24.06.19

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Leafing through the Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History is an exciting experience: Edward II of England, Benvenuto Cellini, Pope Julius II, Michel de Montaigne, Constantine Cavafy, Marguerite Yourcenar, etc. It’s like a revelation: suddenly, gays and lesbians are made visible. History ceases to be heterosexual. We were there all along. Everywhere.

Published by Routledge in 2001 (1st ed.) and 2002 (2nd ed.)

In this book, respectable academics discuss famous people, from Antiquity to World War II, their achievements, but most importantly the facts and the rumours about their sexual preferences. The latter cannot be brushed under the heteronormative carpet anymore.

Straight people will struggle to understand how vital it is for LGBT people to see that other men and women like them (were they famous artists, politicians or rulers) not only existed in the past but also contributed to the society. 

Studying History can be a very depressing experience for a young gay man: he looks for traces proving that his ‘vice’ was shared by others, that other people like him ever existed. But most of the time these traces, these hints, these facts are hidden, and if, by chance, they become visible, they are rejected by the mainstream.

Many historians will refuse to acknowledge that so and so were gay, hiding their unease (or their homophobia) behind long boring historical considerations, such as: ‘being gay’ is a modern construct… so even if x and y had same-sex intercourse, they didn’t think of themselves as being gay. Or (another favourite of mine): even if x was in love with his friend (as shown by an authentic letter or a journal, for instance), we have no proof that he had sex with him, it was clearly platonic love. 

“Because It Was Him, Because It Was Me” – Michel de Montaigne

The basic assumption in History, and more broadly in society, is always that everyone is straight. If one is a national treasure (such as Shakespeare in the UK, Montaigne in France, Lorca in Spain), the idea that they could belong to the LGBT tribe is met with strong resistance, contempt or even vicious hostility. These historical experts will often end up telling you that it doesn’t matter if Shakespeare, Montaigne or Lorca were interested in men. But if it is so, why spend so much energy to prove that they were not? The Who’s Who is full of names of historians (mainly from the 19thand 20thcentury) who spent their careers making these famous people look more straight than they really were. 

I hope that the school curriculum is now more diverse than when I was at school, that young LGBT people can see themselves represented in the past and know that they are not alone. In fact, I hope they now understand (thanks to the Who’s Who or, to cite another excellent book, Gay life stories) that they can also be great, that their sexuality, even if it defines them, will not degrade them.

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