Queer grief and the secret chord with Kate McKinnon: it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah

It shows how fast and repetitively 2016 has thrown up its global shocks that I can no longer remember which act of political violence or extremist victory in June or July prompted the first set of tweets implying that, as this internet-meme-in-waiting put it:

The same sardonic imagination might make it seem as if Leonard Cohen, whose death was announced two days after the result of the US election, had known after a lifetime of meditating on hopelessness and brokenness and grief what was coming, and couldn’t bear it.

Cohen had died, in fact, on the Monday, his death notice held over to the Friday so that his family could hold a private funeral; still publicised in time for Saturday Night Live, the same comedy show responsible for casting Trump as a figure of fun not a harbinger of hatred throughout the campaign, to cold-open its first show since the election with Kate McKinnon, as Hillary Clinton in a dark Oval Office, giving a piano recital of Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’.

‘Hallelujahs’ are two-a-penny on celebrity TV, cut back to their least savage verses and arranged for harmonised-by-committee talent-show voice, and SNL deserves no credit for providing Trump and his persona with a normalising platform during the campaign.

Yet a rawness in McKinnon’s performance, never releasing itself, still reaches viewers through, or even across the barrier of, the part her show has taken in US public culture. I couldn’t put it into words until I saw these tweets by Aaron Bady:

And when he put it like that – it often takes someone else to put it like that – this, for the first time since Wednesday, was the one that got me.

More than anything else a queer artist has made since the election, except perhaps this strip by the illustrator Molly Ostertag and its devastating last line ‘And you wonder if that was the best it will ever be’:

Ostertag captures what my own gaze reads back into McKinnon. A grief for how much more free you could feel, as a queer woman in America, compared to what you fear might be in front of you even when (especially when) you might have had the privilege of not realising its likelihood before, and compared to how you expected to grow up. It changed in your lifetime, after the struggles of the 1980s, all the tentative steps of the 1990s, under those eight years of Obama; now it’s lashing back. And catching, as it does so, all those younger people, who weren’t supposed to have to have it quite as bad.

Joy and love and art that had to look over its shoulder a little bit less often than it used to, coming to terms with having to do so even more.

Six months ago, McKinnon was its symbol. The makers of the all-female Ghostbusters never said or were never allowed to say that Jillian Holtzmann, McKinnon’s swaggering engineer, was queer; the queer women of the internet started filling in the gaps, as soon as the first trailer dropped and Holtzmann pushed up her yellow goggles to wink to camera, with ’Kate McKinnon’s 10 [or more than 10] gayest “Ghostbusters” gay moments of gay’.

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Everything was about Holtzmann, the way that in 2015 everything had been about Imperator Furiosa, and growing up in the 1990s I could never have imagined – could McKinnon? – such a public, instant, transatlantic moment of sheer queer joy.

(I still missed Ghostbusters when it came out;

(and yes, all this excitement for a white American woman in a scrappy uniform licking the barrel of a gun, even if what it does in Ghostbusters is captures ghosts, and we were going to have to talk about this queer militarism thing sometime;)

and now its present is another past.)

Even on SNL McKinnon had been part of that before: her impression of the machismo of Justin Bieber’s Calvin Klein ads in 2015, channelling half the drag kings in America, made Shauna Miller, in The Atlantic, write ‘McKinnon’s Bieber might be one of the most radically queer images to sneak onto network TV right now […] there’s a gay dog whistle on blast every time she’s on screen’.

kd lang’s Vanity Fair cover with Cindy Crawford, in 1993 (lang dressed in a three-piece suit, Crawford pretending to shave her face in a barber’s chair) – if there’s an early 1990s equivalent at all – must have had an effect like that on queer women who already knew each other and what they were and where they could have space to say so.

I had no community like that to know what media images did excite queer women most in 1993. I didn’t know the story about Vanity Fair for years, and tried to know as little as possible about kd lang. What I did do, in 1993 through 1995, was watch a lot of women with short-but-unthreatening hair and trouser suits singing sad ballads and try to read queer meanings into and around their lyrics, not that I had any idea for years more that I was doing that.

McKinnon’s voice catches on a line about touch, and with decades of gay dog whistles to guide the ear, it sounds like queer desire back in the closet.

