“History Is Gay” Takes Queer Narratives Back from the Textbooks

It’s often said that history is written by the victors–and, historically speaking, queer people are often not the victors, especially not in how our stories are written. The podcast History Is Gay aims to amend this, looking back at the narratives of historical figures who were almost definitely LGBT+, even if the history books won’t say so.

History is Gay is a twice-monthly podcast where two queer nerds use their passion for social justice, history, and storytelling to examine the overlooked and underappreciated queer ladies, gents, and gentle-enbies from the unexplored corners of history. Because history has never been as straight as you think.

Each episode focuses on a specific figure in history, dissecting their works, how they were discussed, and the evidence of their LGBT+ identity. Episodes first dives into the socio-historical context of the figure: where and when were they from, and how does that specific moment in time and place affect how the figure was discussed? What terms existed, or were popularized, in that time and place–and did they mean something different from what they mean now? In this way, History Is Gay is not just a look at specific historical figures. It’s also a dive into queer history across the globe from specific moments in time, just contextualized around each story.

But each episode doesn’t feel like a history lesson. Blending some scripted passages with casual conversation, hosts Gretchen and Leigh have a dynamic similar to that of Spirits, blending the lighthearted and friendly with the contextual, analytical, and sometimes very heavy stories being discussed. It’s a dynamic that’s engaging while also feeling sophisticated, and one that balances tone very delicately to make sure discussion topics are given respect while not allowing conversation to become too dire.

The episodes also feature segments, too, usually brought in by a catchy little jingle. There’s sometimes a Word of the Week, sometimes a Pop Culture Tie-In, and always How Gay Were They? In this segment, the hosts discuss how “gay” (here, a term meaning anywhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, including both sexual orientation and gender) the figure is based on their findings. It’s useful as both a discussion that the LGBTQ+ spectrum is imperfect and, of course, a spectrum, while also giving the hosts an opportunity to quickly tie up the main points of the episode.

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Speculating on the sexual orientation and gender of real people can, of course, be tricky, but it’s a topic History Is Gay broaches very well. The distance in time from each topic of discussion allows a little bit of comfort, as does the prevalence of conversation at the time giving hints that the figure was LGBTQ+. Each episode brings these discussions up when covering a biography of the figure, as well as bring up coded terms like “comfirmed bachelor” in the socio-historical context segments. Instead of feeling like the hosts are assigning labels to people from history, it feels more like the hosts are helping the audience pick apart context clues they might not yet be familiar with analyzing.

While History Is Gay is an engaging listen, it can tend to go a bit long. The segments, especially when broken up by a jingle, help keep the listener focused, but some episodes could do with a tighter edit. There’s something to be said for making sure the figure is discussed fully, given the respect history books don’t give them; however, it sometimes feels like that discussion may be better if split up into two episodes versus one longer episode.

Still, History Is Gay remains a new comfort listen for me–both because of the lovely dynamic between hosts and because it feels almost therapeutic remembering that queer people have always existed, and often been incredibly important, in history. History Is Gay is a way to remember that we have always existed, always prevailed, always excelled, even if that narrative is usually taken away from us.

You can listen to History Is Gay on any podcatcher or on their website. Their website also contains robust notes to further the discussion from each episode. You can support History Is Gay on Patreon or via PayPal.

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