Beyond LGBT+ History Month - Historical Homos pulls the queer past into the 21st Century
Updated: Mar 23
LGBT+ themed movies took reigning glory at the Oscars last week. This isn’t the first time multiple films with LGBT+ themes have won Oscars, but this year they received more than ever (eight to be exact). Within this, 3 out of the 4 acting awards were proudly delivered to queer roles. These roles spread across three films (The Favourite, Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book).
Interestingly, none of these films explore LGBT+ themes in the present day. In fact, when you add this year’s other critically-acclaimed queer films into the mix, such as Colette and Boy Erased, the films span a pretty broad range of historical eras (18th, 19th and 20th centuries).
We’ve decided to mark the end of 2019’s LGBT History Month by posing the question: have we finally come to a point where we can celebrate the existence of queer identity in history?
The success of films such as The Favourite, The Danish Girl and Carol would suggest - yes. But the need for society to become more woke to LGBT+ identity in history is also recognised beyond the cinema.
One person pushing for this is Sebastian Hendra who - alongside his sister, Lucy - has set up the outrageously glorious Historical Homos, AKA ‘The no-fucks given guide to LGBTQ+ history’. Together, they delve into the queerness of history and show us that this need not be dull or depressing.
With hypnotizingly colourful graphics and unapologetically straight-to-the-point copy, Historical Homos entertains a contemporary audience as much as it educates. We spoke to Sebastian & Lucy to find out why they think LGBT+ history can (and should) receive reverence every day beyond LGBT History Month.
First thing’s first, why did you create Historical Homos?
Historical Homos was born out of two simple observations:
1. LGBTQ+ people have been around since the beginning of time, irrespective of how we wish to label them.
2. The history of LGBTQ+ people has largely been written by, for, and within heteronormative societies. As a result, these figures are received as great historical figures, rather than as what we like to call them: The Great Queers of Yesteryear.
As a gay man and a straight woman running this project, we’re proof that this history matters to allies as much as it does to those who identify as LGBTQ+. We also just think the LGBTQ+ community deserves a more celebratory approach to its history.
This point about reaching out to allies as well as the LGBT+ community is familiar. In a previous blog post, we discussed the role of allies consisting of belief and action. Historical Homos’ highly visual and accessible method of engaging people in the history of queer identity could help capture a heterosexual audience. In turn, helping the audience to develop a more deeply rooted understanding of LGBT+ identities.
What is the importance of language, humour and imagery in what you do?
They’re all equally central to taking this history out of the domains of academia and into the popular consciousness.
The imagery is absolutely essential: it presents these ancient figures in our own contemporary visual language, whilst evoking the culturally diverse eras of history in which they themselves thrived. Lucy is the graphical genius behind this Dada-esque mash-up of pop art aesthetic mixed with historically accurate references.
We use humour to disarm and invite people in; history is only ever one spin. Ours tends to emphasize the positive side of LGBTQ+ history, so people can put our community’s history into perspective. It hasn’t always been so bad!
Language is critical, because it is radical. We strive to remain unfettered by political correctness and academic nuance. We have no problem calling Caesar a ‘faggot’ or Sappho a ‘dyke’, because we want our readers to feel the permission to reclaim this history in their own terms.
You just have to use your imagination and allow yourself the right to interpret history without seeking expert validation.
One Instagram comment reads ‘I wish one day to go down in textbooks as a historical leader in the gay community’. Clearly, sharing the stories of these queer figures has a real influence which inspires ambition and pride.
Who would you say is the most iconic Historical Homo (so far)?
There are iconic people who were queer, and there are queer icons. Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde are good examples of the difference. Oscar Wilde is inseparable from his sexuality: in the wake of his trials, he became one of the first gay celebrities, with ultimately disastrous consequences for his life and career.
Virginia Woolf, on the other hand, is an icon of literary style and early feminist thought. But she was also a bisexual. And more into girls than boys, by her own admittance. But this side of her life is rarely foregrounded, rarely seen as central to her development as a woman and as a writer. (Meanwhile, she wrote in her memoirs that her intellectual development within the Bloomsbury Group was accelerated by their willingness to discuss sex and sexuality.)
The mythical, legendary and fictional homos are equally fun: King David and his beloved Jonathan from the Bible. Apollo and Poseidon, Greek gods who fell for a boy or two. There are also the likes of Hadrian and Antinous, whose love affair became so famous in the ancient world that it turned into the foundation story of a new religious cult that spread far and wide across the pagan Mediterranean.
Historically, sexuality has been considered - and unfortunately still is in many places - something to be hidden. This must provide you with some challenges when separating the truth from the rumours?
Yes, although we’re generally unfazed by that difficulty. We’re not terribly interested in “outing” history. We’re interested in why these stories have survived and in rooting out the ones that don’t get enough attention.
Something we admire is that Historical Homos’ stories are not geographically or culturally limited. Bringing stories from beyond our own cultures to our attention helps us to develop a more rounded and expansive understanding of the LGBT+ identities in our lives today. For example, the UK’s national curriculum will likely skip teachings on Emperor Ai and his long-time relationship with Dong Xian, but stories such as these are incredibly powerful. HH shares ‘the story of the cut sleeve’ in which Dong Xian falls asleep in the arms of Emperor Ai. When needing to leave, the Emperor cuts off his sleeve, allowing him to remove his arm while his lover remains asleep. These small tales of compassion can mean so much in a history which is overshadowed by the bigger issues such as riots, illness and politics.
We’ve discussed the importance of sharing LGBT history, but do you think the media sufficiently showcases the best of this?
No, not at all. Though that’s changing! 2018 felt like an explosive year for LGBTQ+ history. People are interested in giving queer history the attention that many minority groups’ histories — particularly women’s history — has received in recent years.
Let’s be honest, the media in all its mighty forms will always be essential for informing and connecting us with LGBT+ topics. Recently, Historical Homos have formed a close relationship with Squad Social, a client of The Unmistakables.
Squad Social - a platform for connecting queer people beyond bars and hook-up apps - recently sponsored Student Pride with the launch of their early release app. With Historical Homos also hosting their own events, it looks like we could see some collaborative events in the future. These events, which HH have hosted from London to NYC, allow LGBT+ history to become something much more tangible and accessible - not to mention, lively.
Obviously LGBT History Month has come to an end, but history itself does not. So, what’s next for Historical Homos?
But seriously: we want to do more of what we’re doing already. More books, more content on social media, more events — anything to get this stuff in front of more eyes and minds. We are already collaborating with people in London and California on live shows and pop-up exhibits. We’re talking about producing a podcast, a short web series, and a shorter form zine.
We want to make sure everyone sees the full richness of the LGBTQ+ community’s history, from Hadrian’s Wall to Stonewall — and much more besides!
Through film, television, social media, magazines, events and any other platforms you can think of, there is no denying that the vast dimensions of LGBTQ+ are is fascinating, valued and most importantly, not something to hide. If we see it, we learn from it.
Check out the Historical Homos Instagram to stay informed about all things past and present, including upcoming events.