I can’t help but applaud the gall of trans activists. Like Trump at his most bombastic; they claim whatever fact, historical figure or cultural quirk takes their fancy and reshape it to fit a political agenda. On Easter Sunday, the Huffington Post ran an article which claimed Jesus was “born genetically female, and yet trans-formed into man.” A flurry of tweets followed which invited comparisons between medieval images of Christ’s bleeding wounds with the mastectomy scars of women who identify as transmen.
As a devout atheist this struck me as darkly funny. In many ways trans activists are following in the sandal-prints of orthodox Christianity; the creepy obsession with mortification of the flesh, the belief in transubstantiation and respect for a revered class of men in frocks. But such attempts by trans activists to colonise history are understandable. A little like ‘plastic paddys’ who cling to their Irish roots despite being fifth-generation American, it is a means to link one’s present to a fantasy past, a way to gain a sense of provenance.
In 2019, trans activist, Associate Professor Grace Lavery of Berkeley University, even appropriated George Eliot arguing “The story of George Eliot’s reception is a story of transphobic euphemism. Because the most important British novelist, like it or not, was a trans author.”
Attempts to recast drag queens as having been at the forefront of the Stonewall riots, or to claim that Joan of Arc was a transman, are damaging. Such lies distort the truth and undermine the extraordinary contributions of incredible people. In particular, women who had no option but to use the markers of masculinity to take a position in public life are now routinely marked out as transgender. In 2019, trans activist, Associate Professor Grace Lavery of Berkeley University, even appropriated George Eliot arguing “The story of George Eliot’s reception is a story of transphobic euphemism. Because the most important British novelist, like it or not, was a trans author.”
But this ghoulish trend of trans-ing the dead raises some wider and valid ethical questions about how we describe historical figures that we popularly like to think of as lesbian, gay or bisexual.
It is widely acknowledged that history is written by the victors, and that women and in particular lesbians, are rarely victorious. As such, writing lesbians back into history is a political act, an attempt to undo a patriarchal wrong. But as L.P. Hartley so perfectly captured in the opening line of The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
Historians of LGB history have had to battle not only changes in terminology but also in the understanding of human sexuality. The traditional lesbian feminist approach, that heterosexuality is a social construct, has the potential to artificially inflate the numbers of lesbians. Conversely, the definition of homosexuality as understood by most today would exclude all but a few a same-sex attracted people of the past.
There is no objective lens through which to view the past, and it is worth being aware that some of history’s most famous ‘homosexuals’ might not have thought of themselves as gay or lesbian.
It’s easy to forget that customs which are today seen as markers of heterosexuality, such as wedlock or sharing a bed, do not necessarily translate to earlier generations; for every Ann Lister there were many more lesbians married to men. There is no objective lens through which to view the past, and it is worth being aware that some of history’s most famous ‘homosexuals’ might not have thought of themselves as gay or lesbian.
After relationships with women, Sappho, the poetess who gave her name to the word ‘Sapphic,’ was reported to have fallen in love with a ferryman called Phaon. Given that approximately only 3% of her work has survived the two millennia since her death, it’s difficult to authenticate any of the details of her life, but arguably in contemporary terms she might best be described as bisexual rather than lesbian. Despite this, in popular imagination Sappho has become the emblem of female homosexuality. Similarly, Oscar Wilde is generally understood to be the archetype of a gay man; whilst he was disgraced and imprisoned on that basis, he also had loving and sexual relationships with women as a young man.
It’s easy to scoff at the vanity of transgender activists, desperate to see themselves reflected in everyone from Jesus Christ to Kurt Cobain, but historical revisionism is something of which most of us are guilty. Unlike transgender identities, which are a modern phenomenon searching for historic justification, we lesbians, gays and bisexuals have clearly always existed. There’s a comfort, and arguably a duty, to uncover history’s same sex relationships. But we should be aware that our view into the past is obscured by prohibitions and prejudices; there is no way to be free of these, all we do is be aware of our own.