Thursday, 6 February 2014

Mending the Holes in History

Today I am hosting Christopher Hawthorne Moss on my blog. He is the author of Beloved Pilgrim and Where My Love Lies Dreaming, both historical novels which deal with characters who (like my own John Williamson) do not have mainstream sexual preferences. 

For me, John Wiliamson's homosexuality was not a big issue. I was writing about James Brooke, who almost certainly was gay, so it was natural for him to be involved with a gay man. I was surprised (innocent that I was) at how big an issue this seemed to be for some readers. Christopher, though,is a transgender writer and he sees his novels as a way of reclaiming the history of people whose sexuality conventional historians ignore or deny. His post explains why this matters to him and how a writer can address these issues in a historical novel.


I remember when feminists coined the expression “herstory” to counteract the overt and subtle mascullinism of the word “History”.  Of course, we all know that the “his” in “history” is not actually the masculine pronoun, but it was an acknowledgement that what we were taught in school was, in fact, the history of men.  Women were a side issue.  The impetus for developing “herstory” was to bring to light the equally central role of women in our past.  The impact of this effort did more than just add female names and faces to the story of humanity.  It helped change the way we looked at how we both learned of and interpreted our collective past.  We stopped reciting the dates of battles and started looking at the records for clues to the actual lives of people of the past.

People who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer deserve a history/herstory too.  There is even less record of our lives.   Much of what we have in the records consists mostly of religious diatribes and criminal records, for that was the interface between the dominant culture and us: their attempts to control our behavior through threats and punishment.  Sadly, there is little alternative if you want to tell our story.  The evidence of our lives and loves is at best spotty.

That’s where I believe historical fiction can mend our lack of a history.  Intelligent people realize that times change, but every type of person alive today has existed in every era.  If the estimate that ten percent of people are GLBTQ now, then we were in those numbers at every point in the history of humankind.  The capable storyteller can see the forest for the trees, that is, see just where and how people like us found a way to be no matter when.  It is our job, in essence, to tell the stories of our forebears in sexual identity.  That the people we write about may or may not have actually lived is irrelevant.  They are our history… our story.  As Monique Wittig wrote:

“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember . . . You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”

Deprived of concrete records it is our job, and in the case of GLBTQ historical fiction sites such as Our Story – GLBTQHistorical Fiction, our purpose, to invent.

My novel, Where My Love Lies Dreaming, used the title of a Stephen Foster song to introduce the ourstrical, to coin a term, tale of two men from different cultures who make a life together in spite of intolerance and also in spite of the American Civil War.  More ambitious, perhaps, is my current novel, Beloved Pilgrim, which attempts a plausible transgender character at the beginning of the 12th century.  The main character is a woman who has known all her life that she is a man in heart and mind and takes the tragic event of her twin brother's death to strike out as a knight, using his identity.  The biological origins of transgenderism make it absolutely certain that people like this character did exist, everywhere and throughout time, and it is my job as a historical novelist to show how this could happen.

But where does plausibility come in?  In the instance of Beloved Pilgrim clearly the surgical and pharmacological advances that would make sex reassignment possible are many centuries hence.  Would a person even have the framework to realize he or she is not in the right body?  The simple fact that ancient cultures, the Romans, Plains Indians, and Hindu, had transgender gods and traditions points to this being more than possible.  On a practical level, could a female-bodied person really pass as a man?  Yes.  Our histories are full of examples of this, including surgeon James Barry, numerous Civil War soldiers, and others throughout time.  The person would simply need to be clever and lucky.  And as Elias tells Albrecht, people tend to see what they expect to see.  I have a female body, but I was called "he" and "sir" just this morning.

It is the responsible novelist's task to reason this out and represent it plausibly.  It would be a mistake in Beloved Pilgrim for anyone to use the term "transgender", an expression that will not exist for hundreds of years.  But my own experience and my knowledge of historical examples tell me that the individual can and at least sometimes would have recognized when a body did not match a soul.

For more examples of how GLBTQ people may have lived and loved in times less tolerant and educated as now visit Our Story – GLBTQ Historical Fiction will provide a collecting place for that invention with book reviews and more.  We want to hear about your work and your ideas.  We want to know how you are writing another piece of “Our Story”.

His Facebook account is at


  1. Tom, as always, thank you so much for your support of mywriting and efforts, not to mention your own magnificent woks.

    Kit Moss

  2. This was a fascinating post! And I totally agree with the author, transgenders should be given a history. I'm seeing more of their history being written these days. One reason why I became fascinated with the idea of a cross-dressing heroine (she'll probably be bisexual) is because I read an academic article on cross-dressing women in the 19th century. Many cross dressed to escape the confines of their domestic life or to follow their husband into war. There were stories of some of these women enjoying life as a man so much that they kept up their disguise. They enjoyed flirting with one and some even married women.

    So yes, this was a great article to read. Thank you for sharing!