News and events

News

Silhouettes of people against an LGBT flag

Image courtesy of Getty Images.

LGBT+ history month: forgotten figures who challenged gender expression and identity centuries ago

Non-binary and trans people have always been here, not least in every recorded society from the ancient world onwards.

This article was published by the Conversation.

Why is it then that they’re often absent from the tales and lists of historical figures we hear about?

The answer lies, in part, with how history is recorded and who records it.

People who belong to groups that fear being ostracised and persecuted often only reveal their true selves to a few people.

As a result, the visibility of LGBT+ people, even during moments in history when they have faced hostility, is often limited.

Coupled with that is a dearth of historical records because authors of these historical accounts were often prejudiced and did not want to record the experiences of those considered shameful under the values of their time.

Historians working on the queer past need to understand why LGBT+ people, along with members of other marginalised groups, don’t appear as often in recorded history compared with those outside of these communities.

Fortunately, historians are now beginning to look around more carefully to find these important stories.

Gender presentation in the 18th and 19th centuries

Our understanding of being transgender has evolved considerably in the last few decades.

Transgender experiences aren’t necessarily limited to people who undergo medical procedures to alter their body; they also include people who present themselves as different from the gender they were assigned at birth.

Much of society now appreciates that the gender to which a person is assigned at birth might be entirely different from their gender identity, which is different again to their gender expression.

On one level, a person’s gender is defined by how they identify, that is, how they feel internally: as a woman, or a man, as neither, or as anything in between on the gender spectrum.

But what is also important is your gender expression, that is, the deliberate and accidental signals you give to others about your gender through aspects such as what you wear and how you cut your hair.

Although the terminology we use to describe gender would have been alien in the 18th and early 19th centuries, in those eras, many people would have understood these concepts.

Some women who were sexually and romantically attracted to other women, then as now, presented as more masculine, both for personal gratification and sometimes to be accepted by society.

Anne Lister (or “Gentleman Jack” – the subject of a recent TV series starring Suranne Jones) is a good example.

Under 19th-century ideas of gender, she would have been perceived by others as masculine, and it wasn’t until 1988 when the biographer Helena Whitbread decoded her diaries that the true extent of her lesbian relationships and life was discovered.

Other women presented themselves as men for reasons of career ambition, because they wished to make life choices denied to the half of the population assigned female at birth.

In the American Civil War, Franklin Thompson and Harry Buford were widely praised soldiers who fought for and spied for the Confederate States. Both were women passing as men, or in the phrase of historian Matthew Teorey who has worked on their cases, women who “unsexed” themselves…

Dr Catherine Armstrong, a Reader in Modern History at Loughborough University, discusses forgotten figures who challenged gender expression and identity centuries ago in the Conversation

Read the full article here

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 21/19

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2020 QS World University Rankings and University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2019.

Loughborough is in the top 10 of every national league table, being ranked 7th in the Guardian University League Table 2021, 5th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2020 and 6th in The UK Complete University Guide 2021.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and is in the top 10 in England for research intensity. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.

Categories