully, politely formulated questions and networking. The weekend began with Schools OUT’s Sue Sanders bursting into the room crying, ‘We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re having a fabulous time!’ and the conference dinner, at a local LGBT community centre, was followed by a trip to the pubs of Canal Street. It’s the first conference that I’ve been desperate to go back to,  not just for the quality of the research , but to catch up with the people I met.

In keeping with LGBT History Month’s roots in education, each year the month has a different theme, inviting different school departments to engage with the relevance of LGBT history to their subject. This year’s theme is “religion, belief and philosophy”, a subject that is not without its challenges. Engaging with the issue of religion in relation to LGBT history invites some much-needed conversations – forcing us to confront the fact that much of this history is not positive, but also to recognise the intersections between LGBT communities and faith communities which are far too rarely acknowledged. Much of the conflict between these communities today is articulated through contesting the ground of history: witness, for example, the Church of England’s recent decision to issue a statement in favour of what it considers to be the “traditional” nature of marriage, and attempts in return by groups like Quest to demonstrate the equally “traditional” nature of same-sex unions.  In this context, where history becomes a clinching factor in an argument that affects contemporary lives, we need LGBT History Month – with all the culture clashes, the challenging conversations and the unforeseen truths it invites –as much as ever before.

 

Kit Heyam is a fourth year part-time PhD student at the University of Leeds, working on a thesis entitled “Literary and historical representations of Edward II and his favourites, c.1305-1700″. He is also the Outreach Coordinator for York LGBT History Month. You can find him at on academia.edu, read his blog unbeseeming words, and tweet him @krheyam.

(Pictures  © York LGBT History Month)