Sexing The Past

Don’t blame me for that title, it is what the conference I spent the weekend at was called. It was, of course, the annual LGBT History academic conference. This year it took place in Liverpool. I had a great time, despite the ongoing disaster at Lime Street station which caused all sorts of transport issues (and despite the Liverpool rain).

Friday night saw the annual guest lecture, or rather two of them this year. I had seen Diana Souhami’s talk in Exeter, but it was just as good second time around. I was delighted to be able to hear a talk by Bisi Alimi, who has many important things to say about the legacy of colonialism, and says them incredibly eloquently.

For some reason best know to themselves, the conference decided to kick off one track with me talking about queer Romans. The audience wasn’t huge as there were two really good things on at the same time, but those who did listen to me seemed to enjoy what I had to say.

I was followed by Jonah Coman who gave a paper on the weird ways in which mediaeval mystics feminised Christ. The picture below is not the Eye of Sauron, it is Christ’s wound as a vulva. See here if you want to learn more.

Finally in that session we had a great paper from Richard Godbeer who, as well as having an awesome name, is an expert on early American colonists. Through him I learned about Thomas/Thomasine Hall, a genderfluid and probably intersex person who lived in Virgina. We know a lot about them because of a well documented court case in 1629.

The intersex theme continued into the next session where Blake Gutt showed how a mediaeval cleric tried to make sense of the existence of people who seemed to be neither male nor female. Then Kit Heyam treated us to an entertaining tour through mediaeval buggery law. The extreme reluctance of anyone to describe what sodomy or buggery actually was made it very difficult for courts to convict anyone. Kit also noted that pictures of Thomas Aquinas almost always show him looking very depressed. It’s not a good advert for theology.

The rest of the day was given over to panels telling harrowing stories of LGBT+ people in the military and LGBT+ asylum seekers. The British government did not come out of either panel looking good. In fact more accurately it ended up looking petty and vindictive.

I spent Saturday evening in a pub with Leah and Amber Moore and their mum. We were there primarily to listen to Marty O’Reilly, a very good guitarist from Santa Cruz. Leah tells me that the Caledonia puts on live gigs for free most nights. I am seriously impressed.

Of course when Leah and I get together mischief tends to happen. This time we ended up doing Google searches for weird pictures from mediaeval manuscripts, and I discovered the phenomenon of the Hairy Mary Magdalene. The short version is that in the 15th Century artists began to depict Mary Magdalene as covered in fur (apart from her boobs). Apparently the hairiness denoted her beastly (i.e. sexual) nature.

The following morning we had a panel about how we understand sexual and gender identities from past times. This was right up my street and I got to bore people about Foucault for a second time that weekend. The important point to remember is that heterosexuality is a 19th Century invention. Before that the idea that the world is divided into gays and straights would have seemed quite odd.

There was a session of papers by Nordic scholars, of which the most interesting was about attempts in 1984 by the Swedish government to persuade museums to pay more attention to LGBT+ issues.

After lunch there was supposed to be a panel on trans history by Stephen Whittle, but he couldn’t make it so I bullied Kit, Jonah and Blake into taking over the session. (They didn’t need that much bullying, to be honest.) It was a very good discussion, helped by some great audience participation. I’d love to do that again when we have had a bit of time to prepare.

Finally we had a museums and archaeology panel. Sarah Douglas has been doing some great work on gendering graves in Bronze Age Cyprus. Char Keenan has been equally busy filling Liverpool museums with queer content. And Lois Stone had some sage things to say about how archaeologists treat potentially trans burials.

I will entirely understand if much of this seems rather dull to you, but I love doing it and without it I would not be able to present fun public talks like the ones I have been doing in February. I was very pleased that we had at least six trans people attending this event. Hopefully next year there will be more. If you are a trans person with an academic interest in history, please do get in touch. As Blake said very eloquently on Sunday, and I said in my speech at Exeter, trans history is a political necessity in a time when people are actively trying to erase us from the historical record. This is important work.

One thought on “Sexing The Past

  1. A great read, thankyou… I am very interested in attending a conference like this next time, please e mail me! I study Egyptology myself.


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