‘Ours to claim?’: lesbian history, gender variance and identification with the past

This post originally appeared on my main academic blog.

Historians of sexuality on my Twitter timeline today have been discussing this post at Notches on the ‘Gay American History @ 40′ conference earlier this month, which Rachel Hope Cleves writes was marked by ‘passionate, and often painful, disagreement’ around the question of – and the implications of asking – how historians define the category of ‘lesbian’.

Cleves summarises the unease that she felt this question provoke as follows:

That disagreement did not finish with the close of the panel but continued through to the conference’s very end, and expressed itself along three related axes: anger about the historical erasure of lesbianism; distrust of the aggressive historicism applied to the category of lesbianism; and fear of the loss of lesbian identity within a trans futurity.

I was on the other side of the ocean from the conference and have never worked on the history of sexuality in the USA. I have, on the other hand, had to think about my own historical practice and the approaches I’d give to others through a number of projects recently, including editing a volume on gender history in 20th-century eastern Europe and the USSR (which has gone into production now!) and carrying out some pilot research on student perceptions of trans and non-binary inclusivity in their teaching (this was the background to it – I now need to write up the report).

Reading the Notches post gave me some initial thoughts as a teacher and conference organiser, and some wider thoughts as someone who also faces the responsibility of writing about people in the past whose lives involved diverse sexual practices and gender non-conforming behaviour, for readers and students whose own time is marked by struggles over the same things. (Is it necessarily ‘aggressive’, for instance, to want to historicise a category of identity?)

(I should say first of all that I’m younger than many of the conference delegates would have been and didn’t suffer from the historical erasure of lesbian identities in the same way as many older women; I also have a much more ambivalent relationship with the label, which I’ll say a bit more about as I go on.)


One of my first thoughts, as it should have been for anyone who might organise a conference or session where this could come up, is: what would I have done if this had happened at my panel.

The summary of the conference alludes to a number of unpleasant incidents, including one where a cisgender (not trans) gay activist reopened a bitter disagreement he had had with the transgender studies in general and the trans historian Susan Stryker (the keynote speaker) in particular. (Stryker, as Cleves notes, describes the background in her essay ‘(De)Subjugated Knowledges‘, part of the Transgender Studies Reader she and Stephen Whittle assembled in 2006.)

What would another historian who was trans – a PhD student in the history of sexuality, say, knowing they would need to launch themselves into this subfield’s disciplinary community in order to gain an academic job or recognition – take away from the discussions they witnessed, the summaries they read, or the ‘tension directed by older lesbian-feminists against younger trans masculine people’ that Cleves describes as ‘palpable’ throughout the conference?

How did panel chairs respond when any of this happened? What expectations about the atmosphere of the conference had organisers set out at the beginning, or as the event unfolded, or even in a pre-conference code of conduct (a practice which is still much more common at technology or fandom conventions than academic events)? How far was the ‘possibility that [lesbian and trans] affinities might overlap’, as Cleves writes, able to be heard beyond the appeal that Jen Manion, a trans and lesbian-feminist historian of early America, made at the beginning of their presentation?

I can’t know the answers to any of those questions (and they aren’t questions which arise just from this one conference and its incidents). They will play on the minds of trans and non-binary scholars who might attend similar events, especially those whose position in the academy is most precarious. As organisers, we need to show through our actions that they’ll be welcome.


Cleves also tries to understand the atmosphere ‘within the context of the historical denials of lesbianism, and the historicist erasures of lesbian continuities, that have left many feeling under assault’ – even within the history of sexuality, which (perhaps especially in studies of the USA?) has been dominated by studies of gay men. Perceiving that there has been an ‘aggressive form of historicism directed by academics at the category of lesbians’, she writes:

I wonder, as do many others, why writing about lesbianism in particular elicits such agonized concerns over historicism. I know from my discussions with non-academic audiences and readers that many lesbians, old and young, find meaning in connecting to historic predecessors. It hurts to hear that those women who forged lives together in the past, often at enormous cost, aren’t really yours to claim.

Anyone whose teaching has systematically or even accidentally created opportunities for gay, lesbian, bi, trans students – or students subject to social inequalities in any other way – to find out more about a marginalised past should understand the power of connecting with a history that includes you after all, even if they haven’t had to search for such a past themselves. There’s more than one reason why the hit film about gay life and the miners’ strike in Thatcher’s Britain was called Pride.

The liberatory, thrilling effect of reading that in the past as well there really were people like you, when you’ve had to struggle just to be recognised and accepted like that in the present – breaking against you like a huge reshaping wave when you least expect it in the corner of a library, the middle of a lecture, or scrolling through seminar readings on a crowded train.

