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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.

Ellie Foreman-Peck for New Statesman
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How Rome's new mayor Virginia Raggi is leading a normality revolution

The first female Roman mayor has promised an end to posturing public figures.

The Ottavia area of Rome, on the northern periphery of the Italian capital, is a part of the city that tourists rarely visit. In a sense, this is the real Rome, with problems that are typical of the rot that most residents have to put up with every day. It is a jumble of decaying concrete eyesores from the 1950s and 1960s – the legacy of rapid economic development and Mafia corruption – surrounded by parks where drug deals go down, and piles of refuse that sit uncollected for days.

It was here that the young mother of a newborn baby – who after her marriage had resettled in the area from the middle-class Roman neighbourhood where she was raised – started to become interested in politics. Seven years later, Virginia Raggi has been elected as Rome’s first female mayor and, having just turned 38, its youngest mayor ever. She is a symbol of change in Italy after two years of rule by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, another young leader, which have left millions of Italians disenchanted. Her rise is a sign that the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, may be coming of age after years as a protest vehicle.

Raggi not only won the run-off on 19 June but did so by the biggest margin in the history of Roman mayoral elections, trouncing the candidate whom Renzi supported by a ratio of 67:33.

Her story begins far from the glamour of the Capitoline Hill, on the dreary streets of Ottavia, where she pushed her baby boy, Matteo, in his pram and was forced to weave in and out of traffic, walk along “non-existent” footpaths where cars were double- or triple-parked, and negotiate the perils of abandoned municipal parks. “Rage at seeing my splendid city reduced to an undignified state” is what pushed her into politics, she writes on her website. It was a path that led to her unlikely victory as mayor of Rome (a post equal in importance in Italy to the mayor of London in the UK and a launchpad for campaigns to become prime minister).

Raggi, who was a lawyer before she became a politician, grew up largely indifferent to politics. When she became a parent, she joined neighbourhood committees and volunteer groups and started to press for sustainable organic farming and decent public transport. In 2011, disillusioned by the centre left after years of voting for Renzi’s Democratic Party (she comes from a family of progressive intellectuals), Raggi joined the Five Star Movement, having been dragged to its meetings by her husband, a radio technician.

Her rise was rapid. She ran in 2013 as a Five Star candidate for Rome’s 48-member city council and picked up one of the movement’s three seats (she received 1,525 votes; her husband also ran but failed to make it on to the council, with only 132 votes). When the former Rome mayor Ignazio Marino, an ally of Renzi, resigned after an expenses scandal, Raggi – already the Five Star Movement’s spokesperson for Rome – stepped forward as a candidate in the party’s primaries.

She defeated four rivals in the online balloting in February. It is a startling tale in an age of unlikely political narratives, reflecting a global pandemic of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics. Italy’s Panorama magazine described her election, perhaps with a touch of hyperbole, as “a cultural revolution without precedent”.

There is a paradox at the heart of the upheaval that Raggi has caused. In Italy’s sordid and grimly entertaining political landscape – with its tales of the former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s “bunga bunga” parties, as well as Grillo’s clownish antics – the most surprising thing about the new mayor is that she seems normal. Raggi calls her campaign the “revolution of normality” – refreshing, perhaps, for Italians tired of posturing public figures. Inevitably the subject of Italian chatter for her fetching looks, Raggi comes across, above all, as serious, low-key, articulate and compassionate. She is selling policy over persona.

There have been shadows over her ascent. Her Rome law firm has past associations with Berlusconi’s long-time right-hand man Cesare Previti – a convicted criminal – and Raggi launched her legal career as an apprentice in Previti’s office. She has vehemently denounced whispers that she may be a double agent for Berlusconi’s centre-right party, Forza Italia.

Graver doubts arise from concerns that she may turn out to be a pawn of her anti-establishment party’s own establishment, in the form of Grillo. And because of the city’s Gordian knot of vested interests, being the mayor of Rome is in many ways a tougher job than being the prime minister of Italy. It has been a poisoned chalice for many an ambitious leader.

Yet the truth is that, even for Italians, Raggi remains a mystery – and that opens up intriguing possibilities. She may turn out to be a blank canvas on to which Romans, of both the left and the right, can project their hopes and frustrations. If she succeeds in steering her own course, however, she could position herself as a viable alternative to Renzi. Recent opinion polls indicate that the Five Star Movement may have edged past his Democrats and become Italy’s most popular party, with about 28 per cent of the nation’s support.

It is worth considering that Renzi rose to national prominence as the mayor of Florence – a city whose political significance pales in comparison with that of Rome – and went on to become prime minister. Could Raggi do the same?

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue