ArtString: Love & Identity

Featured String: Love & Identity

As the curators at the British Museum no doubt found in 2017, when they began assembling an LGBTQ history trail to celebrate 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, it can be difficult to get really compelling evidence that an artefact has what, for the sake of brevity, we’ll call “queer roots”.

There are a lot of reasons for that.


For a long time in English (and later British) history, gender variation and same-sex desire were increasingly frowned upon and persecuted. This didn’t just take the form of legally or physically suppressing individuals (punishing people with breasts for wearing trousers or people with testes for wearing dresses, punishing men who had sex with men or boys, and women who had sex with other women or girls), but also scrubbing the public record clean of any reference to behaviour that was considered really socially undesirable. While this was the recorded reality, same-sex desire continued to exist…

Contemporary literature from the time periods might talk a lot about adultery or unwanted pregnancies out of wedlock as subjects for scorn, but as the centuries passed, it grew more and more vague and euphemistic about same-sex desire and gender variance. In the 19th Century especially, it was as if knowing about same-sex desire was suspected of being able to cause it.

This censorship was excused as preserving the innocence of the young and especially of women, as it often is today. More sexually-free periods of history were subject to omissions in museums and in history books, and works of classical literature were sometimes translated differently to avoid implications of same-sex desire. The British Museum itself had a storeroom of sexually explicit works kept out of the way of the innocent eye of the public, which included works of same-sex sexuality.  The suppression of LGBTQ history ended more recently than you might think in the UK, with the repeal of Section 28 (banning the teaching of same-sex relationships as a normal lifestyle) not taking place until the 21st century!

While this censorship has been rolled back a bit in recent years, and it’s possible to see items like the Warren Cup with its frank depiction of same-sex sexuality, there are still many items which are kept back from the public–not because of their ‘corrupting’ influence, but often simply because they don’t fit a clean narrative about a culture, or might cause offence.

Should museums make these kind of decisions on the behalf of visitors? Aren’t adults capable of deciding if they want to see, for example, Pan Copulating With A Goat (to pick the most obviously scandalous of statues)?

Unfortunately, as public institutions, museums are subject to a degree to opinion-makers, who have decided that museums are for children (a fine idea), and that children should not know anything about sexuality.

Changing Categorisation & Terminology

When depictions in artefacts and texts aren’t as graphic as they are on the Warren Cup and The Winter Count, it can be harder to pinpoint how an individual might have felt or identified. In cases like that of Anne Lister, where first-hand accounts are clear and incontestable, are rare. This is especially the case with public figures, who might expect their personal correspondence to be read; although the love letters from James I & VI of England and Scotland to George Villiers, for example, are highly romantic-sounding and although he had a passage built between his chamber and that of Villiers for private access, there are still those who argue that this is not unusual for the time period and should not be considered “proof” of same-sex affairs… or that there simply is no evidence.

Terminology and the way people speak to each other change regularly through history; affectionate speech between men was a lot more common in England’s past than it is in the present. Likewise, slang terms for same-sex desire and gender variance change regularly and are often not made a record of, so it can be hard to know immediately whether affections are romantic or platonic (and whether this matters!). When texts or inscriptions have to be translated from another language and culture that no longer exists in its past form, this becomes even more difficult!

Image of a rectangular black granite stela with mostly textual carvings
Granite stela of Hor and Suty, Egypt, 18th Dynasty, around 1350 BC

As the British Museum notes about this stela:

Here, the men refer to each other as:

‘my brother, like myself, his ways pleased me,
for he had come from the womb
with me on the same day.’

This is usually interpreted as meaning that they were twins—and their names suggest they were named after the twin gods Horus and Seth (also known as Suty).

[You can read more about this on the British Museum’s website].

But how people refer to each other can be misleading. For example, in 16th and 17th Century England, the term “sweet friend” was often used to denote your lover, which might not be immediately obvious now. “Friends” has been used quite often throughout history as terms of endearment between same-sex lovers; and “brother” is often a term of endearment, even now, between close male friends. We don’t know whether this was or wasn’t the case as far back as the 18th Dynasty!

With gender variance, trying to pinpoint how people might identify in modern terms can sometimes be misleading: in the past in the West, sexuality and gender were often very highly linked, and people who were born men who were attracted to men or people who were born women who were attracted to women might cross-dress or declare themselves to have a “male/female soul” to explain their attraction. Whether this means they weren’t also transgender is often subject for debate!

In cases like that of the Chevalier D’eon, it can sometimes be a little clearer. The Chevalier originally came to England under a male identity but later made a legal bid to be recognised as a woman, saying that she had been always been a girl, and had been raised in the disguise of a boy for reasons of inheritance. She was granted this right, and spent the remainder of her life as a woman, with the majority of people believing the bare facts of her story in physical terms. After her death, the Chevalier’s corpse was examined by doctors, who discovered that she had a penis and testes–suggesting quite strongly that she was London’s first trans woman celebrity.

