Exclusive: Ten Questions with History is Gay

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting the women behind the History is Gay podcast when we were both at TGIF/F. Since then, they’ve become people I chat with semi-regularly. When Leigh tossed the idea of a write up or an interview, I thought “Hell yes!” Which is how we come to this. Ten questions with History is Gay.

Who is History is Gay?

In their own words:

History is Gay is a twice-monthly podcast where two queer nerds use their passion for social justice, history, and storytelling to examine the overlooked and under-appreciated queer ladies, gents, and gentle-enbies from the unexplored corners of history. Because history has never been as straight as you think.

Gretchen and Leigh aren’t ‘just’ nerds, they have actual degrees in history, and know how to walk the walk. They research and provide well thought out discussions on how the history we’ve always known has had queers in it pretty much forever. They lift the rocks and poke the bears to find the truths we’ve always known in our hearts.

They don’t just talk about history, either. Every episode has a write up with notes and more information so you can educate yourself and be able to win at talking points with friends and family. Want to shut down your homophobic relatives at Thanksgiving? Binge listen to podcast episodes about Ming Dynasty art, the Revolutionary War, and more.

And no I’m not just saying this because I’m was the room for Episode 5: Stars from a Bi-Gone Era (and you can probably hear me…)

Leigh

I’ve been obsessed with learning from the day I could hold a book. Research is one of my favorite things to do, which is what led me to a bachelor’s degree in History and pursuing a graduate program in Dramaturgy (which is basically being a researcher and historian for theatrical productions). In college, I focused my thesis research on religious women in the Middle Ages. When I’m not looking into queer history, I can usually be found engaging in queer fandom and talking comics.

Gretchen

I’ve been a big old nerd studying old things for over a decade. I have a bachelor’s degree in Ancient Languages and two master’s degrees, one in Theology and Church History and one in Classical Hebrew Linguistics and Rabbinics.

The Interview

1. How did you two meet and decide to team up for a podcast?

Leigh: We met at TGIF/F 2017 and while at the convention, got talking about a bunch of nerdy stuff and mentioned that we each loved queer history. Then at some point in our shared Slack channel with other con-goers, Gretchen mentioned that she had wanted to do some sort of queer history podcast.

Gretchen: Yes! As an academic with a background in ancient history, I’d been frustrated for years about all the stories I heard about how ancient historians and archaeologists straightwashed history. Like the pair of Egyptian men who had been buried together in a tomb for eternity with iconography used for husband and wife pairs but all the archaeologists talked about them as ‘cousins’ or even ‘conjoined twins’ (Sure, Jan. Check out our podcast on Egyptian gender for more on that if you’re interested!). So I threw out the idea of wanting to do a podcast about all of those straightwashed stories; a couple of our mutual friends were interested in listening, but none wanted to be my co-host, so they said they’d ask around. I even reached out to a couple of Tumblr mutuals who are into ancient queer history but didn’t hear back. When that didn’t go anywhere for a week or so, I brought it up again in Slack and, fortunately, Leigh said she was interested. Which was great, because I was beginning to lose hope of finding someone!

Marcia Brady saying "Sure Jan" as a gif - it's a very sarcastic meme

Leigh: At the time, I had been bouncing a few podcast ideas around in my brain and doing a queer history show was one, and so when she mentioned it that second time, I think I jumped on the comment thread going “Oh man, I’d totally do that with you. I’ve been wanting to make a queer history podcast.” And we both kind of reacted to it like, “If you’re joking I’m joking, but if you’re serious, I’m serious.” And then we decided to actually make it a thing. I think we took about 6 months of brainstorming and planning to get everything ready for launch, between researching our first few topics, deciding on the name and branding, theme music, etc, and in general nailing down our tone and how we wanted to work together. And we’ve been totally surprised by how it’s growing.

Gretchen: We thought it was just going to be a handful of our convention friends, but we have thousands of downloads and are truly global in audience. That’s so gratifying because reaching those who might not have access to this information themselves matters to us deeply. We want to give the LGBT+ community around the world it’s history back!

2. There’s a lot of research and notes involved in your work, more so than any other podcast I know of! How long does it take you to prep for each episode?

Leigh: I think it depends on the topic! One of the things we do best, I think, is finding a particular thread of something we want to talk about and then going on a ridiculous research binge where we find each of us writing 10-15 page outlines, essentially writing thesis papers for fun!

Gretchen: Absolutely! There’s a reason I came up with ‘gayvenclaw’ to describe what we do and how we work. We’ve even joked about basically doing the equivalent of multiple graduate level classes, which isn’t even really a joke. I’ve done about the same, if not more work for this podcast as I did when I got my masters degrees. The only difference is I don’t get graded on my podcast outlines and I can research whatever I want!

Leigh: Some episodes we’ll be reading and researching for a good two weeks depending on the complexity of the topic and how much information is out there, and then other times we need sort of a lighter research window. If life has gotten particularly busy, we’ll choose a lighter, more straightforward biographical topic to cover.

Gretchen: The biographies tend to take less time than the concept or time period focused ones, for sure. It’s much easier to distill a biography into talking points than, like, four thousand years of literary history!

