Writing Queer History

“Much of queer history remains unwritten,” says Dr Andrew Shield as part of his introduction of the Leiden Queer History Network’s launch event, to a roomful of listeners in the Gravensteen Building in Leiden. Right here in this former prison, he relates with unusual cheeriness, was where gay men were executed by strangulation on charges of sodomy by the Dutch government in the 1730s.

But the real gem of queer history was yet to come: With testimonials and court documents, Dr Judit Takács paints a picture of queer life in 1960s state-socialist Hungary: Of gay men furtively seeking intimacy and connection with others like them, often in public baths and toilets, all the while risking discovery and blackmail from passers-by and policemen.

A striking testimony emerges from her work, from a gay man caught by a plainclothes policeman. When questioned by the policeman on how a man of his station (it was listed on his ID) could resort to a thing such as this, he answered: “Well, tell me a better place in Budapest where I can meet gays, I am telling him, tell me, and then I will start going there … I can meet gays only at toilets and bath-houses.”

Photo: Leiden Queer History Network

Another of her findings were documents from 1958, wherein psychologists debated the pros and cons of criminalising homosexuality with language strikingly similar to the rhetoric of today. Arguments against criminalisation include the irrational nature of criminalising “biological phenomena” and criminalising a crime with “no victims”. Arguments for criminalisation spoke of its danger to the socialist lifestyle. The narratives that fuel our modern debates on gay rights existed even then in the Hungary of the 1950s.

As Research Chair of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology, Dr Takács delighted in finding these documents, relating the hours of work spent digging through archives until her fingers had turned black and it had become difficult to breathe from the dust. Worse still, these archives would be made inaccessible by the government months after her discovery, making her timely discovery all the more fortuitous.

Much of the history of queer life and activism, often hidden and requiring the work of academics like Dr Takács to uncover, remains unwritten. The life of these men and women whose stories and secretive quests for intimacy in a more oppressive time survive only in dusty documents and the dwindling number of the now-elderly still willing to share their stories with others.

In February, Leiden academics Dr Andrew Shield and Dr Ann Marie Wilson were awarded a seed grant for their project ‘Transnational Gay/Lesbian Activism since the 1960s’. The project aims to explore the transnational connections that connect the histories of queer activism across different states.

The Leiden Queer History Network springs out of this initiative. According to Dr Shield: “Queer history is not just about the past. It’s about understanding the present. At a time when LGBTQ rights are becoming increasingly universal, we need to know more about the history of these identities, communities, and movements.”

The most poignant moment of Dr Takács’s talk comes near its end. In a testimony of a gay man in state-socialist Hungary who shared of how queer Hungarians often did not see themselves as secondary citizens, as they lived in a time when all people faced oppression and the idea of marriage and equal rights was inconceivable.

Today, with acceptance of LGBT equality and LGBT issues in Hungary is on the decline, these rights remain elusive. Dr Takács jokes morosely about the possibility of not having a workplace to return to, as the Hungarian Academy of Sciences faces increasing restrictions on its academic freedoms from its government.

Alas, the history of queer activism is not a story near completion.

If you’re interested in Queer History:

You can follow the Leiden Queer History Network on Facebook.

You can also read the basis of Dr Judit Takács’s presentation, her article: Disciplining gender and (homo)sexuality in state-socialist Hungary in the 1970s.