For transgender men it’s harder to find evidence in history, because of the inherent imbalance between men’s roles and women’s roles. A person who was born as a girl couldn’t do a great many things for much of history, in many countries–and sometimes disguised themselves as men in order to do them without being found out. However, many of these women in disguise later came out of disguise when they felt safe to do so, and continued their lives as women.

In other cases, they did not, and went to their graves as men, often assisted by their friends who, even with the knowledge of their anatomy, agreed with their assessment of their own gender.

Continuing Prejudice

It could be quite wrong to talk about censorship or denial about “queer roots” artefacts as a thing of the past, too. While most historians don’t necessarily view same-sex attraction or gender variance as a slur against historical figures any longer (although some do), it’s true that a lot of people require a higher level of ‘compelling evidence’ to prove a relationship between two people of the same sex in the past was sexual or romantic, than they do if the people in the relationship are of different sexes (and the same is true of ‘disguise’ versus ‘gender variance’, as we’ve seen above!).

To quote a historian at the Royal Palaces LGBT History Tour of the Tower of London for Pride 2018, “It’s interesting, isn’t it, that with all the evidence I’ve just shown you, there are still historians who say we’ve got no ‘proof’ Edward II and Piers Gaveston were lovers, but with considerably less evidence are happy to claim that Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella were having a romantic affair rather than a political one…”

This reluctance to accept alternative readings of history is sometimes just the nature of historians–and academics in general!–who enjoy nothing more than arguing about each others’ theories, and sometimes “heterosexism“: the not-always conscious bias towards opposite-sex couples and interpretations.

The equivalent term for ignoring evidence of or trying to explain away gender variance is “cissexism“; as we’ve seen in the previous section it can often be harder to determine how individuals might have defined their gender than it is to determine whether it’s likely they were in a relationship with someone of the same gender as them.

Ethnocentrism & ‘Chronocentrism

What’s “ethnocentrism”?

Ethnocentrism is the logical fallacy or belief that everywhere in the world does things the same way they’re done where you grew up, and that every culture in the world must secretly at heart believe the same things that people do where you grew up.

What’s “chronocentrism”?

This is a term we’ve coined to explain similar attitudes about history. It’s sometimes tempting to believe that everything we’ve become aware of in our own lifetimes must be a “new invention”, but most social behaviours are just different ways of looking at things people have always done (for example: Ancient Romans had a morning-after pill). It’s also very tempting to believe that “social progress” is a straight line from intolerance to tolerance, but that’s not true either! Attitudes to different behaviour and ways of looking at different behaviour have changed a lot with the passage of time.

Sometimes that’s uncomfortable to look at, but when we’re looking at the past it’s important not to think “didn’t they know this was wrong/right/normal/not normal”, because people in the past had different concepts of wrong, right, normal and not normal than we do now, and using our own views to look at theirs won’t help us make sense of them!

Outside of Europe, gender identity and gender performance are sometimes linked with spiritual roles and specific social position. For a brief overview, see the British Museum’s own section on Gender Identity; while Western understandings of same-sex relations and gender variance have for many centuries revolved around individual “sin” or “disorder” (and later illness), historically cultures outside of the West have had other ways of seeing things.

For example, during and prior to the Warring States period in Japan, age-structured same-sex relations (between older and younger men) were considered either normal or at the very most “a mild lapse in judgment” in male-dominated communities, such as Buddhist monasteries, or among the Samurai. A parallel might easily be drawn with the erastes/eromenos relationships of 5th century Athens. Genuine animosity towards or distaste for same-sex relationships in society didn’t really take off in Japan until the Meiji Restoration period–coming about in a large part because of a conscious effort to imitate the values of the West, where homosexuality was condemned.

Conceptions of gender and sexuality outside of a Western context don’t follow along Western binary lines–neither dividing between “straight and gay” in the same way, nor between “male and female”. Referring to Samoan fa’afafine or Indian subcontinental Hijra as third gender is a useful catch-all for people to whom binaries are the only framework available, but it isn’t always accurate; for example, in several cultures in the Indian subcontinental region, there are multiple genders that would, in the West, be lumped together as “transgender women”, which are distinct from each other . Hijra and fa’afafine have been present in their respective cultures for and extremely long time, and experienced parallel persecution under European colonialism and its aftermath.

Further reading

If you’re interested in finding out more about this, various London museums and galleries (the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Historic Palaces in particular) do LGBT History tours either annually or monthly–check out their websites for details. If you can’t wait until then, a good place to start is with the British Museum’s own book, A Little Gay History.


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