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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.

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution