Grappling with Queer Historical Romance by Kara Jorgensen

Hi!
I’ve been a bit absent lately due to school work and similar things. But now is the time to start my new series of posts! Guest posts and interviews spotlighting trans and non-binary authors! The first post, as you may have noticed from the title, is by Kara Jorgensen


(Source: Kara Jorgensen)

You can find Kara’s books at karajorgensen.com or pre-order Kinship and Kindness at http://books2read.com/u/bzoa7z



Sometimes the best motivation to write in a certain genre is equal measures of interest and spite. Since I published my first book,
The Earl of Brass in 2014, I’ve gotten reviews complaining about the “gay agenda” in my work, aka realistic representation that involves queer characters living, existing, and being happy in a historical setting. As a queer, nonbinary writer who has an academic background, I was having none of it. I had done my homework, I knew there were plenty of LGBT+ people in the past who lived and thrived and even had incredibly long-term relationships with people of their own sex. I decided shortly after publishing book one that I would write as many queer characters into my stories as possible and show them living their best lives in the 1890s.

You might be wondering, why not just write contemporary stories with all the queer characters in them or why bother writing historicals if people don’t believe queer people could be happy back then? Because I’m a nerd who loves research and I equally love pissing off people who don’t believe queer people in the past could live at least semi-openly and still have good lives.

Writing stories set in the past is a lot like writing fanfiction in a pre-existing universe. You have to make sure the extras make sense, clothing, manners, setting, etc., but once you get the flavor down, you can carve out space for creativity. There were numerous times while writing the Ingenious Mechanical Devices series that I thought I had gone too far historically only to find I was well within historical reality, even if it was weird for the time. Dirigibles? Not commercially available but definitely existed. Steam powered greenhouses? Makes sense if you have tropical plants who need humidity. A moving prosthetic arm? Someone made it centuries earlier, though it had a different mechanism.

My works are considered historical-fantasy, so I give myself a little wiggle room with when things were invented and throw in some magical creatures and powers. A secret occult society using scrap body parts for magic wasn’t too far off from the body snatchers of Victorian England. What isn’t fantasy is the diversity of the Late-Victorian world.

Due to television shows and racist writers like Georgette Heyer who purposefully ignored people of color and queer people in her books on the Regency and Georgian periods, we tend to think of the past as a homogenous, white, cis, straight world. Sadly, our historical collective memory is very short and easily swayed by fictionalized adaptations. In the same way that we have forgotten most cowboys were black or Latinx, we have forgotten that queer people did in fact exist in the past and lived full lives without constant fear of persecution. Most of our preconceived notions about queer historical figures comes from the Hays Code, which greatly limited queer portrayals in media unless they were “punished” by the end of the film or book and later by the Lavender Scare after WWII that legally persecuted queer people while the government was going after communists and anyone who didn’t agree with them. As queer people were often tied to liberal social movements, you can connect the dots as to why they were being targeted.

If we look back to silent movies in the 1920s and earlier, we see plenty of examples of queer-coded characters, and if we go further back in history and delve into historical documents, we find a treasure trove of queer people who aren’t relegated to the fringes of society. We find the historical equivalent of gay clubs in molly houses and lesbian-adjacent relationships in Boston marriages. One of the greatest hindrances to writing about queer historical relationships is the lack of labels. It’s often hard to grapple with a character or historical person’s identity when you can’t pin it down. If a man seemed to have more relationships with men are they gay? If they later got married, were they bisexual? If a woman wore men’s clothing was she merely a feminist or would they be considered non-binary or transgender today?

All at once, writing historical queer characters is freeing and maddening. If you were writing the same character in a contemporary setting it would be far easier to nail down their identity because a) there’s a name for it and b) they can self-identify. On the other hand, writing during a time period where there are no labels makes you wonder if labels are necessary or if they make life harder sometimes. I find myself grappling with whether I want to call myself an asexual biromantic or panromantic or if it even matters. Not having a specific label with connotations or expectations to come to terms with seems as your sexual and gender identity evolves almost freeing in a way.

Back in the Victorian Era, if you were a man who liked men who lived in the city, you could venture to a social club for men who were attracted to men, and there would be no real divide between gay and bisexual. To add, the term lesbian meant women who had deep relationships with other women, not necessarily that they were exclusively attracted to women. As gender identity becomes more nuanced and more people identify somewhere in the middle of the gender spectrum, I think we will see a shift back toward a lack of labels or using labels in a more fluid way than we are now.

In my forthcoming work, Kinship and Kindness, we have Bennett, who is a transgender man who is solely attracted to men. It made it easy to make promotional items for the book by saying it’s m/m romance with a cis/trans couple. The untitled second book in that series has a main character whose identity is less straightforward. Ruth is best described as a butch lesbian. She is AFAB, she is attracted to women, and she likes to dress masculine, but where I find myself getting stumped is that if she were alive in 2020, she would probably be nonbinary or genderfluid. Can I still call her a butch lesbian if she’s nonbinary? Would Ruth use “they” in 2020? That’s where I find myself getting caught up in labels even though I understand who she is, how she dresses, who she’s attracted to. Ruth is styled after male-impersonator Ella Wesner who had her own complicated relationship with her gender identity due to the social norms of the time period. Do I market this book as f/f or f/enby or just sapphic? Is it erasure or is it appropriate given the time period in which the characters are living?

While dealing with the tough questions of this genre can be trying at times, what’s most important is that we portray these characters in the past. The best way to fight the mass erasure of the mid-twentieth century is to reassert that queer people of many sexual and gender identities did in fact live and love throughout history. And that these people built communities and were often supported by their families as well. This is especially important for queer authors who are rebuilding their own queer lineage by reframing the narrative with realistic, nuanced, diverse fiction featuring characters like themselves.

If you want to read more, check out Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States, Gay New York by George Chauncey, and When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan.


Kara Jorgensen is an anachronistic oddball with a penchant for all things antiquated, morbid, or just plain strange. While in college, she realized she no longer wanted to be Victor Frankenstein but instead wanted to write like Mary Shelley and thus abandoned her future career in science for writing. She melds her passions through her books and received an MFA in Creative and Professional Writing in 2016. When not writing, she can be found hanging out with her dogs watching period dramas or trying to convince her students to cite their sources. Her work has also been featured in Selfish (issue 1) and Literary Orphans (issue 17).


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