As part of a Kooth LGBTQ History Month special, Ben Pechey (non-binary writer, author & LGBTQ+ advocate) has shared their personal story of discovery with us:
Growing up, LGBTQIA history was never on the curriculum. I would go as far as to suggest it was hidden from us. This is one of the reasons I struggled with my identity for so long. I didn’t explore the people that existed, thrived and struggled before me until I entered higher education. The safety of university allowed me to explore a history I had assumed non-existent.
Delving into queer archives brought icons, artists and innovators that had slumbered in the public’s awareness, to a very open and excited mind. There are some figures who stick in my mind. Gender nonconforming artist Gluck, darling of the 80s and 90s Ballroom Scene Willi Ninja and visual artist, writer, and renowned gender explorer Claude Cahun.
These people were all new to me, they were something unique and exciting. I was hooked.
Let’s explore Cahun quickly, a queer person who subverted the notion of gender, formed their identity in 1917, and filled the the world with a body of work that shook the patriarchy to its core.
Cahun’s work featured several self-portraits all in different characters, looking directly at the viewer, blurring gender expectations in every shot.
This was a century ago, and the images created then still feel incredibly fresh and modern today, because their historical reference points don’t exist.
Instead the imagery fits with work being created now, and highlights a full and colourful history of our community we were not shown.
Exploring the people of our collective past was a true lightbulb moment, and opened the floodgates of realisation for my own identity. Seeing these wonderful gender diverse people made it feel completely okay to be myself, which is so wonderful, and a gift I had never before received.
I must stress when I say easier, I mean easy in the sense that I felt I could be who I wanted to be because I had seen it with my own eyes, but not easy within the parameters of societal expectations placed on me.
This is even more pertinent, especially when we think about early conversations around topics like non-binary and diverse gender identities. One of the first times I saw these being openly discussed and not debated, was this year, between Ginny Lemon and Bimini Bon Boulash, non binary contestants on the UK’s version of Rupaul’s Drag Race.
The nuances and exciting nature of my own gender identity are constantly evolving. Seeing others exploring gender has been such a comfort, and a guiding force I hadn’t known in my past. Without it, I would still be lost.
Seeing historical examples of LGBTQIA community members is a very special kind of representation because it is undeniably authentic. The history of our community highlights our struggles, that is a given, but it also celebrates who we are, and inspires future generations. Learning our history is so important for our growth and development as individuals, but also as a whole community.