The first time, it’s ‘baby, I’ve been here before’ so close to ‘I used to live alone before I knew you’; the second time, knowing what comes next, it’s that very first line, ‘I’ve heard there was a secret chord’, when for so long a secret chord was all that queer music on television could ever be.

There isn’t even a line about touch for McKinnon’s voice to have caught on. I don’t know what I heard. A clip of Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Adia’ is getting in there; except, through an archive I could only have imagined as a far-off fantasy in the mid-1990s, I can establish in seconds that the darkness and the piano probably mean it’s ‘Angel’, not ‘Adia’ at all, and the date and a few other things mean –

– what they mean, which were my fault, and which they shouldn’t have had to.

The song runs to three minutes, just right to fit into a Eurovision Song Contest in the mid-nineties from Norway or Sweden if the song wasn’t by Cohen and if they lit the stage up bright blue; and already it indexes so many secret chords that I have trouble seeing a Hillary Clinton in that scene at all.

And this is all in a period of cultural production, or one we’ve just come out of perhaps, where queer creators have been going back to that past of closeted viewers watching closeted performers as a past. The meanings of the silences and hesitant glances in Carol, released last year, echo their fifties originals, carrying their double meanings through the screen for queers, but assume a straight audience, as well as a queer audience, that understands how to read them and knows what unhappiness it caused.

Their equivalents in The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s novel, were like that because they were on the bounds of what it was permissible to print, with the author’s name herself concealed as ‘Claire Morgan’.

Reading The Talented Mr Ripley, a few months after seeing Carol, I was struck by a reading – galling but true to its time – in which what triggers the murder that Ripley spends the rest of the book trying to cover up is perhaps itself an incident of deeply sublimated queer desire, which Ripley can’t acknowledge and his friend – so successful a performer of straight upper-class masculinity that his name gets to be Dickie – simply can’t accept.

Ostertag’s comic and McKinnon’s song, through my interpretive filter but perhaps for others, both tug at the fear of potentially having to take that fear back into your own present. That suddenly, for four years, for eight years, under whatever circumstances the president’s fundamentalist and white supremacist advisers in the White House choose, you will have to think much more carefully before making a declaration that might just have been becoming everyday, that need not have been a declaration at all.

The clampdown on social media that writers like Masha Gessen or Sarah Kendzior have feared could manifest in an assault on the virtual spaces where radical and progressive social movements organise – or the swarm harassment that a hostile White House could allow to have the same effect – would take away an everyday space that queers not familiar with the history of state repression of radical movements had come to take for granted; where the first thing you could expect to log on to in the morning was a gifset of McKinnon’s Holtzmann, not a swastika.

(Remembering: Americans are not the first people this has happened to.)

Back to the video to write this post and there is McKinnon’s wink right there, I thought it was, the first time, but there was so much else to hear.

The wink, in the armoury of queer signalling, is the throwing star. An instant flicker of the eye, stealing the moment of safety or bravado, to say unambiguously yet deniably: I’m saying this thing and I’m also saying something else. You catch her wink in time to recognise it, or you don’t, and then the rest of the encounter becomes Was that my imagination? A magic from a time when you couldn’t just play it back, let alone count on being able, not just once every few months but daily, to seek, find, celebrate, name, share.

One wink with swagger, one wink with grief, and all in the same year.

There is McKinnon’s second, on such a loaded line, ‘I used to live alone before I knew you’, heavy with queer solitude and history; a signal from a time that the men in the White House call paradise, when the gay dog whistle could never be louder than a secret chord.

Queer nation and queer time: on transatlantic solidarities, fear, imagination

A few days after the Orlando attack, queer people in Hull, just like in other cities round the United Kingdom, held a vigil.

I don’t make it to that many things after work when I’m drafting a new book, far less two or three things at once, but I walked down from the university to the gay bar near the station where people were supposed to be gathering, and by the time I came – a colleague I knew from the staff LGBT network had had the same idea – there must have been two or three hundred people, already filling up the square around the war memorial.

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We heard the speeches, and dozens of people left tributes I hadn’t thought to bring, and I wished there’d been more said about how most of the 49 dead had been Latino as well as queer, but my main impression was: I’ve never seen so many LGBT people at the same time in Hull.

