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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.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump