LGBTQIA+ History: Issues of Terminology

By Gabrielle Storey

This piece is the second of four for Pride Month: in this discussion we briefly look at some of the issues around terminology in historical and art studies. We will be providing a specific reference piece for royal studies and sexualities at the end of the month!

The decision around what categorisations and labels to apply to historical figures is inherently complex. The issues of utilising modern terminology to figures who would not have used these terms begs the question: how do we describe and discuss non-heteronormative sexualities? There is also a need to consider culturally appropriate terms – although for many members of the LGBTQIA+ community, queer has been reclaimed from its derogatory use and fully embraced as a positive identity, not all members of the community feel the same way, and the categorisation of LGBTQIA+ history under ‘queer history’ can bring its own problems. One such approach advocated by Margaret Middleton in her article ‘Queer Possibility’ is to frame the language used appropriately, for example to add the phrase ‘if x were alive today, historians would describe them as lesbian/gay/queer’, and so forth. Gender and sexuality are social constructs and thus societies of the past (and thinking globally as well) would have different views and descriptors for what we would now bracket under LGBTQIA+ identities and sexualities.

As Elena McGrath has highlighted, the terms we use for exploring attraction outside of a monogamous, cis male and female partnership can be politically loaded. They write for a blog post compiled by Claire Hayward in 2016: “A term like queer implies a society that associates same-sex love with gender non-conformity as a particular kind of social transgression, and that has not existed in all times and places.” Loving, desiring, and engaging with someone outside societal norms, and/or the expression of one’s true self can still be contested and in some countries criminalised today. When some of the world today has moved towards embracing their past, other parts are still living acts of revolution to confront LGBTQIA+ histories. Some historical societies were far more open to genderfluid and LGBTQIA+ folk and their lives, and demonstrate the openness which was available to some. People study and appreciate history for several reasons, however the searching for a relatable figure, through which one can empathise with due to a shared identity, is one which can be difficult due to a lack of evidence and certainty.

Historians and heritage specialists may face slightly different challenges when preserving, discussing, and analysing works: however, the need to situate items and figures within their historical context whilst appreciating the difficulties of using anachronistic terminology need to be more openly discussed. Many artistic works undoubtedly deserve an appraisal and acknowledgement of their queer subjects or background: likewise, historical figures, even those who are already LGBTQIA+ icons, need to described with the awareness that our terminology may not have been accurate in their time, and even that we risk inaccuracies with these discussions without all the information available. This should not discourage historians from engaging with LGBTQIA+ history and historical figures that fall outside heteronormative boundaries, but instead to embrace the flexibility and terminology that we can utilise today.

What this piece argues is that historians, particularly scholars of royal studies, make informed choices when using terminology surrounding gender and sexuality, and that this decision is clearly stated. Consumers of works and students of these works should be able to view and participate in these discussions, in order to fully engage with the past. LGBTQIA+ studies is an important aspect of our past, which deserves a fuller exploration and to be prioritised when analysing and interpreting history.

Recommended Reading

Christina B. Hanhardt, “Queer History.” Organization of American Historians, 2019. Accessed 12 June 2021.

Claire Hayward, “ Queer Terminology: LGBTQ Histories and the Semantics of Sexuality,” 9 June 2016. Accessed 16 June 2021.

Discussion on LGBTQIA+ terminology in the arts, 9 June 2021

English Heritage, “LGBTQ History.” Accessed 16 June 2021.

Jon Sleigh, “Know your queer icons: a warning from art history,” 3 February 2020. Accessed 14 June 2021.

Margaret Middleton, “Queer Possibility.” Journal of Museum Education 45:4, 426-436, DOI: 10.1080/10598650.2020.1831218.

The Victoria & Albert Museum has a useful resources page, including a link to terminology:

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