And so many generations all together – from teenagers with enough support from their schools and families to be working it all out as they go along, so much more confidently and so much more quickly than I ever managed, to people the age my grandparents would be who didn’t even understand for years whether there was anyone else like them.

Part of this was my own fault. My own LGBT friends are too scattered for any Pride to be somewhere where I meet up with a real-life community, and Hull Pride in July usually happens when I’m away for research – but, still, I’ve never seen so many LGBT people at the same time in Hull. I certainly never thought I’d see rainbow, bi and trans flags ringing the Hull cenotaph.

A day before, or maybe a day after, I watched a news clip in my office from the vigil in Soho. The crowd there filled the old gay quarter, past and all around the Old Compton Street pub where 19 years ago, while I was in sixth form figuring out what a sexuality I hadn’t accepted until then meant for how I was going to live in the world, a white British man had planted a nail bomb because he wanted to start a race war.

A friend and colleague in my department – who’s straight, married with children, but working hard to make the university a better place for the LGBT students we know about and the ones we don’t – popped round, soon after I’d seen the clip from Soho, to gently ask how I was doing after what had happened in Orlando.

I remember saying: I’d never have thought, in 1999, so many people would have come together in London to commemorate an attack like that in the USA. I was also saying – because queerness so often is about also saying – : I’d never have thought, in 1999, the straight coworkers I could expect to have in 2016 would understand it might be kind to check in on a queer colleague after a mass attack in an Orlando nightclub or Old Compton Street.

In different ways during the 20th and 21st centuries, part of being queer as an identity – knowing that something about you means you go through the world in a particular way, which is similar to others like you – has very often been recognising that queer people in other countries may be having experiences more like yours than straight and cisgender people in your own.

These are lived and everyday links, going back longer and extending further than people might often think – one chapter in the volume on east European gender history I’ve just been editing links up the lesbian and gender non-conforming volunteers of Scottish Women’s Hospitals (well-known in early 20th century British lesbian history) with their counterparts on the Yugoslav avant-garde arts scene – but they’re imaginative ones as well.

And they’re political. You understand that the options in front of you as a person who isn’t automatically going to, and often can’t, live the same life as someone with the same background who had never even had to question their gender or sexuality will be more limited;

(less so than they used to be; sometimes; at least now)

and that because of that, queer people before you, and at the same time as you, mapped out ways of existing and moving and creating and loving and just being that showed compulsory straightness and patriarchy and the gender binary were really what the limits were.

American queer theorists like Jack Halberstam and Lee Edelman wrote, at the turn of the millennium, about ‘queer time’: the idea that the arrow of time mapped out by and for straight people and straight families simply doesn’t – and, they often implied, shouldn’t – structure queer lives. Perhaps it need not structure straight lives either.

The New York activists who met through the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power in 1990 and called their own direct action group ‘Queer Nation’ did so at a time when ‘the nation’ in America meant the resistant cultural solidarity of Black Nationalism but also an ideal of the American nation to which sexually non-conforming and gender-variant people were told they could only marginally and conditionally belong, and the state that used the American nation’s symbols was the same institution that beat American queers up on the street.

By 2016 that state was the same institution that flew killer drones above queer and straight Muslims in Yemen, drove pipelines through Native territory in North Dakota, and shot down African-Americans of all sexualities and genders in the street.

It was also a state which, under Barack Obama, had extended rights that many queer people in the USA had grown up never believing they would have: marriage equality; gender recognition on federal documents including passports; federal support for trans health care; a Department of Justice prepared to stand up to the legislatures of North Carolina and other US states that waged their backlash against changing norms by restricting trans children’s and adults’ access to school activities, public bathrooms and everyday life.

Doing the Stars and Stripes, or Britain’s own Union flag, up in queer-liberation pink looked like a far less radical act in 2012 or 2014 than in 1988 or 1990 – to the extent that sometimes (more than sometimes) it helped draw dangerously simple maps between a progressive ‘Britain’ or ‘America’ and a backward ‘Russia’ or a threatening ‘Islam’; to the extent that some of the slogans, styles and heritage of that earlier radical queer period could even start to look complicit in a militarism and nationalism they had originally been designed to fight against.

Lady Gaga, speaking at Hillary Clinton’s last pre-election rally in Raleigh, North Carolina and performing her manifesto of liberal queerness ‘Born This Way’, struck for many viewers an uncomfortable note in a black uniform and red armband first worn by Michael Jackson during his visit to the White House in 1990.