(Mine were during my Masters, mostly; balancing on a window-stool in the old ULU cafe, looking out at a street that went pitch-dark by 5 pm, listening on at least one occasion to a mix-tape of post-Milosevic Serbian pop-folk.)

Do we have to share identity labels with our historic predecessors to recognise ourselves in them, them in ourselves, and put our roots down in the present through a historical continuum that has contained both us and them?


Maybe I won’t change the mind of anyone for whom the category and identity of lesbian has been the word they’d never heard before, the secret until suddenly joyous word, that explained everything unreconcilable about who they are. It wasn’t, for me; in my own communities ‘everybody knew’ what a lesbian was in the early 1990s, and in fact ‘everybody’ probably knew more about what a lesbian was than ‘lesbians’ did, whoever they were, even as I went to ridiculous, painful and damaging lengths not to be one.

Once I’d made it quite undeniable that it did apply to me, I used it, mostly too explain a complex of inclinations and disinclinations that seemed to (I’d later understand they didn’t have to) go together. I might use it today as a clumsy approximation of the wriggle-room I find there is on both sides of the axis of desire (who I am; who I’m attracted to) that ‘lesbian’ today – for me – seems like it might fix tight.

But I’m more ambivalent to it now, compared to 20 years ago, because the language and concepts I had available then were based on there only being two genders (I didn’t even understand bisexuality then, and said some hurtful things to bi classmates at university before I did). That means I’d explain my own gender and sexuality differently now, compared to then. And that’s just changed even in my lifetime. Different categories I might or might not belong to are available, compared to 20 years ago; and even figuring out which ones don’t apply to me, once I know about them, gave me finer-grained ways to interpret my own identity.

I’m still not aware of a word that captures all the things I know now about how I relate to gender and how that relates to the genders and gender expressions of the people I’m attracted to, for the even more specific category I sometimes see reflected back at me. The best I can say (and how different even that feels to half a lifetime ago) is that at least I know, even if I can’t fully express, the combination of things there ought to be a word for.

This is a very different account of gender, sexuality, language and identity than would come from a woman for whom ‘lesbian’, from the moment she first heard it, always sounded unquestionably right. I don’t want to take her history of identity formation away through explaining more about mine.

Though both of us would be part of the same historical moment – this frustrating, contingent, still sometimes exuberant early 21st century that future historians of sexuality will try to piece together.

For a long time, including most of the time I was at university when I had the most opportunity to find historic predecessors, I did think ‘lesbian’ was the only category I could fit into. I was engaged in lesbian history-making then even if I wouldn’t say that I am now. But even when I thought that was the only feasible category there was to belong in, I remember looking for experiences like mine, or practices I might have shared, more than identities – hints and traces of the combination of characteristics that I was coming to understand had something to do with identity and desire as I experienced it. Some of those feelings of liberation, I’m not the only one who felt or did that, through reading historical writing came from books with, on the face of it, nothing to do with lesbians at all.


The question of how historians write about people who might come down through the sources as ‘gender non-conforming women’ but who might have described their identities as transmasculine or non-binary if they’d had access to the language and worldview of early 21st century English-speaking queer movements has been confronting gender historians and historians of sexuality for some time.

I’m thinking particularly here of the more complex cases where evidence about a person’s life is ambiguous or scarce. When even sources in a subject’s own time were already representing him as male, as can sometimes be the case, it seems clear to me that writing him into history as a lesbian would erase what the evidence itself tells us about his past.

Nan Alamilla Boyd’s 1999 essay ‘The Materiality of Gender’ (also reprinted in the first Transgender Studies Reader) observed that (p. 74):

Both lesbian and transgender communities look to the past to recuperate individuals who proudly or cleverly lived outlaw sexualities or genders. However, because of the slippage between sexuality and gender, lesbian and transgender communities often spin usable histories around the same figures.

Boyd suggested that lesbian history-making in her own field, late 19th/early 20th American history, had based its understanding of who could or could not have been a lesbian on ‘birth bodies’, incorporating people with extensive histories of self-presentation as men while implying that trans women would never be able to fall into the category of lesbian.

Applied with this assumption (I don’t want to suggest that it always is or has been), even as ‘lesbian’ creates identification with the past for some readers, for readers who already know they are not women yet have had to struggle against a woman’s identity being imposed on them, the same category cuts off their access to the same thrill of connectivity with the past that lesbian history, hard-won, has offered many of its other readers.

Indeed, for a trans male or non-binary reader, ‘lesbian’ in his or hir own history of identity formation has often been a category that invalidates, when unwillingly applied to him or hir and to others like himself or hirself.

The same identity term that emancipates a woman for whom it means love and solidarity can be and has been, within another set of power relationships, an instrument of violence when it removes rather than sustains someone’s autonomy. The difference is in who claims which identity through language and who takes whose away.

