Queer Ancestors

Editorial for the January MASS 2021: ERASE

“Someone, I tell you, will remember us – even in another time” – Sappho



I think often about the queer ancestors; the predecessors about whom we often know little, whose existences we glimpse in only candid-camera black-and-white, fragments of poetry, private correspondences, myths, reclaimed and reimagined stories.

The profound sense of transhistorical kinship I feel when I engage with these documents, with these people, is compromised by the great angry and empty weight of unknowing. Anger at the legacy of lives and loves forced squarely into the delimiting and punitive expectations of heteropatriarchy – an experience which, of course, extends far beyond the Queer, but which it is important to articulate has served prominently as a totalizing force for the oppression, restriction, murder, torture, and erasure of queer people and their queerness from centuries of global history.  Anger yes, and also the vacuum where a rich patchwork of stories should be; stories to pave the way for my own, and others like it, which comprise in some part a narrative of love and expressions which even today are held to be anywhere on a spectrum from recently acknowledged, to troublingly divergent, to grossly sacrilegious, to emphatically taboo.  

I wonder back to the pre-Christianisation of Europe – before the annexation of this subcontinent by what would become for a time the foremost institution of abuse and slaughter – to what possible bodies existed in gender-eschewing states of flux, in societal roles unimagined by our historians. I think on what blissful states of intimacy, and what real states of difference, these individuals might have found themselves in; how their love might have manifested for each other and with each other, and what families might have been for them.

I reflect on the myriad poisons of empire, which have structured and systematised towards the punitive in countries which, before the invasions of the British or French or Dutch or Portuguese or Spanish (etc., etc.), manifested any number of beautiful versions of the complexity of human identity and relationships. I am cognizant that there is no small irony in my resistance to travel to certain countries now for fear of persecution, where one-hundred or two-hundred or three-hundred years ago, without doubt, my own familial ancestors went with a barbaric ideology and the sole purpose of breaking minds and bodies into their own foreign logic, imposing a framework of exclusions which form the bedrock of the very persecution I seek to avoid.

I consider the many psychological, spiritual, structural, and physical abuses that may never have come to be, had individuals been permitted the opportunity to fully embrace themselves free from fear, and had the wisdom gained from their pain been afforded more substantive legacy. I marvel at the resilience of those who, in the face of utmost adversity, maintained the drive for justice beyond tolerance, towards radical empathy and the proclaiming of an incontrovertible right to be.

But beyond those privileged few documents which have survived scrubbing – or burning, often through no mean feat of clandestine protection, awaiting “rediscovery” in a more forgiving time, or which lasted beyond the whispering that can lead to the ostracising of an individual, the spurning of a family, and the shaming of a household – any images, names, and frail articulations of happiness which I might invoke in pursuit of remembering amount to little more than guesswork. These people are gone, and whole aspects of their humanity, capacities for loving and healing which they cultivated across lifetimes, have been irrevocably and discriminately omitted. I want to know their love as I know my own, and I cannot. I want to feel their most complete influence and guidance in my life, and I cannot.  I want to learn, fully, from their pain and from their joy, to draw parallels and connections between our experiences, to honour them with as near complete an understanding of their personalities, desires, and wants, as I am able, to find solace in an understanding of the shared messiness and complexity that is to live and develop as a human being, and I cannot.

And so instead I imagine through partials, and I as I do so I maintain what is the impossible wish to know. Despite the accosting and often-voiced assertion that this imagining, this suggesting of things forgotten and things falsely told, represents somehow a dishonest and destabilising assault on what is assured as a true and evidenced reality (which I recognise through thinking, talking, reading, and living as queer to be a catatonic misunderstanding of how history exists for us in the present, and how it is written) I will continue to find joy in the remnants. I will continue to draw out stories and form pictures of people through my experience of what it is to be who we are, to recognise that shared quality between us across time, and to stake a claim for its foregrounding as we tell stories today of those who were, even if this involves the conjuring of ghosts. And I will ensure I make myself available, through the smallest fragments and the most crumpled photographs, to the memory of all of them.

© Henry McPherson


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