Hear, Queers: History is Gay on reclaiming queer and trans history

Queer podcasts, which have long been a source of education and connection, have become even more imperative as we’ve spent less time together in person. The folks who host our podcasts feel like—and are—some of our best friends and when we get caught up on all the episodes of a podcast, it hurts just as much as when we finish a favorite book. So, to help keep you connected, educated, and reminded of how great queer people are, we’re sharing our most recent edition of Hear, Queers where we talk to the folks behind some of our favorite podcasts about their projects and why they do them. Today, we talk to Leigh from the History is Gay podcast about their insightful and surprising podcast.

The History is Gay podcast explores how queer and trans people have been present throughout history, despite being straightwashed or outright erased. The podcast is determined to make it clear that despite what the history books might say, queer people are neither new nor a trend: “In many ways, the history of queerness is the history of much of humanity, and it removes this notion of two separate worlds.”

Host Leigh uses the podcast as an opportunity to claim space that has been historically denied queer and trans people, while uplifting real queer and trans people who have lived and died. Through intensive research, conversations with guests, and a deep love of all things queer and trans, History is Gay has created an incredible reservoir of queer history that can easily be accessed.

History is Gay currently has over 30 episodes that vary in length, though most run over an hour.

Read on to find out more of what Leigh has to say about the History is Gay podcast.

Why did you start the History is Gay pod?

We kept talking about how many LGBTQ folks have always existed in human history, but we’re erased or sidelined or “just friended” away. So we decided that if no one else was going to do it, we would!

We first decided to make the podcast after talking at a femslash convention we go to, called TGIFemslash—we got into a lively discussion in the party rooms one night, and realized that we both had been wanting to make a show like this but didn’t have anyone to make it with. Cut to a few months later, and we messaged each other saying “If you’re in, I’m in”. The show has grown a lot since then, but it was born out of a queer fandom space and us being nerds and wanting to see ourselves represented!

The cisheteronormative world at large needs to see and acknowledge that queer people are not “new” or a “trend.”  And for ourselves, it’s so encouraging and uplifting to have that chain of history taking us back. We’re rooted in rich soil! How many queer kids would feel more empowered to live authentically and truthfully if they knew stories like their own were peppered throughout the whole of history? Imagine if this learning were as commonplace in history class as learning the date the Declaration of Independence was signed. Plus, all your faves? Super gay.

What inspiration do you draw from for History is Gay? What queer media or projects have influenced you as a creator?

Both myself and our original co-host, Gretchen, come from fandom and media analysis backgrounds, and so that influences a lot of our work. We definitely set out when creating this show to build in an atmosphere of portraying history in an entertaining way and teasing out the stories that would, in some ways, be fun to watch! We do Pop-Culture Tie-Ins for many of our episodes, specifically bringing up adaptations of the subjects’ lives that we recommend, and hopefully in the future we’ll do some more live-watches of these movies and tv shows.

I joke at the end of every episode that I can most of the time be seen watching Xena: Warrior Princess episodes on my couch, but it’s more reality than satire at this point, especially in the pandemic! Some of my favorite shows that have influenced me are classics in the queer and sci-fi/fantasy canon – Xena, Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, etc.

A few projects that got me super into wanting to do specifically a podcast, in fact, are Buffering the Vampire Slayer and an amazing audio-fiction show called The Bright Sessions. The way that both of these shows are queer to their core and entertaining to listen to, and play with audio as a medium really fascinated me. I think there are so many shows in the podcasting world that are able to really knock it out of the park in terms of LGBTQ representation in ways that just aren’t possible at this point in time with tv due to all the restrictions and barriers to access. And more often than not, podcasts featuring queer content have queer creators at the helm, and that’s always comforting and encouraging.

What’s your favorite part of hosting this podcast?

I enjoy getting the opportunity to learn something new with each episode, even if we’re diving into a topic that was already familiar to me. We jokingly call ourselves Gayvenclaws, because it’s true—we’re always going down rabbit holes of research because it’s just so fascinating and fun to not only discover new information, but to make connections and see commonalities and patterns throughout time in the way that queerness has existed, both structurally and individually, throughout literally the entire world.

The response we get from listeners is probably the biggest motivating factor, though! My original co-host, Gretchen, and I, started this show with the intention of just creating a fun project for us to learn and be silly, and that maybe a few friends would tune in. When we launched our first episode and saw that people were listening, it blew me away. And nearly every day we get e-mails from folks who have heard the show and tell us amazingly touching stories about how hearing about historical queer folks has given them context and comfort in their own identities, helped shield them against homophobic rhetoric or violence, and more. And I can’t think of a more rewarding reason to keep going.

History is Gay discusses queerness and queer folks throughout history as a way to reclaim history and correct for our erasure. To what degree do you think your episodes are geared toward educating and encouraging queer folks versus educating a cishetero audience—and why does your approach matter?

