Robert Baden-Powell, Cecil Rhodes and Lawrence of Arabia have three things in common:
1) They are all white and male- assigned;
2) They are all suspected to have harbored homosexual desires, and, in the case of Rhodes, to have had a male lover and partner;
3) They all made their names and fortunes through British imperialism.
Will LGBT History Month claim these three characters, once the heroes of Empire, but now an embarrassing reminder of the violence, plunder and oppression of British imperialism? Do we deny their possible homosexuality and gender deviance to avoid tarnishing LGBT history with the legacy of Empire? Can we be ‘out and proud’ about our country’s famous historical figures if those same figures remind us of imperial violence and racism? What do we do when ‘coming out’ about probable LGBT historical figures leads us not to pride but to shame?
The last 10 years have seen significant advances for LGBT rights ‘at home’, but also a growing threat to LGBT people living in former colonies of the British Empire. Nigeria, Uganda, Belize and India, to name but a few, have seen the re-instatements of homophobic legislation which rests on British imperial laws. How are LGBT people, whose complex geographies of belonging span metropolitan Britain and former colonial spaces, to participate in LGBT history month if it operates through a national narrative that leaves out the entanglements of British history with imperial histories?
As the official website of LGBT History Month rightly asserts:
Silence breeds ignorance and distorted imaginings. From these come, at best, embarrassment; at worst, hostility and hate crimes.
By keeping silent about Empire, LGBT History Month offers a distorted imagining of British history. This is dangerous for its uncritical and inaccurate celebration of British ‘civilization’ and ‘progress’, from which we will learn nothing and instead continue a legacy of racism and jingoistic imperialism.
I do not believe that many people involved in LGBT History Month subscribe the Whig-imperial teleology of national history that Michael Gove would have liked to have installed in the History curriculum. Yet by not talking about Empire and the complexities of identity and power we risk inadvertently subscribing to that very narrative.
Do we ignore the difficult associations between white men who may well have loved other men, but who also used their white male bodies to exploit and oppress? Can we be ‘out and proud’ about our country’s ‘queer’ history when so much of that history took place at the expense of other people’s freedom and pride?
Closets, like archives, harbor secrets. And coming out of the closet – the oft-cited solution to queer abjection, repression and misery – may bring out secrets we’re less than happy to celebrate. So, to repose my question, acknowledging that there are no easy answers, what should LGBT History Month say about Empire?
Onni Gust is Mellon post-doctoral fellow at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, researching and teaching on early-nineteenth century gender formation in the context of European imperial expansion, particularly in India. Onni teaches European Imperial History and Gender and Sexuality Studies, works with LGBT youth and takes part in queer anti-racist and trans activism in the UK and USA.
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