3. Have you had any big surprises while researching for the show?

Gretchen: Finding out that I’m related to one of our podcast subjects, the Public Universal Friend was by far the most exciting find for me. I was reading along in their biography and came across the fact that their father’s cousin was Stephen Hopkins. When I read that, my jaw about fell to the floor because I’ve known since third grade that I was related to two signers of the Declaration of Independence: Robert Morris and, you guessed it Stephen Hopkins! So that makes Jemima Wilkinson, the Public Universal Friend, one of my relatives! Basically, the queer is in my blood all the way back to the founding of America. 😉

Leigh: One of my favorite people that we’ve discovered while researching for the show was a woman named Sor Juana Ines de La Cruz, a 17th century Mexican nun who wrote love letters and poems to this Vicereine of Spain who was her patron. She was a badass feminist and activist, and frequently told old dudes in the Catholic church to shove off with their misogynist attitudes toward her. We went into our episode on lesbian nuns and gay monks with broad ideas, and then coming across her was such a delight!

4. I just learned a new term, “Dumbledoring,” in reference to characters who aren’t explicitly queer on screen, but are said to be so by cast and directors. How do you feel about this new kind of queerbaiting?

Leigh: It feels like a complete cop-out to me. There is so much value and importance in expressly showing queer characters, and this just feels like an easy way for networks and producers to utilize the numbers and influence of a queer audience without doing the work to actually represent us. It feels very similar, I think, to the ways in which we only find out through extensive research and digging and scholarly analysis and interpretation that some of our favorite people from history were queer. Did you know Abraham Lincoln had a romantic relationship with his best friend Joshua? That Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr’s right-hand-man in the black civil rights movement was a gay man? That Frida Kahlo had multiple relationships with both men and women? You feel cheated out of that information, because it was never included in discussions about them in school.

That’s not just queerbaiting to me, it’s actually queer erasure, which I feel is somewhat even worse. At least with subtextually queer characters and interactions, you know that there’s no intention of it ever happening and it’s something that exists solely in fan-land (although producers and showrunners are taking advantage of such). But to take characters that are canonically queer, but never shown to be, and that element of their identity relegated to the shadows and whispers from behind the scenes. That’s exactly what we have dealt with for years and years in regards to historical figures whose true selves have been deliberately hidden from us. And, well, that just makes me mad.

Gretchen: To me, it depends on the circumstances. With a situation like Dumbledore, for example, it reads pretty clearly to me like a blatant attempt to get cookies (positive feedback) from queer audiences after the fact. The reality is that at the time Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series, other fantasy books had explicitly queer characters, even secondary ones. Plus the book series was making a shit ton of money and she had already solidified her place publishing-wise. There’s no reason she had to leave out Dumbledore’s sexuality in the text for censorship reasons or because she feared backlash. Representation in hindsight isn’t even erasure to my mind, because it isn’t canonical. I’m very much of the “if the creator/ultimate authority has no reason to leave it out of the text and only claims it in retrospect, it doesn’t ‘count’” mindset. You don’t get cookies for pretending something was there all along that you didn’t bother making explicit in the first place but could have without consequences.

When it comes to actors or creative minds who don’t have control over the final product, I feel differently. Take the situation with Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok for example (or even Ayo in Black Panther). There, the writer, director, and actor were all on the same page about wanting to make Valkyrie’s sexuality explicit on screen. However, the executives, the people with the final say, nixed it. (From what we know, something similar happened with Black Panther.) In such situations, I see actors and directors who were prevented from offering explicit representation talking about it as their way of letting the community know that they did what they could. They wanted it for us, pushed for it as far as they could, but were prevented from doing so by higher powers. In cases like these, they’re giving us the best they can, which is their interpretation and desire.

5. We met at TGIF/F and I was one of the folks in the crowd for your 5th episode “Stars from a Bi-Gone Era.” While that (mostly) talked about the silver screen, I happen to know you both are also big TV fans. So cage match time. Which queer TV show would you ride and die for?

Leigh: Oh man. I mean, right now and for the past few years I’ve been in a really intense Xena kick. It’s been my primary fandom for a while, and I will fight anyone who says “but it’s not really gay.” I can go on and on for days about the complexities of queer-coding vs queer-baiting and explaining to younger generations of queer TV fans that we had to take what we could get, and the fact that they were able to put so much queer content into this show and still deal with the censors is ASTOUNDING. If you’ve never tried, please do yourself a favor and enjoy Xena. I’m also really loving Wynonna Earp and Steven Universe. They’re just so witty and fun and full of heart (and in WE’s case, excellent cheese, which is perfect for my Buffy and Xena-loving self).

Gretchen: Steven Universe hands down. I don’t know why there aren’t more die hard fans—I think I met a handful at ClexaCon, but not nearly as many as I expect! That show has just about every possible queer representation you could ask for, and it’s all nuanced, complex, well-rounded, and multi-layered with other marginalities like mental health, neuro-atypicality, and racial diversity. Like Leigh, I also love (and review!) Wynonna Earp, too. Black Lightning is another ride or die show for me right now because Anissa Pierce is everything. Oh, and Legend of Korra.

