Why all history is good history


The other week, I attended an extraordinarily interesting lecture at Raynham Hall Museum, in Oyster Bay, by Megan Rhodes Victor, about bars and meeting places for gender-nonconforming people in the 1700s. During Dr. Victor’s lecture, I was struck not only by the fascinating cultural history of so-called molly houses — the 18th- and 19th-century term for places where gay men and others with nontraditional gender preferences could slip away from a society that refused to accept them — but also by how recent the research on this topic was.

For most of the 200 years following the end of the molly house era, the historical records, and even the existence, of such establishments were suppressed and denied, out of fear of “poisoning” the morals of society.

This got me thinking: How much history has been lost, ignored or forgotten simply because it didn’t conform with societal norms, or made people uncomfortable, or didn’t fit a political narrative. Only in the past 20 years or so have historians and archaeologists been able to explore so many fascinating examples of different cultures, minorities and characteristics of historical figures without the weight of societal pressure, and expectations of what is “good history,” holding them back.

Because all history is good history. The more we learn about our past, the better understanding we’ll have of how we got where we are today, and where we’re headed tomorrow. And the more we learn about historically marginalized communities and the fascinating roles their members played in our world story, the more we will learn to accept others who are different from us.

To quote a random poster on the internet: “Studying history will sometimes make you uncomfortable. Studying history will sometimes make you feel deeply upset. Studying history will sometimes make you feel extremely angry. If studying history always makes you feel proud and happy, you probably aren’t studying history.”

Such scholarship is also essential in challenging jingoistic, nationalistic and downright bigoted conceptions of history. For example, most people are likely unaware that several of our American Founding Fathers were gender-nonconformers. Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, the Prussian-American military officer who molded the Continental Army into a professional fighting force at Valley Forge, never married, and had close, intimate relationships with male aides-de-camp and secretaries throughout his life.

Alexander Hamilton, who was probably what we would call bisexual today, and his “particular friend,” John Laurens, were also likely lovers, because the language they used when writing to each other was practically drowning in romantic and sexual innuendo, even when a reader today takes into consideration the overtly flowery and dramatic language of the times. Indeed, the letters they exchanged were so spicy that when Hamilton’s son was writing his father’s biography and publishing his correspondence, he blanked out entire sections of the letters, and on one letterhead even wrote, “I must not publish the whole of this.”

Beyond the gender-nonconforming community, there is also the fascinating history of the Muslim-Americans who fought for our country in the American Revolution. Muster rolls listing men with Muslim names, such as Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf Ben Ali and Joseph Saba, who were probably of West African descent, show that as far back as the United States has existed, Islam has been a proud and essential ingredient in our cultural melting pot.

When people argue against gay people being allowed to serve in the military, or that a woman’s place is only in the home, or that transgender people don’t actually exist and are an excuse for predatory behavior, they’re not just being close-minded, they’re also rejecting historical precedents. If gay people aren’t right for the military, how do you explain the conquests of Alexander the Great, whose best friend, Hephaestion, was also his lover? If women only belong in the home, then explain the breathtaking intelligence of Marie Curie. And if being trans is a recent phenomenon, then why do records of transgender or gender-nonconforming people exist in various cultures since before the Vikings?

History shows that our biases against these and other minorities is not only shortsighted, ugly and, frankly, idiotic, but also plain wrong. Which is why it is so important that aspects of historical study that have been suppressed for centuries be allowed to see the light of day. To quote Capt. Raymond Holt from the Fox/NBC series “Brooklyn 99” — played by the late, incomparable Andre Braugher — “Every time someone steps up and says who they are, the world becomes a better, more interesting place.”

Will Sheeline is a senior reporter covering Glen Cove, Glen Head, Oyster Bay and Sea Cliff.