This week, a contrarian hot take from England has sparked debate among many in the queer community. The piece argues that perhaps it is a good thing for queer youth to not know or care about queer history. This ignorance is a sign, according to the author, that they have been freed from some ineffable burden, and can just enjoy life – blissful, ignorant life.
Of course, the reason young LGBTQ+ people are free to be ignorant is because their own history is not taught to them at all — not in school, or in most family settings. So this freedom is rather paradoxical: the freedom to not carry what they were never given; the freedom to dismiss what has already been discarded for them. It is intellectual poverty repackaged as privilege, and the fact that queer youth are thriving nonetheless is an indicator of their brilliance and resilience — not a sign that they don’t need this history.
The author of the piece has already been (appropriately) dragged so hard that he’s quit Twitter. I’ll leave that dead horse for others to beat. But I want to address the central question: What is the importance of queer history?
I think I should be writing something here about the need for ancestors, and pioneers – about Harry Hay and Sylvia Rivera, Abu Nuwas and Sappho. And yes, of course, that matters. I cried the first time I read about a person who reminded me of myself (it was the seventh grade. I cried a lot.) Experience shows that teaching queer history in schools can significantly reduce homo/transphobic bullying. There is also quite a bit of research that shows that all students gain from being taught diverse stories. This knowledge allows them to think more critically about ideas, and less judgmentally about their peers. Everybody wins.
Moreover, if you’ll pardon the cliché, history is a vast tapestry. When we pluck out a single thread because the color offends us, the overall picture becomes warped and unintelligible. Without queer history, we cannot truly understand history, full stop.
But none of this is what matters to me. At least, not primarily.
Like most people, I came to queer history looking for a sign that I wasn’t alone. I thought that understanding it was like a mechanical exercise in grammar, where I just had to change the tense on the information I already knew — that we are everywhere; we were everywhere; we will be everywhere. I assumed I understood what I was seeing: namely, myself in a cute period outfit. I thought if I looked long enough, I would find gay people just like me throughout recorded history.
However, the longer I stared at what I thought was my own reflection, the less I recognized myself. I began to realize that sexuality and gender identity differ vastly across time and place. What I initially thought was a mirror was actually a window, and once I managed to look past the pale reflection of my own ego, what I saw blew my mind: cultures with five genders, and cultures with almost none. Places where class, as much as sex and age, determined what were considered appropriate sexual relations. Everywhere – and every when – there were ways of being that made absolutely no fucking sense to me.
And I loved it.
I wanted to learn that being gay was natural. Instead, queer history taught me that nothing is natural, and that every culture creates its own understandings of bodies and pleasures. In a strange way, what queer history has given me is an appreciation for my own ignorance and limitations. Studying history has been a series of lessons in humility, which I try to take with me into every new situation. I am my own blindspot, and I will always see myself in others before I can truly see them for themselves.
This is the gift I would like to pass on to youth who are ignorant of queer history: There is so much more you do not know. If you enjoy being a little ignorant, study our past and present, and realize just how ignorant we all are.