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Trans Vikings and lesbian pirates: What is 'queering the past'?

People dressed as Vikings sail on a boat during the annual Viking festival of Catoira in north-western Spain August 5, 2018. The festival re-enacts past Viking raids in the area and is celebrated annually. REUTERS/Miguel Vidal

People dressed as Vikings sail on a boat during the annual Viking festival of Catoira in north-western Spain August 5, 2018. The festival re-enacts past Viking raids in the area and is celebrated annually. REUTERS/Miguel Vidal

What’s the context?

A British museum has identified Roman emperor Elagabalus as a trans woman, stirring debate about efforts to 'queer the past'

  • British museum says Roman emperor was a trans woman
  • 'Queering the past' revisits history through LGBTQ+ lens
  • Efforts to 'reclaim' historical figures are controversial

LONDON - A museum in Britain identified Roman emperor Elagabalus this week as a transgender woman, saying it would start using she/her pronouns in written materials about the third-century emperor following a closer reading of classical texts.

North Hertfordshire Museum said historical texts provided ample evidence of the emperor's trans identity, for example recounting how Elagabalus asked to be called "lady", "mistress" and "queen".

The announcement stirred debate about initiatives that seek to look back on history from an LGBTQ+ perspective, a process that is sometimes referred to as "queering the past". 

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Here's what you need to know.

What is 'queering the past'?

By revisiting historical texts or artifacts from an LGBTQ+ perspective - sometimes taking advantage of new technology such as DNA analysis - researchers have "rediscovered" figures from the past and highlighted their LGBTQ+ identities.

Revisiting history with an LGBTQ+ lens is about "looking into what might be seen as our own heritage and finding queer heritage there", said Dominic Janes, professor of modern history at Keele University, who has published several books on LGBTQ+ history.

Academics and historians say accounts of the past typically overlook LGBTQ+ identities by keeping the personal lives of artists or historical figures off limits, or by deeming their sexuality or gender identity as irrelevant.

"Nowadays, we tend to think that sexuality and other aspects of what people think of as their private lives are actually really important for understanding their public lives as well," Janes said. "That's caused a big shift."

As sexuality and gender identity have become flashpoint political issues around the world, understanding that LGBTQ+ people have always been part of history - and wider society - is another key motive for revisiting the past, Janes added.

"The process of 'queering' is about finding new answers - and while it does involved a certain degree of speculation, it does open up possibilities of what the past might have been," he said.  

What are recent examples of queering the past?

When a statue of two rumoured 18th-century female pirate lovers was unveiled on the banks of the River Thames in London three years ago, it was the first time they were publicly depicted as lovers.

The statue of Anne Bonny and Mary Read drew on historical sources that recounted how the women were a couple during their days as pirates in Caribbean.

The same year, a book argued that some Vikings, known for brutality and chauvinism as they pillaged their way across Europe, might have been trans men.

Recent DNA analysis of a famed Viking warrior unearthed in Sweden in 1899, which, as it contained a skeleton buried with swords and spears was presumed to be male, confirmed it was the remains of a woman.

And in April 2019, DNA tests showed that American Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski was almost certainly intersex, a finding that followed years of speculation over whether the 18th-century Polish nobleman was born with both male and female sex characteristics.

Why is the practice controversial?

Even within the LGBTQ+ community, efforts to 'queer the past' have proved controversial, partly because of differences of opinion over how historical characters should be identified.

"People who in the past might have been classified as 'effeminate' in the 18th or 19th centuries, were, in the 1980s, reclassified as (gay men)," said Janes.

"Now they are being reclaimed - and acclaimed - as being trans women. That tells us that our own terminology is not completely stable," he said.

Some attempts at queering the past have been ridiculed, such as an exhibition in August that attempted to understand a collection of personal objects found on a Tudor ship in London "through a Queer lens".

Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novelist and acclaimed LGBTQ+ writer Philip Hensher was blunt.

"I am as keen as anyone on gay sex," he wrote in a social media post. "But I have to say to these curators — you're f***ing mental."

So was Elagabalus really trans?

Most of what is known about Elagabalus - who served as emperor between A.D. 218 and A.D. 222 before being assassinated by his cousin - stems from historians of the time.

But Janes warned that they might not be reliable narrators, possibly portraying Elagabalus as feminine in an attempt to insult or undermine him in the eyes of the patriarchal Roman society.

While "there must be some basis for this", Janes said it was simply too difficult to say with any certainty through modern eyes whether the emperor was trans, gay - or neither.

"What we can do is to think about those possibilities, but it's probably not something we can prove," he said.


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