In the first of this week’s blogs focusing on research we are talking to the vibrant Dr Sarah Jones, a lecturer and researcher in the Department of History. Dr Jones’ teaching in 2022/23 will include the units Gender in the Modern World, Under the Covers: Sex and Modern British Print Culture, and Sexualities, reflecting her interest in histories of gender and sexuality. She generously gave her time to discuss some of the challenges around researching queer history, and what appealed to her about taking part in a multi-disciplinary project organised by the Brigstow Institute.
What was your motivation for getting involved in Jenny: Posed as a woman?
The big motivation behind the Jenny project is the fact that queer histories, and especially trans histories, are often told through what we would consider regulatory bodies, so we tend to hear about people when they’re arrested, or oppressed in some way, or when horrible things are happening to them. And that’s obviously a really important thing to look at and understand, but it also means that you don’t really get that much of a sense of these people as real, living people. History has often tended to focus on victimisation, oppression, and persecution – what Tom (Marshman) wanted to do is think about different ways we could look at the archive and build a more rounded, human story about someone like Jenny. Just a wonderfully complicated person living a complicated life in a complicated moment.
Why do you think queer history is important?
I think it is important for a couple of different reasons. For one, I think it would be a wonderful thing if queer history stopped being something that is only covered as a sort of aside, an appendix to other kinds of ‘normal’ history. There’s this tendency to see it as kind of niche and to assume that it’s only done by angry queer people – the power of history is showing that these are just people living their lives, and they are just as important and just as much part of history as everybody else. But I also think history is actually really important in helping us understand why we are the way we are now, how we’ve got here. I think it’s actually quite a powerful thing to look at people and say the oppression you’re facing is not inevitable, it’s a product of historical processes. And actually, if we understand that, maybe we can challenge it – that’s a really formidable, empowering thing.
Have you seen many changes in responses to your research and teaching during the last 10 years?
I would say in my experience, as our student body gets more diverse, I’m teaching more students who are openly, confidently, and happily queer, which is great. And of course that means they want to see histories of themselves. I’m seeing lots more students working on queer history as part of their assessments for their own research, which is really exciting.
What are the greatest challenges you face around your areas of research?
So it’s quite difficult to find the same sort of evidence for queer history as it would be for other forms of history, just because you don’t always have that same kind of archival presence. People were either deemed to be not important enough to keep their archives, and lots of families burnt the papers of people who were in queer relationships after their death because they didn’t want to attract unwanted or negative attention. People wanted to keep their clandestine activities under the radar. Funnily enough, they’re not going to write a diary that records all the crimes they committed!
Will you be celebrating Pride this year?
I think Pride is brilliant. I remember going to my first Pride when I was about 16, in Cardiff, and I was a little baby gay and I was having a proper in the closet, out of the closet the moment. I remember it was slightly terrifying at the time, but also just absolutely brilliant. I love to go to Pride and see the genuine diversity and people celebrating in their different ways. One of my favourite things is going along and seeing people find a comfortable space to be themselves, possibly for the first time.
A big thank you to Sarah for giving up her time to talk to us. If you would like to know more about how we are celebrating Pride please visit our Pride webpage. And if you have your own stories to share about Pride or being part of the LGBTQ+ community please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.