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No one was “gay” in the 18th century: why we must not rewrite history with today’s terms

The danger of using current terminology and identities when discussing the past, especially marginalised and oppressed pasts, is that it results in bad history.

The Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth (1735; retouched 1763)

What should we do when we’re talking about the past, and the words we use begin to obscure how we view history? Should we opt for the current acceptable word when discussing events in past? The danger of using current terminology and identities when discussing the past, especially marginalised and oppressed pasts, is that it can over-simplify and de-contextualise the past (and indeed present). It’s bad history.

Recently it was announced that the Wellcome Collection had acquired a copy of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a handbook released annually in the late eighteenth century that detailed the names, addresses and particular skills of prostitutes in London. Articles in the Guardian and the Independent referred to the publication as a list of “sex workers”. While this is the phrase now used to (self) describe and define those who sell sex, it fits on the eighteenth century definition and understanding of commercial sex like a round lid on a square box.

The same anachronism is evident in reports of other histories of sexuality: particularly that of the LGBT community. Both sex workers and the LGBT community are contemporary terms: a self-identity and an acknowledged group who identify together on an aspect of their lives. The terms “sex worker” and “LGBT” (and indeed “queer”) are politically loaded, and for good reason.

But trying to find an LGBT community in the past won't work. Type LGBT into our National Archives catalogue and you are returned with only a handful of documents, all dating from the 1970s. That is not to say that there is no history of same-sex love or gender variance before the invention of the words “gay”, “lesbian”, “homosexual”, “transgender”, and so on. Understandings of sexuality have changed over time, just as the words we use to define them have too – the first time the word “homosexual” was used was in 1869, and the word “gay” only came to describe a man who has relationships with men in the mid-twentieth century.

Equally, the history of sex work did not begin with the adoption of “sex worker”, but has flowed and evolved throughout history, taking on different meaning in different times. Women who sold sex were often called “fallen angels” in the mid-eighteenth century, but this equally politically charged phrase is a wholly different meaning to the phrase “sex work” that gives women (and men) who are engaged in sex work, agency and ownership over their own identities. That's a powerful and important thing, but when we talk about historic commercial sex by using the phrase “sex workers”, we risk mislabelling and misconstruing the past, and the context in which we understand sex work today.

In my own work, I use the phrase “same-sex love” to describe same-sex relationships, love and sex in the past, but refer to the LGBT community today. Historian Judith Bennett used the term “lesbian-like” to describe sexual and romantic encounters between women in the past. Both “lesbian-like” and my use of “same-sex love” have the same aim: to make clear that while sex between people of the same-sex has taken place throughout history, it has done so in social and cultural contexts very different from our own.

Similarly, in Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens, Julia Laite rejects the term “sex worker” for her historical analysis. The term is anachronistic and inappropriate as it is “tied to identity politics in the present day”. Matt Houlbrook has also noted the inappropriateness of judging and naming the past by present standards, arguing that the pardoning of Alan Turing in 2013 was “bad history”, because it “collapses the differences between then and now”. Using “sex workers” to describe the women included in Harris’s List is equally bad history.

I’m not suggesting that coverage of marginalised groups, historically or otherwise, should use language that is offensive, homophobic, misogynistic or racist. Instead, more care should be taken over what the use of contemporary words today mean about the past. In the same way that offensive and outdated terminology should not be used to describe or label groups or individuals today, contemporary words, with contemporary meanings, should not be used to discuss the past without context. These are conversations that academics, journalists and the groups being discussed should be having together – especially when their voices have been marginalised in the past, and continue to be so today.

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times