Hidden History to Modern Pride

Applied Mathematics and English Professional Writing major Ashley Conway ’23 attended the Regional Writers of England May-Term Faculty Led Experience in May 2022. She created this piece as a part of her Summer Scholarship, Creative Arts, and Research Project (SCARP) titled Travel Writing: Capturing British Culture through Prose and Image. 

I declare / That later on, / Even in an age unlike our own, / Someone will remember who we are. ~ Sappho

The exterior of the British Museum in London, which features old columns.

Searching for purple stickers on artifact descriptions seems easy. Deceptively so. But in a museum room housing what feels like a million little pieces of ancient pottery, they seem to hide, camouflaging themselves. 

It’s ironic, really. I know it’s there, I want to find it, and I even have the tools to do so, but somehow it keeps evading me. It starts to feel like it’s being hidden on purpose, pulled away every time I get a little too close. I start over at the beginning of the room. 

I walk past another case, but something tells me to look back again. In a double take, I find it. I swear I had searched this display case before to no avail, and yet here it is. Hiding right in plain sight. Letting me know my next stop on the tour had been right in front of me the whole time. 

It’s a fitting sentiment for the British Museum’s tour of LGBTQ histories. Throughout the ages, these truths sat right in front of us, but they still went disregarded. Unrecorded. Excused away into nothing. 

But once you find it, it’s like the fog clears. It finally makes sense. 

Sappho's water-jar called Hydria in the British Museum

I stare at Sappho’s water-jar. Hydria. A wave of recognized ignorance washes over me. I know her name, I’ve used “sapphic” as a descriptor, yet I know nothing else about her. I pull out my phone and open the British Museum’s Spotify playlist—“Desire, Love, Identity: Exploring LGBTQ Histories”. I saved it to my account back in America, and here I press play. 

“Through her poetry, in a society that was otherwise dominated by men,” the narrator informs, “she gave a voice to female love and desire, writing love poems to both men and women.”

A woman after my own heart. 

The jar is somewhat unassuming. Without the tour, I may not have even recognized it as Sappho. She sits reading a scroll, a few female attendants surrounding her. And honestly, the understatement is refreshing. Seeing a queer woman depicted without any sexualization—especially one who wrote so vividly about desire—is a shock. You’d think artists would’ve taken full advantage of her work and reputation to paint her as nothing more than a sex object, but surprisingly, they didn’t. At least not here. Here, she is a scholar, someone to be revered. It’s deserved. 

The narrator continues, ringing Sappho’s words through my mind: “Someone will remember who we are.” And I do. 

I take one last glance, and head out of the room. I look back, and a new crowd has formed around it. Hopefully they remember, too. 

The Stela of Hor and Suty in the British Museum

I keep my AirPods in as I walk. It feels weird, being in a museum and not looking at as much as I can. It almost feels a bit wrong, ignoring such a large portion of the artifacts. But I shouldn’t feel guilty. For so long, queer history has been pushed aside and subverted, so why should I feel bad for prioritizing it? 

I push away the doubt, and relish in the delight of walking with a purpose. It gives direction. Reason.

The next piece is much easier to find. The Stela of Hor and Suty stands tall in the middle of the room, a spotlight shining down on it. Even though it’s one of the biggest pieces in the room, it lacks a crowd. I don’t have to fight to take a spot in front of it as I scroll to the next part of the tour and press play.

Hor and Suty, two architects of the temple of Amun at Luxor. The history is fuzzy. Funny, that seems to be a running theme when it comes to queer people. 

They’re not sure if the two were friends, brothers, or more. But regardless, their tombstone reads: “My brother, like myself, whose ways pleased me, / For he had come from the womb / With me on the same day”. 

Maybe they were brothers, but some speculate that the inscription was made by their scorned wives. I guess we’ll never know. E.M. Forester called this phenomenon “a great unrecorded history.” 

A framed image and inscription in a blue frame in the British Museum.

Frustration fills me. For a society so obsessed with writing everything down and making sure future generations remember us, we are so in the dark about so much of it. So many straight relationships, even the worst and messiest ones, seem to be perfectly recorded. But once someone veered from that path, they became decidedly unimportant. 

I feel the frustration behind my eyes. It makes its way into my throat, and I feel the tightness spread. I hate being an angry crier. I used to despise being so passionate. Every time I’d be a bit too invested in something, the achingly familiar feeling would well up and threaten to spill over. I’ve come to value my passion, though, so the tears fill my waterline. 

I blink them away and wipe my eyes. The British Museum doesn’t deserve my tears—the history it holds does, but this institution doesn’t. 

I walk away. 

The next room is lined with religious imagery. Nothing I’m a stranger to, with fifteen years of Catholic school under my belt, but also nothing I exactly find comfort in. It’s a weird kind of nostalgia—I have vivid memories growing up around this stuff, spending hours in my church during choir practice, but none to which I have any strong attachment. 

Maybe it’s my familiarity—or just dumb luck—but I find Saint Sebastian pretty easily, printed on a woodblock with arrows stuck in his body. 