(Do Queer Nation’s ‘army of lovers’ mean the same when the two bearded sailors kissing have been trained and sanctioned by the state to kill?)

What queers know, like what migrants know and like what anybody with a womb will know, is how easily freedoms can disappear.

You feel it.

Maybe only deep in the background sometimes, maybe screaming violently in front of you, something about your body and how you live in it and where on the planet you are doing that means that you at least think it, sometimes, in a way that a straight white man living somewhere that he holds a passport has never known that he would have to do.

Every legal victory that activists won in America or Europe, every piece of pride that started being taken over ‘equality’ in the name of the nation forgetting how many of the same nation’s laws and police officers had been standing in equality’s way, helped tell a story about time.

Things can only get better, sang the first Blair government, charged with implementing European court judgements on gays in the military and an equal age of consent. It gets better. You were born this way.

Weimar Berlin, and hundreds of men and women and others who loved people they never used to think that they could touch, presented themselves to the world in ways they’d never seen, found out about the surgery and care that would make their bodies seem more like themselves and that had never been more advanced than at this time, right now, whose lives and notes and names were about to go up in smoke when the stormtroopers burned Magnus Hirschfeld’s library.

The tone-altering epilogues to more than one book, researched during the 2000s and published after 2013, on how space for gays and lesbians to define themselves after the silences of communism was tentatively finally opening up in Russia.

The line between bodily autonomy and losing it for queer people is called politics. The same line for cis, straight people is called dystopia.

There are freedoms I have, which I didn’t expect, which my elders still won for me, and which I could lose again in ways that, if they were proposed for straight people, would be ‘some Handmaid’s Tale shit right there.’

(Dystopias like that still happen. But they need more guns.)

If you’re straight and married, especially if your right of residence depends on it, imagine watching last night’s election like many of my friends in the US, knowing the result could determine whether you were allowed to stay married to your husband or your wife.

If you’re not trans it would be almost inconceivable, some clichéd mid-20th-century exploitative pulp fiction thing, to picture a government coming to power after an election forcing you, as a man, to live life as a woman, or you, as a woman, to live life as a man.

There’s a scene in V for Vendetta – a film which, like The Matrix, has extra valences now the public know it was directed by two trans women – where a young woman, Evey, is held in the concentration camp where Britain’s fascist government detained and tortured the terrorist V.Through a crack between floorboards or a gap inside the wall, Evey finds a letter written by a woman called Valerie, imprisoned and executed as a lesbian, committing her memory to a future occupant of her cell.

The horror is closer when it could be you. So much further away, still, when you are white. The horror is still closer.

We use imagination to say so. To give it more of a name; to start describing it for someone else; and then to be able to put it back again.

There’s a scene in The Matrix — there are many (like it, but this one is mine); (or might be, if I’d actually go back and watch this thing again) — there’s a scene in The Matrix, after some action sequence or other on a rooftop, where the Wachowskis have Trinity and Neo deliciously and thrillingly identical; a second order of queerness that in 1999 I didn’t even know was queer at all and in 2016 is a space that ought to have my name on it and even in 2003 would have had no more resonance than ‘why has she got to be with a man all the time’, certainly not compared, at least not then, to the section of the third film with Rachel Blackman channeling Private Vasquez in Aliens for ten minutes.

I’ve had the luck and the privilege of an early adulthood where the space for me to know myself and name myself and recognise myself has multiplied in front of me, where I could even be confident about sharing more of that with people who weren’t queer, to even start translating the more difficult bits into images that other people might understand, and where I could see younger people so much better equipped to do that earlier, ready for the rest of their lives, that I thought: They’re going to have a better time than me.

(It hasn’t been a bad time. It just took a while.)

Throughout my school years a law in England and Wales called Section 28 prevented schools doing what Parliament and the right-wing press referred to as promoting homosexuality and queers might call showing us that we exist. Homosexuality was either a sensation or a social problem; there wasn’t even a concept, let alone a movement, of ‘trans youth’. I couldn’t say if staff or students were more afraid to come out. I didn’t get the support I needed, when I started putting the pieces together wrong.

They were going to have a better time than me.

