In the UK, February is LGBTQ+ History Month.
Turns out, this is a little bit confusing, because in the US, LGBTQ+ History Month is in October and February is Black History Month. For the record, Black History Month is in October in the UK. I don’t know who decided this, or what they were trying to achieve by reversing those, but it’s managed to thoroughly confuse a few people I’ve talked to recently.
Oh, and LGBTQ+ History Month isn’t the same thing as Pride Month. That’s in June. Yay, twice the opportunities to celebrate our identities!
LGBTQ+ History Month is important to me because the more I learn about the past, the more I realise how simplistic and reductive a lot of our societal narratives of gender and sexuality are. How we think we’re looking at universal constants, when actually all we’re seeing is the product of our specific era and its influences.
More than that, I think it’s important for young queer people to know that there have always been people like them — and that those people have left their mark on the world, even if it’s not a mark many of us were taught about in school. When you grow up without role models you can relate to, it can be hard to imagine your own future; how do you know what success looks like, when you’ve never seen it? Alternative narratives give people hope, as well as helping us all understand our world’s history a little better.
There isn’t much of a queer community where I live, but I’m trying to mark the month in my own way, mostly by reading. I’ve been trying to branch out and read more nonfiction recently; I just recently read a book about the Irish language (Motherfoclóir) and one about the life of Anne Lister (Gentleman Jack). I haven’t really read any nonfiction since graduating uni, and I’m trying to learn more about the world outside of my own experiences and the niche world of medieval Irish literature. So I’m planning to read a few books on queer history.
Also, over on Instagram, I’m hosting a themed photo challenge called Books Out Loud. It’s my first time hosting a bookstagram challenge by myself (though I’ve collaborated with Cait @ Paper Fury twice now), so I imagine it’ll be a fairly small challenge, but it’s a way to make people aware that LGBTQ+ History Month is happening, as well as share some of my favourite books with canonically queer characters.
I’ve made it clear that people don’t have to be LGBTQ+ to take part, nor do the books they use need to fall under that umbrella, but that pictures relating to the theme are particularly welcome. I’m hoping to discover a few new books to read during the month.
While looking for a quote to use for one of my own pictures, I came across an old blog post of mine where I talked about my experiences realising I was queer, and how rarely I saw anything in fiction that reflected that. I also came across a few references to the fact that in 2013 or thereabouts, only five of the (many) books I owned featured canonically LGBTQ+ characters. This made me think about a conversation I was having recently with a friend who is a few years younger than me, about how few queer people I knew in real life until a comparatively late stage.
The world has changed. Even in ten years, it’s changed, and I’d like to think that when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues, it’s primarily for the better. I hope that kids now are growing up with books and stories and education to help them figure themselves out.
But I also think when the world changes in such a short space of time that it’s easy to think all of this is a recent thing, a modern phenomenon, a product of this age — and forget that people like us have existed for hundreds of years.
I fall into this trap myself — or a similar one, anyway. As a medievalist who spent most of last year bogged down in queer theory, it’s easy to think of the past as a time when queerness is expressed primarily through subtext and metaphor, if not only through subtext and metaphor. It was kind of wild therefore to read Gentlemen Jack and see a historical figure like Anne Lister who kept diaries that explicitly detailed her sex life, making it impossible to deny her sexuality.
Sometimes our history is metaphor and subtext, written in the margins if at all. Sometimes we do find ourselves more in what isn’t said than in what is. But there’s a lot that has been said, and this month I’m hoping to read some more of it.
So on that note, what are your favourite books about LGBTQ+ history? I’m primarily looking for accessible nonfiction, but I’ll take recs for historical fiction too (note: I’ve already read The Gentlemen’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Confessions of the Fox, most of Sarah Waters’ backlist, Wildthorn, and several other popular historical novels with LGBTQ+ characters).
I’ll start: I loved reading Pride by Tim Tate and LGSM and getting a sense of the true story behind the film of the same name — how a group of lesbians and gay men from London supported striking miners in the 80s. It was funny, interesting, and gave me an insight into an aspect of history I hadn’t known about before the film.
Please give me your recs — if nothing else, it’ll give me an excuse to go to Gay’s The Word again!