LGBT+ history month is celebrated each year in February. It is a time to commemorate queer activism and reflect on the challenges queer people still face today.
It is an opportunity for both queer people and allies alike, to learn about queer histroy, icons, and important figures in the gay rights movement. Many queer figures have been hidden or eradicated from history because of their sexual idenity. It is paramount that their stories are told and remembered after centuries of being silenced and mistreated.
The gay rights movement teaches people the generosity and resilience of the queer community, and their ability to fight for what they believe in. After the gay bar – the Stonewall Inn – was raided by police in June 1969 – who used excessive violence – there was a series of protests and riots. This lead to the first openly gay & lesbian march being held in New York a month later – a pivotal moment for the queer community globaly.
If you would like to get involved with the LGBT+ and Trans and Non-binary liberation groups on campus, or to find out more about events taking place both this and in future history months, please contact : firstname.lastname@example.org; or email@example.com.
Marsha P Johnson August 24th 1945 – July 6th 1992
Marsha P. Johnson (the “P” stands for “Pay It No Mind”) was an African American transgender activist from New Jersey. She was very well-known in New York, and was an icon to those in Greenwich village. She was a successful drag queen who toured the world with the Hot Peaches.
“I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen. That’s what made me in New York, that’s what made me in New Jersey, that’s what made me in the world.”
Marsha had a huge impact in the queer rights movement and community – especially in the 1960s and 70s. Johnson helped to lead the Stonewall protests and riots, which led to the Pride month celebrations that we have today. Due to this and her generosity towards the queer community in New York, she was given the nickname “Saint of Christopher Street”. Along with her friend Syliva Rivera – also a trasngender rights activist – she founded STAR : Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. This organisation helped to support homeless gay and transgender people, who were often kicked out after coming out to their families. STAR helped queer people in New York, Chicago, Califonia and England in the early 1970s but was eventually disbanded.
Johnson’s body was found July 6th 1992 in the Hudson River. The police ruled her death as a suicide despite claims from friends and the local community that she was not suicidal. Twenty-five years later, Victoria Cruz, a crime victim advocate of the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP) re-opened the case. The NYPD changed her cause of death from suicide to “undeterminded”.
Marsha’s legacy lives on today in organisations such as the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, which says it “protects and defends the human rights of black transgender people”. In February 2020, the Mayor of New York renamed the East River State Park in Brooklyn, The Marsha P. Johnson State Park and created a state in honour of her in 2021.
C.P. Cavafy 1863 – 1933
Cavay was born in Alexandria, Egypt on 29th April 1863. He lived with his parents and eight siblings. He moved between Alexandris and Liverpool in his early life, before settling back down in Alexandria and working as his brother’s assistant in the Egyptian stock exchange.
He started writing poetry in his teens, and continued up until his death in 1933. He is noted to be one of the most distinguished Greek poets of the 20th century. Only a small collection of his work was published in 1900, with Cavafy circling his works with his friends instead. It is likely that not more of his work was published due to the homo-erotic nature, and how sexually explicit his poetry was. He drew inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman civilisations, with particular inspiration from their gods and myths. The history of the ancient world intertwines with his own work, and is said to have called himself a “Poet-Historian”. His work was eventually published in 1961 by W.H.Auden entitled The Complete Poems of C.P. Cavafy.
When we think of the Classics, we think of white marble columns, gaudy statues, and purple hemmed togas. Our European languages, science, and even our morals all stem from those ancient people in Greece and Rome. Democracy and imperialism all mashed up into a ball of western brilliance. So it was; so it will always be. Right?
Well, not really. Especially not that “western” bit. While it is true that the Romans and Greeks lived in what is now called Europe (and even that name comes from the Ancient Greek word Europa), the history of these people are not and should not be considered only western. Nor was it only us in Europe, or Christians, that were captivated by the remains left behind by the ancients. Let me introduce you to Al-Mansur, the second Abbasid Caliph of the Islamic Empire, founder of Baghdad, and patron of Science, Philosophy, and yes, especially the Classics. With quite a resume, it’s a surprise that most of us in the western world have not heard more about him, and even more a surprise that his achievements and impact in the field of Classics are not celebrated more. This Islamophobia Awareness Month, we need to look at those who have so often been ignored in the historiography. Islam and the Classics are so often seen as opposites, fuelled by portrayals of a “clash of nations” – but it’s a false narrative. Muslims have always been involved in the study of Classics, and we would not be where we are now without them! So, in an attempt to realign the narrative, let me take you on a quick bibliographical journey through the life of Al-Mansur.
