In case you hadn’t realised, it’s LGBT History Month this month! (I know, I know, it looks a little like we hadn’t realised, but just wait til you see the doozy of a rec list Anna has for you later on.) This post was born after I finished a book, went to look it up on Google for whatever reason, and found that it had been turned into a film. But not only had it been turned into a film, it had been turned into a tragic film.
The book, by tragic gay ending standards, was relatively benign. Yes, it was bittersweet and the characters didn’t end up together, but they both survived. The film had obliterated that. So, of course, I got annoyed, said to Anna “hey how do you feel about this as a discussion post” and wrote about a third of it just for the catharsis.
The premise of this post is this: we have enough tragic stories as is without straight people taking what happy stories we’ve written for ourselves and making them tragic in the name of some bullshit historical accuracy. So. Enjoy.
The latter part of the nineteenth century brought forth letters and memoirs from which historians could form an accurate picture of homosexual life in that period. For the earlier history—the colonial period and before, so admirably addressed in Gay American History—authors have had to rely on criminal proceedings and tabloid news stories, which told only the most sensational tales of extreme behavior and so presented a distorted picture. We see nothing of the countless men and women who, throughout the nation’s first century, quietly enjoyed same-sex relations. We know they existed because occasionally one of these relationships erupted into a suicide or scandal that propelled it into the public record. It would be a mistake to assume that every gay relationship ended up in the pillory or the newspapers.
― Harvard’s Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals by William Wright
This desire of straight people has always been part of our history: to paint us in an unfavourable light. To draw attention to our pain. To dehumanise us. Because if we’re monsters, then we don’t deserve a happy ending and every bad thing that happens to us is our fault. It’s not surprising that they didn’t stop there and instead took that prejudice from everyday life and put it in movies, as well. But the worst part is, it’s not just their own perspective of us that they sell the audiences – they tamper with our own stories.
You may (or may not) have noticed a trend when it comes to straight people adapting gay books. Particularly gay, historical books. Think, for example, of Tell it to the Bees – a movie from 2019 that’s an adaptation of an ownvoices lesbian book by Fiona Shaw with the same title. The book has a happy ending for the two women who fell in love. The film… Well, the film makes that ending bittersweet, to say the least. It’s clearly not the worst ending out there (there are innumerable tragic gay stories already, we know this), but to take away from us a happy ending and give us this, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. (So much so, that the author herself wrote a piece about it.) But it doesn’t even stop there! The film actually adds a completely new plotline for one of the characters, involving corrective rape.
As Fiona Shaw says, giving lesbian characters a happy ending is a political act in itself. Hell, giving any LGBT characters a happy ending is still a political act. Think of another movie adaptation, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. The book by Michael Chabon has a bittersweet ending, but both mlm characters survive unscathed. The film takes that ending and bends over itself to make it tragic, to take even scraps of happiness from us. They erase the gay identity of the love interest, combining him with an existing straight character to create a bi character (who subsequently cheats!), and it’s this new bi character who dies (as the straight one does in the book). We don’t have time to unpack all of this but let’s take a moment to realise that the creators of the movie seem to think that a bi person is 50:50 straight and gay? How many stereotypes and rude opinions can they give us on top of actual tragedy? And that’s in 2009. In the 10 years between these films, it feels like we haven’t yet truly distanced ourselves from the idea that all gay stories must be gay tragedies.
Even now, we still find ourselves wary of LGBT media, especially that created by straight people, in case it fucks us over like this. The first thing we ask a person when they recommend us a new book or a movie is: does anyone die? Will we weep for no real reason, because of an ending that could have been avoided? (An ending that wouldn’t take place if it was a cishet story?)
But the problem we wanted to talk about isn’t the more general “tragic gay endings”, per se, although that is clearly still a huge issue. What we wanted to focus on is when straight people take what gay creators have produced, take a happy ending, and make it tragic. Particularly when it comes to historical media.
It’s not like there aren’t examples of historical gay figures who lived happy and fulfilled lives. Who found ways to eke out some happiness in a world that hated them. There was a whole TV show earlier this year about one of them (yes, we’re talking about Gentleman Jack and yes, you should watch it if you haven’t already). To pretend like an LGBT person’s life has to be tragic because they lived in the past when things were immeasurably worse (in some respects) is disingenuous and just serves to obscure our real history even further.
And we already lost so much of it due to erasure by both modern historians and the contemporaries of people who came before us. They took our stories, found them disgraceful and rewrote them, so that they would fit their ideals. How many times did you start reading about some historical figure who you had no idea was gay and come across a passage in a biography that speaks to you, that makes it abundantly clear to you who this person was ― and yet the biography itself tries to present them as a straight person at worst or simply ignores the fact at best? It’s like they don’t want us to know that we have, in fact, always existed and we are not some new modern invention. They let us have the most outrageous ones, the ones where they just can’t spin the tale in any different way, they let us have Oscar Wilde and Sappho, and Hadrian, but they take away countless others.
Sure, it’s getting better. There are more and more LGBT history books being published every year and if you know where to look, you will find them. Sadly, the “if you know” part is a pretty important one. They’re never the most popular books to find, they’re still rather a niche written by LGBT people for the rest of the community. And if, surprisingly, some biographies do turn out to be on every corner and are supposed to tell stories of some of the most obvious LGBT figures, we inexorably find ourselves wary that they’re marketed widely only because they feature some kind of identity erasure. (This is just popular history we’re talking about here. For all we know, history academia is way ahead of us.)
So if we don’t have textbooks to turn to when we want to learn our history (particularly when we’re talking the less famous gay history), what do we have left? This is why historical novels written by gay people themselves are so important. They give us back pieces of what we lost, what was taken from us. They give us back that feeling of connection with our past. And since those authors are part of our community, they understand the importance of a happy ending, they understand just how groundbreaking it can be!
Because who’s to blame for how little we have and know about gay history? Straight people.
It’s because of them we only know the pain of our history. We only know about British Section 28 stopping people “intentionally promoting homosexuality” or “promoting the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Or further back, of the laws that criminalised same-gender sexual activity in the 1500s. That’s the history that’s palatable to straight people. The history that frames us as “sinful” or “wrong” and the history that allows a straight person to step in and end our suffering in some kind of magnanimous act to frame themselves as a saviour. The history that lets them say “well you have it so good now, what are you complaining about”.
It’s that history that leads them to rewrite our stories to make them for a straight audience. Because they could never imagine a happy ending in those times. They made it so happy endings had to be hidden.
But guess what? These stories aren’t meant for them.
E.M. Forster stopped writing altogether after he fell in love with a man and realised he was gay, because once he experienced that particular tenderness for himself, he just didn’t see the point of writing another straight love story. He also never published his final novel, Maurice, in which he gave the gay character a happy ending with his loved one. It only saw the light of a day a year after Forster’s death. But even if he didn’t dream of getting it published, he did write that story. And he didn’t do it for the straight audience, he did it for us.
We were robbed of our history, so the best we can do is write it anew. And the least the thieves can do is not to try to steal it again.
What are your thoughts?