Trans Vikings and lesbian pirates : What is ‘queering the past’ ?

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Trans Vikings and lesbian pirates: What is ‘queering the past’ ?

Rethinking Roman History : North Hertfordshire Museum Identifies Emperor Elagabalus as Transgender

In an intriguing development, the North Hertfordshire Museum in Britain has redefined the historical perception of Roman Emperor Elagabalus, identifying them as a transgender woman. This revelation, derived from a detailed examination of classical texts, marks a significant step in the museum’s approach to history, as it now adopts she/her pronouns in its descriptions of the third-century emperor.

Historical Evidence of Elagabalus’s Trans Identity

Historical records suggest Elagabalus’s trans identity, with accounts of the emperor requesting to be addressed as “lady,” “mistress,” and “queen.” This reinterpretation has sparked a vigorous discussion about the practice of viewing historical narratives through an LGBTQ+ prism, commonly referred to as “queering the past.”

“Queering the Past”: A New Lens on History

“Queering the past” involves re-examining historical records and artifacts from an LGBTQ+ perspective, sometimes employing advanced methods like DNA analysis. This approach has led to the rediscovery of LGBTQ+ identities in historical figures, as explained by Dominic Janes, a professor of modern history at Keele University. Janes highlights the importance of considering the personal lives of historical figures, including their sexuality and gender identity, to gain a fuller understanding of their public personas.

Controversies and Debates in Reinterpreting Historical Figures

This reevaluation of history is not without controversy, even within the LGBTQ+ community. Debates arise over how to appropriately identify historical figures, considering the evolving nature of gender and sexuality terminologies.

Examples and Criticism of “Queering the Past”

A notable example of “queering the past” is the depiction of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, two 18th-century female pirates, as lovers in a London statue. Similarly, recent DNA tests have challenged traditional gender assumptions about a famous Viking warrior and American Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski. The practice, however, faces criticism and skepticism. For instance, an attempt to interpret Tudor-era artifacts through a queer lens was met with derision from some quarters, including novelist Philip Hensher.

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The Complex Case of Elagabalus: Historical Interpretation and Uncertainty

The case of Elagabalus stands as a complex and debated topic. While historical accounts suggest a non-traditional gender expression, the reliability of these sources is questioned by Janes, who cautions against definitive conclusions regarding Elagabalus’s gender identity or sexual orientation through contemporary perspectives. This cautionary tale in historical interpretation invites us to consider the myriad possibilities while acknowledging the limits of our certainty.


Q: Why is the case of Elagabalus significant in historical studies? A: Elagabalus’s case is significant as it challenges traditional narratives of gender and sexuality in history, offering a more nuanced view of historical identities.

Q: What does “queering the past” mean? A: “Queering the past” refers to re-examining historical records and figures from an LGBTQ+ perspective, potentially uncovering overlooked aspects of gender and sexuality.

Q: What are the criticisms of “queering the past”? A: Critics argue that applying modern gender and sexuality concepts to historical figures can be anachronistic and misinterpretative, overlooking the context and understanding of the time.

Q: Can we definitively determine historical figures’ gender identities and sexual orientations? A: It is challenging to definitively determine these aspects due to the limitations and biases in historical sources and the evolving nature of gender and sexuality terminologies.

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