I know you don't normally answer questions, or at least I haven't seen to many. But I was curious as to your stance on historical figures that were queer but not of moral standing. Ex. Alexander Hamilton was most likely bisexual or something of that configuration, but was also a slave owner. I see a lot of lgbt+ historical icons, who are "Disqualified" because of something they did. I was just wondering how you felt about it (1/2)
(2/2) Personally, I think their being a lgbt+ historical figure should be acknowledged, but so should their downfalls so they won’t become an icon per se. I’m not really too sure how to verbalize my thoughts, but I hope that was somewhat coherent. And I’m just wondering what you as queer historians have to say on the matter
First I want to say that you did a great job of verbalizing your thoughts and I really appreciate you coming to our project to discuss this because we do have some thoughts and this is an interesting topic overall.
We discussed this briefly in our most recent article Annemarie Schwarzenbach.
In discussing her life we note this concept briefly saying:
“We know there have been queer people who are horrible, in fact we need to look no further than one generation above Annemarie herself. Her mother, a queer woman who actively supported Nazi’s. Queer history is not clean. It is not simple, or easy, or always on the right side of the battle. Like all of history it is complex.”
And today actually I saw someone do the exact thing you were talking about in a post saying:
“can we all just pretend james buchanan wasn’t gay, i don’t want him”
So this is a real thing, and it is actually something we have dealt with a lot in our writing. In the post above I don’t think the person was seriously saying that we should pretend this historical figure isn’t queer, I believe from context and tone it is probably just a person who is venting and wants their community to be full of unproblematic people.
But that very idea, even in a joking tone, is harmful and we should unpack it and want to thank you for giving us the opportunity to do so.
So to begin, this phenomenon has many origins but one of the big ones is probably peoples desire to turn history into a series of Great Men. And while this theory is not directly discussing what we are about to, we believe it to be a factor in the problem. Because in the end both of these problems find their roots in attempts to simplify complex concepts/events/people in history.
We want history to be easy, we want to look at a person and say “this person is Bad and I am in no way connected to them because I am Not Bad” but that isn’t what history is.
History is endlessly complex, confusing, and at times frustrating. And these are often seen as “bad” emotions so we try to squish history down into more bite sized concepts so we don’t have to feel them. Make history into this battle between good and evil, where everything is simple and easily understood.
So when people look into the history of a community, they use its members to “prove” whether the community was good or bad. Which leads to communities trying to repress the more nasty parts of their history.
And Making Queer History is not immune to this. In fact it is something I often think about, and have in many cases failed in. I am a writer, and I do my best writing when I care about the people/subject I am discussing. So I am more likely to choose to write about someone I like than someone I don’t.
An example of this happened last week actually. I had been thinking about this exact concept and to attempt to stop it from affecting our project too much I tried to write about Salvador Dali. A man from history I hate. And I cried.
Legitimately, I got so mad while researching this man I began crying, and I ended up writing about someone else.
And while I did not actively deny that Salvador Dali was queer, I did in a small way contribute to the problem that leads people to do that kind of thing.
We want to see the good side of a community we are a part of because if the community isn’t perfect our minds try to simplify that into the community is bad. So many people either react by deciding the community is bad, or by rejecting the person who stops the community from being perfect from the community, and neither of those responses are healthy.
So yes, you are right. Denying that the “bad people” in history could have also been queer, is not accurate or good for the community as a whole. It is denying facts, it is removing nuance, and it is damaging how we view ourselves as a community.
Because when we remove these people from our history we absolve ourselves of their problems. In the case of Alexander Hamilton, we remove a racist man from our communities history because we don’t want to think about how our community has had (and still has) a problem with racism.
I like to say that just because there have been queer people who have done bad things in history, does not mean that being queer is what made them bad. But it also goes the other way, just because queer people have done amazing things in history, does not mean that we are as a whole an amazing community.
We have problems that we need to address from our history that have carried on into our present, and pretending they were not a part of our history is just another way of denying they could be a part of our present. So we need to look at these “bad people”, so we can address the problems that we had, and how we in our community can try to prevent those problems in the future.
The queer community is not inherently good or bad, because the queer community is made up of people, and each person has negative aspects and positive aspects that they bring to the table. And the community is just in the end a jumble of all of these positive and negative aspects. And the sooner we acknowledge that the sooner we can move to the next step making an environment that supports change and growth with education, and positive and negative reinforcement, instead of just throwing every person who does something wrong out of the community.
There have been great people in our community, and there have been horrible people, and we need to look at people on either side of the spectrum, and in the middle. Because history is endlessly complex, confusing, and at times frustrating, but that is a good thing because humans are too.