Looking back through history, you could be forgiven for thinking LGBTQ communities didn’t exist before the dawn of the 20th century. Of course, we know that’s a fallacy, the invention of far-right thinkers, religious despots or people without much imagination. But in truth, scouring the archives, the second-hand books or any ancient prestigious library, you’ll be hard-pressed to track down in the many pages of the countless books written over the last few hundred years, an open and honest account of same-sex love.
The Greek tragedies aside, books depicting strong gay stories, fact or fiction, remained few and far between until the late Victorian period. Sure, Shakespeare’s sonnets have homoerotic undertones, and Oscar Wilde courted controversy because of the illicit content of his various writings, but these examples are exceptions.
Oscar Wilde courted controversy
As a general rule, outside the sphere of artistic literature, our LGBTQ lives have been relegated, omitted or expunged. We have so often been erased.
Any civilisation is characterised by its past. It is in looking back with a good dose of navel-gazing that we find our collective identity. Nations rise and fall and people come and go, as do attitudes and societal norms. Yet as an LGBTQ community, the history of our people is often lost to us. We don’t inherit a societal rulebook from our families, nor are we taught the great deeds of our gay ancestors. So as we start out on our lifelong personal journeys, how do we discover our community identity if we don’t know much about those who have gone before us?
It provokes a deep and meaningful question: what is the real, tangible impact of gay erasure? I recently went to see two new and fabulous films at the cinema: Mary Queen Of Scots and The Favourite. The first - directed by Josie Rourke and featuring Saoirse Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as her rival and cousin, the great Elizabeth I - is a blockbuster tipped for significant success.
Jack Lowden at the New York premiere of Mary, Queen of Scots
But as the pundits applaud the right royal performances, I can’t help but feel excited for an altogether different reason. This boundary-pushing film marked the first time that I’d seen Mary’s husband, Henry, Lord Darnley (played by Jack Lowden), portrayed as he really was; a bisexual man living in the 16th century and sleeping with both his wife and his male lovers.
Seems simple enough. And yet, turning back to the history books of the last 200 years, you could be forgiven for thinking that Hollywood had once more been working its magic, spinning a yarn to sell a good story. But it hadn’t.
Jack Lowden as Lord Darnley
Only in recent years, as hard-fought-for LGBTQ rights have been won, have societal attitudes begun to soften. And as this has happened, so have academic historians, once reluctant to discuss the sexuality of historical figures, begun to move with the times.
Younger, more liberal historians in particular are leading the charge, more rounded in their outlook and not threatened by sexuality. They have started to look back through the archives and sift the evidence passed down from generation to generation. In so doing, they’ve discovered the gay histories of people such as Henry, Lord Darnley - histories which, until now, have simply been ignored or erased.
But not all historians have been so open-minded...
NOT LOVERS, ‘CONFIDANTES’
Judging by the many sniffy reviews about the on-screen portrayal of Darnley, it’s evident that there are still those who see great merit in the business of gay erasure.
Darnley was quite the character. Second cousin to his wife, Mary, Queen of Scots, he too had a claim to both the Scottish and English thrones. He was witty, flamboyant and something of a twink at court. Mary fell for him instantly.
However, following their marriage, she realised that he had other tastes, and the entourage of beautiful men he kept close by meant she would not be the sole recipient of her husband’s affections.
Ismael Cruz Cordova as David Rizzio in Mary, Queen of Scots
Darnley’s reciprocated love for David Rizzio, one of the Queen’s principal advisors, is explored in the film, with the two men dancing and then waking up in bed together the next morning. Darnley’s recovery from an STI is also played out on screen. And it doesn’t stop there either. Rizzio’s queerness is explored too - one scene has him cross-dressing and declaring himself a sister to the Queen and her ladies.
In the history books, Rizzio’s sexual encounters with his mistress’s husband are whitewashed, so often reduced to a throw-away comment that Darnley saw him as his ‘only governor’. It’s poor historiography, masked in a thick layer of homophobia.
Ismael Cruz Cordova as David Rizzio (left) Saoirse Ronan as Mary Queen Of Scots (right)
Too many old academics, many still writing, remain adamant that some of their key historical subjects couldn’t possibly have been gay. Too often characters from history who were close to people of the same sex and, reading between the lines, were clearly in intimate and passionate same-sex relationships, are marked down as ‘friends’, ‘very close friends’ or ‘confidantes’.
With the absence of explicit evidence of graphic sexual activity (why would most of us leave this behind?), historians seem happy to view an absence of dirty laundry as an absence of gay fact. It’s a poor argument.
CUT ADRIFT FROM GAY PAST
This feels to me like a conscious and concerted attempt to erase our history. The authors of these books hold a prejudice that screams out in their work; the silence is deafening.
Such views damage our collective understanding of our LGBTQ past, and leave the later generations of gay, lesbian, bi and trans people without a link to their history. Our ancestors are closeted in death, and we are left adrift as a result.
Emma Stone (left) and Olivia Colman (right) in The Favourite
And so we come to the second movie I saw: The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, with the Bafta and Oscar-winning Olivia Colman in the role of the busty Queen Anne. The film focuses on the relationships between Anne and her ladies-in-waiting - Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (played by the fabulous Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone).
TACKLING GAY ERASURE
The often-overlooked story of Queen Anne is beautifully explored, the film bringing to the screen the lesbian relationships and subsequent rivalries between these three women. But, as expected, the old vanguard of sniffy conservative historians have come out in their droves to refute the notion that these women were anything other than ‘friends’, citing the queen’s 17 children (many stillborn) as proof of her heterosexual-only preference. The notion that she could be bisexual has not even been considered by many of these critics. Ann, Sarah and Abigail have become the victim of homophobic erasure by some.
Rachcel Weisz and Olivia Colman in The Favourite
So where does this leave us? While films are often not a true record of our historical past, it seems that the medium of cinema is nowadays creating a liberating opportunity for our community, as stories and histories of previous generations are once more explored. And movies being movies, this means that these stories of gay history are reaching a global audience.
Perhaps now, more than ever before, the issue of gay erasure can be tackled head-on. There is much to do and a long way to go, but I for one will be calling it out when I see it. I hope you do too, whenever you see that it’s happening.
Together, we can reclaim our past from those who would see it disappear altogether.
The Stephen Spinks Column - follow Stephen on Twitter @SpinksStephen
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