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But times change. Section 28 came off the books, another legacy of that first Blair government, in 2003. The spectre of another – They’re teaching our kids how to be trans! – looms over every panic about young people’s gender clinics, gender-neutral toilets, trans health care and hormone blockers in puberty that clogs up The Guardian and the Express and Woman’s Hour.

And they change quickly. How few Yugoslavs, even in 1988, running in the perpetual crisis-as-normal mode that characterised late 1980s Yugoslavia, expected to live the lives they did in 1992 or even 1990. Reading media from the build-up to the Yugoslav wars in my mid-twenties, when I was researching my PhD, changed how I thought about British, or American, politics and society and instability in a way that it’s hard to go back from, in a way that Alexei Yurchak summed up in the title of his book on the years before the collapse of the Soviet Union: everything was forever, until it was no more.

The journalist Sarah Kendzior, writing consistently about the risks of authoritarian Trumpism throughout the election campaign, was able to perceive them so much earlier and so much more clearly than many of her colleagues because she had previously been an anthropologist researching authoritarianism in post-socialist Uzbekistan.

The writers Aleksandar Hemon and Charles Simic, remembering the rhetoric of Serbian politicians such as Slobodan Milošević and Vojislav Šešelj from their Bosnian-American and Serbian-American positions, were both able at very early points in the campaign to recognise the strategies Trump used to exploit ethnic entitlement and construct a politics of fear.

Authoritarian regimes and the people who seek to become them depend, to mask their implications, on the filter of it-can’t-happen-here. Nobody promises to turn America into a dystopia or Britain into a fascist regime, not least because grand narratives of the national past teach the public that the nation’s existential enemy of the twentieth century, Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany, was one of those; they promise to make America or Britain great again.

Part of making the Yugoslav wars possible, not possible but day-to-day imaginable, not day-to-day imaginable but likely, was for ethnicity to start to matter: to be the main lens that people looked through to make sense of the crisis, and who had caused it, and who needed to be in fear of each other.

Ethnicity had to inform the whole of everyday life. Some Croats and Serbs and Bosniaks would say now that for them it always had. And maybe it always did. For others, especially in a city like Sarajevo, their ethnicity and religion in the early eighties determined which Christmas they celebrated, or whether their mixed family got to have Christmas twice, or whether they had Muslim Bajram as well or instead; and in 1992 they were making life-or-death decisions based on where their ethnicity made them think they might be safe, where it meant that they could safely get to, what other people would think about them if they stayed or left.

Identities fluctuate in their political significance, and they come up strongest when people believe or are led to believe that that identity is why they’re under threat.

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Ethnopolitical conflict works like that.

The anxieties over ‘dilution’ or ‘undermining’ national cultural values that racists and xenophobes intensify in order to mobilise public support for restricting immigration work like that.

Queerness as a political identity works like that, too.

The shift from an individual identity, describing something about one’s own everyday and personal life, to a collective identity, that does things with other people, that experiences things with other people, that feels solidarity with people I don’t know, that makes political demands and has political struggles, because there is something to struggle against.

The filter of it-can’t-happen-here is a lot more fragile when you are queer.

Queerness and nationhood in my own work have often been, not in opposition, so much as in tension, with each other. The novelty of nations imagining themselves to be world leaders in LGBT rights, then using them as a symbol for dividing the rest of the world up into civilised and backward; or using a queer curiosity, the product of having to ask questions about things to do with bodies and identity, sex and gender and style, that straight and cis people would take for granted, to ask questions about wars and nations on the basis of everyday things.

But there is also a solidarity, a consciousness, that – more viscerally than reading about international far-right co-operation and racist policy exchange – makes you feel that an attack at a queer nightclub in Orlando or an election that threatens to tear up American queers’ federal rights has something to do with how you had expected to live and how you might be going to expect to live as a queer person in London or Hull.

The it-can’t-happen-here filter is a fiction. It can, it does, already, on the margins of society or rather on the bodies of the people who have been pushed out to them, with racism determining who already comes to harm the most.

It can, and it does, but to look into the future and see the spread of it, and the pace of the spread, and the fear of the pace of the spread, is what makes people brace against anticipated wounds although they’re across nations, the space that helps to constitute queer time.

‘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.)

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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?)

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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.