Accessing Our Histories by Mel Reeve

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Accessing Our Histories;
How Language Choices Can Erase and Instagram Can Help…

by Mel Reeve

Social media sites are an amazing resource for LGBTQ+ people looking to engage with their histories using primary visual sources. Instagram in particular has a variety of individuals and heritage services that post regular images and primary sources relating to LGBTQ+ history. Just a few examples of accounts that regularly post about LGBTQ+ history include; @theaidsmemorial, @H_e_r_S_t_o_r_y,@lesbianherstoryarchives, @LGBThistoryindia, @lavender_archivist, @blacklesbianarchives, @Interferencearchive, @onearchives,  and then contemporary accounts like @betteportergallery and @godimsuchadyke. There are also accounts that post contemporary updates, like a real-time gossip archive of Sapphic relationships famous women are having - for example @losfelizlesbian and @sogaydude.

These profiles can be a great resource; although some museums and archives do a lot of work to increase their inclusivity and promote the histories of marginalised groups, there are still many fundamental barriers which using technology like social media to share individual records and stories can overcome. In a way, each Instagram profile acts like a specialist repository itself - which can be a great way to redress the historical imbalance in our written and photographic records. We do have physical institutions like the London Feminist library, Glasgow Women’s Library (in particular their Lesbian Archive collection) and the Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony (ALOT), all of which are vital but are sadly almost unique resources. The Digital Transgender Archive  is a good example of how new technology can break down the physical barriers of collecting, gathering material from a variety of physical locations, and making it available through a single, focused online portal. This makes these histories far more accessible than they would be as they are in their physical state (split across small collections spread through multiple archive facilities). 

This same principle is applied with dedicated social media accounts for LGBTQ+ history: we can all be curators and promote our history in an easy, accessible way. Much physical material relating to LGBTQ+ history comes from the perspective of the oppressor, in the form of police reports, criminal records etc. This is an important part of our history, but there should also be space for the day-to-day lives of our forebears, for moments of joy and triumph and even the mundane. The gaps in our histories created by a need for secrecy and the physical erasure of our histories by those in power can’t be undone, but the narrative element of these kinds of profiles offer an interesting opportunity to describe and debate these areas openly, to explore the nuance. While these profiles have the capacity to do a lot of good and to bring a wider sense of community, this potential comes with responsibility. Sometimes, viewing how LGBTQ+ history is represented on social media, I am reminded that the right bisexual people have to our mutual histories is not acknowledged.

The nature of bisexuality means that we are seen as not quite enough of either thing. Our histories are not represented in the heteronormative, heterosexual narrative, and are rarely acknowledged in lesbian and gay histories either. This is not surprising, as bisexual people often have to deal with having their identities erased depending on their partner at the time, but it raises issues when it comes to the process of representing or researching queer history. Any consideration or description of queer history in an academic setting, or a setting which is acting as a way to access history (…such as an Instagram account posting primary sources, whether run by individuals, groups, or heritage services themselves) needs to be aware of the nuance of describing historical LGB relationships, and also of describing historical relationships involving transgender, non-binary, or non-gender conforming people.

It is not possible to understand the histories of each letter of the LGBTQ+ umbrella separately. Those terms are contemporary ways to understand something that crosses the boundaries of culture, language and time. That does not make these identities any less legitimate; to paraphrase Sappho (and intentionally misinterpret slightly), we have always existed and will continue to exist. We can assert the reality of LGBTQ+ history and celebrate it, whilst understanding the distinctions we make now between lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities did not exist until comparatively recently, and we can celebrate those distinctions in a way that does not eradicate the links between the two. Being more inclusive of bisexual people when discussing lesbian and gay history, and acknowledging that we are part of that historical narrative, does not diminish or exclude gay and lesbian people, it allows us to have a richer understanding of our histories and enriches our communities now.

LGBTQ+ history month is a time to celebrate these histories, a way to remind people that we have been here for a long time and we’re not going anywhere. Discovering that people with identities similar to mine had existed throughout history was incredibly important for me, it made me feel validated and real, something that many young LGBTQ+ people struggle. The chance to write about my own experience engaging with LGBTQ+ history for The Bi-ble gave me a space to celebrate that.

If you’re interested in learning more about the role bisexual people have played as activists and key members of our community here are a few articles:

http://binetusa.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/bisexual-activists-erased-from-abcs.html
https://bisexual.org/the-bisexual-warriors-of-the-gay-movement/
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/feb/15/bisexuality-lgbt-history-month