6. Who was the first queer (not queer coded) character you remember seeing on TV?

Gretchen: Willow and Tara from Buffy. I wasn’t allowed to watch it at home, but I would sneak over to my friend’s house and watch it with her. For ‘some reason’ I really identified with nerdy Willow liking girls after having also had a relationship with Oz. That reason is because I’m bi, in case that wasn’t queer, I mean clear.

Leigh: I think the first expressly queer character I remember seeing on TV was Willow in Buffy. I had already had nascent queer feelings for Faith by that point, but seeing Willow and Tara get together on screen was exhilarating in a way I had never seen before.

7. Would you rather watch a show like Will & Grace or Queer as Folk, which are explicitly about openly queer characters as the leads, or ones like Black Lightning and The Fosters, which star queer characters and yet aren’t so much about being queer?

Leigh: I think we need a good mix of both. What I definitely don’t want to keep seeing is shows or media where there’s just one lone queer character, and it’s the same cis, white, thin femme character we keep seeing. I want my TV full of queers of different shapes and colors and lived experiences and genders! I want to see queer community reflected on screen, and we all know how rare it is that there’s one lone queer person without other queer friends and I feel like we don’t really get to see that a lot. There’s also a lot of specific culture to the queer community I’d like to see reflected on TV – let’s dive into queer characters being able to express their queer culture while at the same time being blended into the regular narrative of the story. The entire show doesn’t have to be about being queer and nothing else, but I think we’ve moved beyond the tropes of either coming out story or this character “just happens to be queer” and we never bring it up in a significant way.

Gretchen: Before anything else, I’m a sci-fi and fantasy nerd, so I’m all about genre fiction with queer protagonists. I grew up reading and watching SFF, so what I’ve always wanted more than anything is to be able to keep engaging in the stories that shaped me, but with more characters that represent my story and my community. Especially those people in the LGBT+ community who get less representation overall—nonbinary, ace, aro, bi/pan, and trans folks. I’ve joked in my writing elsewhere about going ‘full SJW’ when rebooting tv shows, and that’s what I want to see in my media: layered, intersectional representation of marginalized communities in nuanced ways. There’s definitely a place for shows about queer culture, experiences and identity, don’t get me wrong! I love that we’re getting more of those, too. But for me, I pretty much want “Star Trek, but everyone is queer in some way!” or, like, “Magical Ladies + Greek Mythology but the gods are pansexual, trans lady witches, and the magic has roots in African myth instead of Europe.”

Leigh: Ooooh, yes. I want this also. More SFF with all the queers as well.

8. What’s your best (or favourite) queer TV related factoid? Mine is that trans women are more likely to play multiple queer characters than any other openly queer actors.

Gretchen: I don’t know if this is true of television writing (it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true), but my favorite factoid about queer fiction is that novels that feature queer characters are more likely to be written by women.

Leigh: Something that surprised and delighted me is that I just recently learned that Francois Clemmons, the actor who played Officer Clemmons on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, is gay! Who knew, for all these years, that I was watching gay tv as early as Mister Rogers.

9. Do you plan to have a queer TV episode any time in the future?

Leigh: We’ve definitely discussed the possibility of doing some media-focused episodes, exploring what the landscape of queer representation in media has looked like in terms of a historical timeline. We know of a few guests who have a lot of passion for the subject that we’re hoping to bring onto the show to talk about things like the origin of the Hays Code and how queer tropes on television and in films came about. In order to see where we can go in the future for queer representation on-screen, we need to have a good understanding of where we’ve come from and how patterns emerged.

10. Final question! You knew history was pretty damn gay going in. Is history even gayer than you thought it was?

Leigh:  We find ourselves constantly being surprised by what we find — while we knew history was super gay going in (after all, our tagline is “because history has never been as straight as you think”), we keep finding new rabbit holes to dive down into! We are always finding new and exciting things and people to add to our topics list. We already had a pretty huge one going in, but our world has only grown. The fact that so many of our topics have intersected and blended and crossed cultural lines is I think the most inspiring thing– that we can find such commonalities in queer behavior and culture across the entire globe says something about queerness being intrinsic to the human condition.  I can’t imagine us ever running out of potential content, because there are so many facets to queerness and queer history.

Gretchen: In some ways yes, some ways no. No in the sense that the whole reason I wanted to make a queer history podcast is because history is so much gayer than most people think. But yes in the sense that the ways history is gayer than I thought constantly surprises me. The similarity of experience that transcends the differences of time and cultural context still blows me away. People have always been people, so at some level, even if we use different words and have different concepts, queer people have always been queer people. And I love that ever evolving, multifaceted tension between sameness and difference that is queer history!

Listen to History Is Gay

You can listen to History is Gay twice a month on the usual suspects, including Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and Google Play.

About Mika Epstein

Mika has been deep in the fandom world since she could say 'Trekkie.' With over two decades experience in running fansites and organizing communities, she's taken on the challenge of delving into the recesses of television for queers long forgotten. Making this site with Tracy is nothing short of serendipity. Mika lives with her wife and their cats in Southern California. Of course she has a hybrid, but she'd rather ride her bicycle.

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