Born in 714CE under the name Abu Ja’far Abdallah ibn Muhammad (no, not the Disney Jafar), he took the name Al-Mansur meaning “The victorious” as a regal name. Distantly related to the Prophet Muhammad, he emerged at the head of the Abbasid Caliphate in 754CE and reigned for almost 22 years, succeeding the earlier Rashidun and the Umayyad Caliphates. The Umayyad caliphate had been overthrown by popular rebellion just five years prior to Al-Mansur’s ascension; there was little harmony in the Muslim world at this time. Yet following Al-Mansur’s rise to the throne internal peace was largely achieved, especially after quashing a few rebellious uncles (although skirmishes and wars at the Chinese, Spanish, and Byzantine borders were still rather common). With some degree of peace and with relative economic success, Al-Mansur decided that a new capital and administrative centre ought to be built, to better reflect the new empire he was building from the inside out. He named his city “Madinat As-Salaam”, the City of Peace. Today it is known as Baghdad, the second largest city in the Middle East after Cairo. Al-Mansur was fascinated by astrology, and thus brought many astrologers to help design his city. The most influential amongst them was Mashallah ibn Athari, a Jewish man of Persian descent who was himself influenced by numerous Greek astrologers. The administrative centre was built as a circular citadel, with all the most important buildings located inside the walls.
Having built his city, Al-Mansur invited scholars, doctors, and other “smart people” from every corner of his Empire, to concentrate IQ into one house. With the creative name of “the Baghdad House of Wisdom”, he began to fund and support all types of sciences and scholarly efforts. For us, his most important decision was to kickstart and become the first patron of the Graeco-Arabic Translation movement. This is where his impact upon Classics becomes clear, and ever so valuable. Whilst many monasteries in western Europe were copying Latin and Greek texts, Arab and Persian scholars also took it upon themselves to preserve and transcribe Greek texts, many of which were being ignored or demonised by Christians in the West. The works of ancient astrologers, polymaths, and doctors were transcribed into Arabic and ruthlessly peer-reviewed with their own understandings of the stars, mathematics, and the human body. Attempts were made by Al-Mansur’s scholars to try and understand, and thus improve, Hippocrates’ methods or Galen’s theories. What should be noted however, is that almost every work considered useful by the Abbasids were non-fictional, secular, and also non-political. Arabic translations of works by Homer for example, are hardly worth mentioning, and now offer little use for the discipline of Classics. This is remarkably different from the work done by western scholars (usually monks), who seem to have been comparatively much more interested in myths, theatre, and politics.
“So what?” – you might be saying. What use is an Arabic version of Euclid, or Aristotle, especially if they were scribbling in the margins with their own thoughts too? With the work that Al-Mansur began and under the patronage of future Caliphs, the House of Wisdom grew to an enormous size, becoming at one point the largest library in the world, and continued as such until 1258 CE when the Mongol Khanate burned the whole city down. Just as the library of Alexandria was burned down by invaders in 48 BCE, history repeated itself, and who knows just how many texts were lost after the fires subsided. Luckily however, the wealth of knowledge collected for the almost 500 year lifespan of the library had attracted the interest of scholars from all around the known world, including Europe. Works which had not been seen by western European eyes for hundreds of years were reintroduced, all from Arabic translations. A great example is the work done by Adelard of Bath, an English scholar who reintroduced Euclid’s Elements to western Europe in 1127– a work that had been translated into Arabic under the orders of Al-Mansur. This is not an isolated case, and many western European scholars made trips into the Muslim world in search for “lost” texts, filling in the gaps of their own knowledge. Admittedly, many did not bother to travel all the way to Baghdad, preferring the closer-to-home libraries in Al-Andalus and Sicily, but the majority of those centres of knowledge were based on and owed much of their collections to the original House of Wisdom in Baghdad set up by Al-Mansur.
