Identity and the Problem of (Evolving) Language

Milena Popova writes about the problem of applying contemporary terms about gender and sexuality to historical figures.

During the 2014 Winter Olympics (the ones that Russia hosted right after implementing Section 28′s bigger, meaner evil twin), I played something called the Tchaikovsky Drinking Game. It went a bit like this:

– Non-Russians use music by gay Russian composer: take a drink.
– Russians use music by gay Russian composer who is also a national treasure: take two drinks.
– Entire Russian national team walks into stadium to the sound of t.A.T.u: down the bottle.

Of course, me being drunk on my sofa in no way helps LGBTQIA+ people experiencing horrendous violence in Russia, and I did also put some of my money where my mouth was, but sometimes the irony just gets a little too much.

There is, however, a second problem with the Tchaikovsky Drinking Game, and that is that Tchaikovsky died well before “gay” became an identity one could assign to people. In this case, it’s a fairly safe bet that Tchaikovsky was predominantly attracted to men, but even if we could prove that neither his engagement to Désirée Artôt nor his marriage to Antonina Miliukova were in any way founded on sexual or romantic attraction (and we can’t), what we consider a gay identity and a gay experience in the early 21st century in the UK is vastly different to what Tchaikovsky would have experienced in 19th-century Russia. Frankly, any apparent commonality and similarity are more likely to be due to our incredible ability to view history through the lens of our own culture than anything else.

Things get even murkier when we look at historical figures who have had what look like meaningful relationships with men and women. The temptation becomes too great to discount any different-gender relationships in order to claim them for “the cause”, thereby often erasing any potential of bisexuality. There are people throughout history who were assigned female at birth and chose to wear men’s clothing and have relationships with women: do we read them as butch lesbians or as straight trans men? And how do we tell the difference between an aromantic asexual woman and a “spinster”?

It may therefore be tempting to refuse to assign such labels to historical figures who never self-identified as lesbian, gay, bi, trans, asexual, or any other of a range of identities available to us now but not to them when they were alive. This, however, leaves us a people without a history. It leaves us vulnerable, without precedent. It allows others to tell our stories for us. It creates the impression that LGBTQIA+ people simply made ourselves up some time in the mid-20th century, and that maybe if only we’re ignored, erased or oppressed enough, we will quietly fade out of existence. History is a powerful political tool, which is why it is often so hotly contested, and why LGBTQIA+ History Month is so important.

How, then, do we both do justice to our history as a people and recognise that the lived experiences of those who came before us will have differed significantly from ours? It’s a fine line to walk, but let me attempt it nonetheless.

I would, first of all, argue that LGBTQIA+ history is not the only history that suffers from this problem – and than to an extent we have an advantage because we are aware of it. After all, how do we meaningfully argue that a peasant in 15th-century Somerset can share a national identity with, say, a systems engineer in modern-day Bath? The gulf of lived experience is just as vast, the commonality just as constructed.

Using more nuanced language can go some way towards addressing the issues. Rather than calling Tchaikovsky gay, we can say that he had relationships with men. This can, however, sometimes result in focusing on acts at the expense of attractions and other inner experiences, thus erasing a number of possible identities such as bisexual or asexual. To mitigate this to an extent, we can speculate about the language historical figures may have used of themselves had they had access to our terminology, while still making it clear that it’s a speculation. Thus, if Tchaikovsky was alive today, he might identify as gay.

Above all, though, it is important to understand that any reading we make of history is by necessity revisionist and coloured by our own assumptions and prejudices. Perhaps the best we can do in telling our stories is make sure that we open up spaces and possibilities. I would encourage you to take the opportunity this LGBTQIA+ History Month to get students to question their assumptions and retell stories, while being aware that there is more than one possible reading of any given story – and any given person – out there.