What can historians do, then, about historical subjects whose gender they find hard to determine?

Judith/Jack Halberstam’s essay ‘Unlosing Brandon‘, critiquing accounts of trans men’s lives including Brandon Teena and the jazz musician Billy Tipton, framed the interpretive problem (p. 48) around a principle that has something to offer historians even if they disagree with Halberstam’s interpretation of the evidence around those men’s particular lives:

I will be asking here what kind of truths about gender we demand from the lives of people who pass, cross-dress, or simply refuse normative gender categories. None of the transgender subjects whom I examine here can be definitively identified as transsexual, and none can be read as lesbian; all must be read and remembered according to the narratives they meticulously circulated about themselves when they were alive.

What I take from this passage, held in tension with my puzzlement over why it might be hard to identify Teena or Tipton definitively as transsexual given the evidence historians do have about their lives, is its emphasis at the end on the work of historical interpretation: what is historians’ knowledge, derived from a collection of evidence, actually based on?

If this is ‘aggressive historicism’ when we ask it about the category of ‘lesbian’, I’m guilty of it – but from the point of view that any category is a container that humans have come together to construct, and we ought to be able to understand and historicise what holds it together.


I started writing about gender and sexuality in the first place in order to get at how those social identities intersected with my first specialism, identities of ethnicity and nationhood (which, like gender-and-sexuality, are two linked but still distinct categories themselves).

My question when teaching and then writing about a past more distant then the 1990s, where ethnicity and nationality – in former Yugoslavia and elsewhere – were publicly understood as categories and identities, has always been: how do we know someone’s ethnic identity in the past, and how do we know whether ethnicity meant the same thing to them as it would now?

South-east European history is one of many fields where population movements, historic religious conversions, and multi-ethnic everyday forms of belonging have left regions, territory, heritage and people open to being claimed by competing national movements, each with historical narratives that could seem to back them up.

Even for the late 20th century, some scholars (like Chip Gagnon or Dubravka Zarkov) suggest that ethnicity started being made to matter in late Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav society more than it had done – a precondition for the Yugoslav wars to have mass participation and support – because of how revisionist intellectuals, Slobodan Milosevic and others in reaction hardened ethnic boundaries through the media by emphasising ethnopolitical division and fear.

Even when we can determine a person’s cultural and linguistic affiliation accurately – if we have ample evidence of what language they chose to write in – this wasn’t necessarily the same kind of attachment to a political entity and to dominant accounts of that country’s values as it would more likely be today – if only because of the very historically specific relationships between religious collective identities, rulers and societies earlier in European history.

How do I know whether an individual in 16th-century Dalmatia – let’s say, in the spirit of this post, one I never encountered in the literature but could have done, in the image of Anne Hathaway as Viola in Twelfth Night – saw themselves as a Croat, an Italian, a Venetian, a citizen of the republic of letters, or anything else?


A historian writing in support of the long continuity of the Croatian nation would have one approach. A historian writing in support of the long continuity of the Italian nation might ascribe a different ethnic identity to our Dalmatian while still agreeing with their Croatian counterpart about how far historians can trace ethnicity back.

A deconstructionist historian – like John Fine, who called his last book When Ethnicity Did Not Matter in the Balkans – would write with less certainty altogether.

My own approach to ethnicity and nationalism is firmly anti-essentialist – which informed how I planned and organised the introduction to the Yugoslav Wars I published last year. My final chapter shows how scholars of culture and language have ‘denationalized’ south-east European cultural histories, but in doing so meets an ethical tension that runs throughout the book:

[A]utomatically choosing a specific nation as one’s unit of analysis could obscure developments that are difficult to study through a single national lens […] How far, however, could the project of ‘denationalizing’ history go when writing about the Yugoslav wars, when people were killed, tortured and forced from their homes because of what ethno-national group they belonged or were assigned to?

Yet compared to my first book, on popular music and national identity in Croatia, I’ve still put something of a brake on how far I deconstruct ethnicity. I owe that to some of the Bosnian participants in the oral history project I went on to work for, who claimed space for ethnic labels in their narratives even when I hadn’t added them, and to reading trans theorists’ accounts of the disregard that deconstructions of gender and embodiment by and inspired by Judith Butler had had for the realities of trans lives.

(Talia Bettcher summarises those critiques, especially those of Jay Prosser and Vivian Namaste, here; as does Julia Serano, whose critique of deconstructionism influenced how I wrote about ethnicity and interviewing in a chapter I contributed to a volume on oral history and mass violence.)

The coincidence of reading trans feminist literature at the same time as reviewing these interviewing experiences challenged me to work an attention to marginalisation and imbalances of power more directly into how I approach the deconstruction of nationalism and ethnicity from then on.