I’ve studied this saint before, so I know the story. And to be honest he’s not one I’d expect to find on a gay history tour—overt homosexuality and Catholicism aren’t things I’d tie together today, let alone in the medieval ages. 

A painting entitled "Saint Sebastian" hangs in the National Gallery.

I click play on this section of the tour. The narrator informs me that Saint Sebastian was always shown as “a paragon of male beauty with a toned body, often oblivious to the pain caused by his martyrdom.” I don’t quite see it in this work, but I see where they’re coming from. In high school, we always learned Saint Sebastian to be the patron saint of athletes, leading many of my classmates to take his name in their Confirmation. 

I don’t see the overt sexuality and provocation in this print, but apparently iconography of him has elicited sexual feelings from both men and women throughout time. The gay community has even come to adopt the saint, featuring sexualized images of him on magazine covers. 

I find the sensuality the British Museum’s depiction of Saint Sebastian lacks during my visit to the National Gallery later that week. Dutch Golden Age painter Gerrit van Honthorst’s “Saint Sebastian” oozes sexual energy, with his hunched pose and scantily clad covering. I’ve always found it odd that a religion historically against homosexuality continually commissioned such sexy artwork of their icons.  

I take a final glance at Honthorst’s work and head to what I really came for in the National Gallery—Vincent Van Gogh. 

Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" hangs on the wall in the National Gallery.

For years, Van Gogh artwork has been a staple in my phone, laptop, and social media profiles. Hell, I redid my room at home to match the colors of the “Sunflowers” print I have hanging up. My parents even sent me sunflowers for my most recent birthday in homage. 

I explain this to my friend as we see the sign leading towards the Van Gogh exhibit. We walk in, and he says, “Oh, you mean that one?”

The wall on the left holds five Van Gogh works, and right smack dab in the middle is “Sunflowers”. I didn’t expect to see this here, and excitement flushes my face. 

“Yes,” I say. “That one.”

I walk up, taking a spot right in front. I’m baffled at how little people there are in this room—how is there not an army of people pushing through to see these? 

As I take in the fact that I’m standing right in front of the artwork that has been a part of my life for years now, I think about the unconscious connection I’ve always felt towards Van Gogh. I was never really sure why I felt such a deep pull towards him. I’m not even that much of an art appreciator. I tried to go to a modern art museum a while back, and every time I tried harder to understand, I got more confused. 

Large buildings, cars, and traffic lights are seen in the center of London

But with Van Gogh, I’ve never felt the need to question it. I see it, and I understand. I didn’t learn until much later after I’d included him in my daily aesthetic that he was rumored to be closeted. Maybe something deep within me knew that we shared some sense of sameness, something about ourselves we were scared to let some to the surface. 

I see it, and I understand.

Leaving the National Gallery, I feel a bit of a weight on my shoulders. Even though I spent all day learning about the history of my community, it was all veiled by a sense of hiddenness. Not that everyone in the past was ashamed of who they were, but the people around them were. Queerness has come such a long way in society, but it’s only become largely socially accepted in the past 50 years—at least in America. I mean, I’m only 21 and I’m older than legal gay marriage.

It’s frustrating to think that for so long, people had to hide who they were out of fear of ostracization, hate crimes, and jailing. Don’t get me wrong, being gay is far from being okay all over the world, but as I cross the street in London and see a streetlight with the interlocking Venus signs as the green light, I know we’ve come a long way. 

So far, in fact, that my friends hop on the tube with me later that night and head towards a drag show to close out our free day in London. Of all things they could do today, they agreed—and were excited— to head across the city to a little venue to see Klub Kids London’s Twisted Circus. 

My roommate is far from a stranger to drag. I’ve taken it upon myself in the past school year to culture him—and our other roommates—on gay culture via “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the likes. RuPaul’s music has worked its way into our shared playlists, and the vernacular is known. I see it as my duty living with two straight men to make them more accepting and understanding people. 

The stage at Klub Kids London's Twisted Circus at the Clapham Grand in London. Various drag queens pose on stage in front of a cheering audience.

And as I see him enjoying himself at the Clapham Grand at a Monday night drag show, I know I’ve done my job.

The show is everything, and I even get to see two of my favorite queens—Detox and Crystal Methyd—take the stage. Seeing them perform live leaves me in awe. I can’t get over how open and happy everyone is to be here. Not a single audience member holds any reservations, and the acceptance is overwhelming. I feel the warmth, the kindness, the love. 

And I have so much fun. The crowd sings along to 2000s throwbacks during the breaks, group happiness arising. The screams for the queens are deafening and smiles light up the faces of every person I see. They’re beaming. 

This is what it means to be gay—not hiding in fear of rejection but celebrating in the community we’ve built for each other. We’ve come so far from masquerade laws forcing drag underground. So far from being outright hated for our identity. So far from our history being covered up and disregarded. Things may not be perfect, but they are progressing. 

Today, we can be open about who we are—proud of our desire, love, and identity. 

The smile doesn’t leave my face all night.

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