I think for the most part, we have approached our episodes as geared towards educating younger or newer queer folks who didn’t get the opportunity to learn about our history throughout their lives. That’s one thing that really places the queer community in an interesting state—we don’t necessarily have a generational history, stories that are carried throughout, because so much of our community is created and not familial. We also lost an entire generation of queer people due to the AIDS crisis, and there is a huge gap in the transfer of our history to current generations. Most queer people don’t have the luxury of queer elders teaching us where we came from, and that’s how you can get so much misconstrued and misinterpreted, or how homophobic or transphobic rhetoric can seem like proof positive.

But once you examine the ways in which things like colonialism, white supremacy, religious oppression, patriarchal systems, and other structural forms of oppression paved the way for anti-queer attitudes throughout the world, you begin to see just how fabricated the idea of queerness being unnatural or ahistorical is. We’ve always been here. And I think that’s what absolutely helps cis or straight audiences engage with and interact with our show, as well!

Queer history, queer issues, etc—aren’t just a gay thing only for this one community. In many ways, the history of queerness is the history of much of humanity, and it removes this notion of two separate worlds.

You are constantly sharing information about specific people throughout history and how their queer and trans identities played out, or might have, at that moment in history. What kind of research goes into your episodes and how do you discuss historical queerness and transness without engaging in anachronistic labels or realities?

I constantly joke that I should have received an honorary graduate degree by now with how much research we do for this show! We’re basically writing 20- to 30-page research outlines for fun, once or twice a month. Our research comes from various sources, whether it’s memoirs, scholarly books about various elements of queer history, academic journals, and honestly, a lot of web sources are great starting points for us! We try to get as many sources as we can in researching each episode, and also prioritize primary sources and words directly from the subjects whenever we can.

It’s incredibly important to critically analyze the sources we’re looking at, as well, and examine who is writing them, and who or what the subjects are—have colonialist perspectives framed this narrative? How do we refer to this person when this article was written 10 years ago and uses different pronouns that we would choose? Things like that are consistently at the top of our attention as we dive into a topic.

 It’s always a tricky balancing act to discuss historical queerness and transness in ways that aren’t anachronistic, but that also honor the people we’re talking about.  One of the most useful tools we’ve had has just been able to frankly talk about the context—looking at what attitudes and the legal landscape looked like at a particular time period, what other language was being used contemporarily, and especially words from the people themselves about how they would explain their own identities.

There probably isn’t a single episode where the topic of the limits of language when it comes to identity doesn’t come up in some form or another. But we try to say, “Hey, this is language this person didn’t use at the time, but if it had been accessible to them, perhaps it would be something that would fit them best based on what they’ve said.” But we can never really know for sure! I think people need to have a level of flexibility and forgiveness, both for themselves and also other scholars or creators who are telling these stories, because we’re interpreting the words and ideas and thoughts of the dead. And as long as we’re making respectful assumptions, I think it’s okay to have things consistently change as we learn more and as language adapts and changes. It’s one of the reasons why our very first teaser episode introducing the show was almost solely dedicated to laying out the language we were going to use in the podcast, why we were calling the show History is Gay as a “catch-all” term, etc.

Why do you think projects that are specifically, intentionally, and overtly queer matter so much?

I think anyone from any historically marginalized community can speak to the immense power of being able to see yourself reflected in queer media, whether fiction or nonfiction. It allows you to contextualize your lived experience, feelings, and culture into something larger than just your own perspective. And as I mentioned before, queer people don’t have the luxury of culture passed down through family, through tradition, and certainly not at all through traditional educational systems. And so for a lot of us, the only way we find out about our own history, community, and more, is through media we consume.

So many people of all ages have emailed us to say that hearing this show, or other queer history podcasts out there like Queer as Fact, Making Gay History, and others, was the first time that they learned that their experiences weren’t something new or aberrant, and that they could point to several people in history and see themselves reflected in it. There’s a fantastic quote by author Junot Diaz that I’ve loved for a long time and I always think about in terms of the power of seeing yourself reflected in media or history: “You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

How is it funded?

We fund the show primarily through our Patreon. We’re lucky enough to have a fantastic community of supporters that help us fund the costs of putting together the show! Between hosting, research needs, editing help when we need it, and more, it can take a lot to produce an episode, and our Patrons make it possible! We also have a small online store with some t-shirts and other merch that folks can purchase to support and show their love for the show. With more support, we can also branch out into other types of merch with upfront costs, like enamel pins, etc. It’s my hope that we’ll be able to have a steady and significant enough amount of funding to consistently hire master editors, compensate guests what they deserve, and license historical images or audio that we could use for the show!

Host bio: Leigh (they/them) is a big ol’ queermo who can’t (and won’t) shut up about TV, comics, and the importance of representation on-screen and off. They have a degree in European History and Theater, and wrote their thesis on ascetic medieval women and all the ways they messed with the patriarchy, and flirted for a long time with slapping on an archaeology degree as well, because why not! Bones, yo. They’re so neat. Now, they can usually be seen frantically running around craft stores working on cosplays, spending entirely way too much money at comic conventions, and muttering obscenities under breath at Adobe Premiere Pro while honing video editing skills. And usually consuming more Netflix than is probably healthy. Likes: seeing hopeful and representative stories reflected in media, new comic book Wednesdays, chai tea, petting all the dogs, and their bed. Dislikes: cisheteronormativity, the patriarchy, and the word moist.

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