Too much deconstruction, Cheryl Morgan writes, prevents trans people making the same connections with their past that gay, lesbian and queer historians have been able to seek and reclaim:

To start with, just because the word transsexual didn’t exist in ancient times that doesn’t mean that trans people didn’t exist. As the above (very incomplete) list of identities shows, people lived lives outside of the gender binary in most (if not all) cultures throughout history. Where we have no evidence it is probably because such people had to stay under the radar for fear of their lives.

Trans historians, like lesbian historians, fear pasts being deconstructed out of existence. Sometimes – in the case of trans men’s histories, often – the deconstructors have been lesbians.

What does this mean for historians who share an identity with others who have carried out an ‘aggressively’ historicist deconstruction?


Ethnicity and sexuality, or ethnicity and gender variance, don’t map directly on to each other as categories of identity. Ethnicity as a concept has not been marginalised throughout history in the same way as same-gender desire, even as people have been persecuted (the driving force behind much European history in the so-called ‘age of nations’) because of what ethnicity they have or what ethnicity was ascribed to them; being able to conceive of having an ethnic identity has very rarely been punishable.

But there are parallels. One is that, in both cases, anti-essentialism and deconstruction are analytical tools with the potential to emancipate but also the potential to oppress. Deconstruction can diversify historians’ understanding of the identities and practices of gender, embodiment and desire and it can limit them. Deconstruction in the face of verifiable historical evidence about the facts of an ethnic conflict can become, and appear to legitimise relativisation of war crimes.

Categorisation and deconstruction are tools; their human users apply ethics to them.

Another parallel emerges if we go back to the idea near the beginning of this post – that marginalised readers of history seek historical predecessors with their own identities to be able to access the same kind of continuity with the past that a straight or cisgender reader could already take for granted.

How far do we need historical subjects, like our hypothetical Dalmatian, to have had the same concepts of identity as ourselves in order to be able to identify with them?

With ethnicity and nationality, perhaps, not much. The meanings of ethnic identity, the importance of ethnic identity, and even the ethnic identities that people might have claimed could all be very different in past centuries compared to today. Are they so distant that it’s impossible to imagine people who held them as part of the same community, connected through time, as ourselves?

‘How do we label our subjects’ ethnicity and nationality most accurately?’ and ‘How do we most accurately describe our subjects’ gender, therefore their sexuality?’ would be at a fundamental level the same question, had the categories of ethnicity and sexuality not had different histories themselves.

And what do we do when we’re not sure? This question does touch them both.

An anti-essentialist historian of ethnicity might reject present-day place names for past territories, or construct sentences to refer to individuals or organisations rather than ethnic groups. The comparable moment of decision in writing about gender and sexuality takes in as basic a unit of language as the pronouns. How do we know which pronouns to use for our historical subjects?

A radical question if you have never had to think about which ones to use for yourself or someone else you know – but a question that turns the lens of ‘How do we know what we know?’ on to something that you previously took for granted.

(What if historians didn’t use pronouns, when they weren’t sure?)


Identifying with the past – in acquiring a collective ethno-national past, a lesbian past, a trans past, or anything else – means seeing past differences across categories that would complicate the identification. It always will.

A figure you might identify with in the past might have spoken different languages, likely practiced a religion, held very different values from yours in all kinds of ways – and yet something, across all the differences a historian could identify, still resonates to make them perceptible as someone who was like you, yours to claim.

Historical identification is – will always be – partial.

It’s an exciting and – at least in the concepts of identity that we have, today – necessary part of building up identities in the present, fighting back against marginalisation, and creating a space where you can imagine that you exist and others like you exist and there’s a continuity of that.

Yet it’s a strategic, selective kind of identification. And it always will be, because they – whoever they were, whoever she or xe or he was – were in a different historical context from us.

To a lesbian in the peace movement, where might lesbians whose passion was for military adventure sit within her lesbian history?

To a religious lesbian, where might her lesbian history accommodate a lesbian who hated the Church?

Partially, problematically; but some space would be there.

As I was thinking about this piece this morning, I happened to read M. W. Bychowski’s essay on ‘Genres of Embodiment‘ and medieval transgender literature, prefaced by an account of a transphobic incident at another conference, the International Congress of Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo.

Bychowski writes of medieval transgender lives as ‘relics that we have forgotten how to read’, embedded as the evidence about them is in such different notions of religion and the body, and seeks ways not to erase the category of gender but to use the knowledge that gender variance exists to reframe medievalists’ perception:

Rather than demanding we set aside our history, a critical trans studies challenges us to do the potentially harder work of changing how we structure and understand our history.

The work of historical research is interpretation, holding past and present woorldviews in tension to make sense of evidence; acknowledging the limits of what we know, and the ambiguities of how we can know about it, but driven as well by whatever the historian perceives as their own responsibilities towards their present.