Caliph Al-Mansur continued to fund and sponsor translations throughout his reign, not only of Greek works but also of Indian and Persian texts. He died in 775CE, with varying accounts on the circumstances. Some say he died during a pilgrimage to Mecca, while others say he died after reaching the Well of Maimun. In either case he was succeeded by his son, Al-Mahdi (meaning “The rightly guided one” – again a regal name. Being humble was clearly not a family trait). A long time has passed since Al-Mansur’s death, but his legacy remains, in astrology, medicine, and classics! By laying the foundations for later Caliphs to further the Graeco-Arabic Translation movement, many texts were preserved for those who would later study the ancients as we do today. We could almost say that the Renaissance would not have been as transformative for western society were it not for the works of Al-Mansur and his translators. Major works of classical medicine, philosophy, astrology, and science were all passed into the hands of Renaissance Europeans through Arabic translations.
All of this is to say that Al-Mansur’s life shows it was not just Europeans who were interested in preserving the Classics. Whilst many of us have a story in our mind of only western monks meticulously translating texts into Latin in quiet monasteries, it’s not a wholly accurate view. Muslims were always interested in the ancient Mediterranean, but especially in the works they considered useful themselves. It is interesting that political speeches, myths, and court cases were not seen as “interesting” or “useful” by Al-Mansur and his translators, but perhaps that is because they had their own developed legal system – namely the Qur’an and the hadith (the sayings of the Prophet). While it is clear today that western society has been influenced more by Classical civilisations, as seen in architecture, language, and law: the West is not the extent of the Classics. Whenever Classicists thank the monks in monasteries for their efforts in preserving the classics, they really should also be thanking Al-Mansur for his efforts.
Arriving at university was for me, as for everyone else, a very overwhelming experience. New city, new flatmates, new responsibilities, new friends, new experiences (so many Big Cheese nights), the list goes on.
No one really quite knows what they sign up for in terms of their degree until the first week but I had the added pressure of having picked a subject I knew only from reading fiction books as a young teen (take three guesses as to which American demi-god had inspired me…). Now, this was slightly more stressful than what I imagine the average uni experience for many other people looked like, who already knew the basics about the subject they chose.
However, I didn’t really notice how much I didn’t know in comparison to my peers until quite far into first semester. I took Latin 1A with a bunch of other beginners (I met my best friends and flatmates in this course) so we all knew nothing pretty much; all in the same boat. My other 2 modules were both ‘world’ courses, Greek and Roman World 1A. This is where I suddenly noticed a difference.
Unlike most of my peers, I didn’t go to private school. I should preface this with that this is not a criticism of people who do come from this background, it is just not my personal experience. I had not read the Iliad and the Odyssey (still haven’t finished the second, I’ll be honest). I didn’t have basic foundational knowledge of anything Classics related really- if it hadn’t been in Horrible Histories or Percy Jackson I was stumped.
At no point in the uni application process had it occurred to me what my teachers had warned me about would be correct- that I would be competing with people who had been learning this since they were 11. The only time this was brought up to me was almost a joke: a teacher was trying to tempt me into Oxbridge application and when I said I wanted to apply for Classics replied, ‘well you’ll be a great tick-box for them!’. This was meant in the greatest sincerity I’m sure but it didn’t affect my desire to do the subject or my lack of motivation to go through the Oxford application process (sorry Miss Bryden!), in fact I did not think about this at all until approximately two years later.
This makes it sound much more dramatic than it was, like I suddenly had an epiphany and everything stopped around me as though I was in the movies. Obviously this didn’t happen and it wasn’t that big a deal, which is precisely the point. Whilst I was aware sometimes of my knowledge deficit (not always helped by some lecturers’ implicit assumptions that if they referenced Homer, for example, we would all understand), very rarely was I actively at a genuine disadvantage in first year. You do manage to catch up pretty quickly even if, like me, you did very little of the supposedly compulsory lecture reading (not recommended!).
Don’t panic! Whilst people with private school backgrounds may seem to have this amazingly in-depth knowledge of all these stories/concepts/events you’ve never heard of, it actually matters very little in the long run. You will all be equals by the time you get to honours when you start to specialise. Although, keeping up with the language courses are another matter altogether…
At the high school I attended, Classical Studies was certainly not on the curriculum. In fact – and I’m somewhat ashamed to admit this – I didn’t actually take History beyond my first year; the allure of igneous rock and a week in the Swiss alps (via a 56-hour round coach trip) was seemingly too great, so I opted for Geography. Although I had some experience studying the likes of Socrates and Plato against the backdrop of The Truman Show during Higher Philosophy, I had no framing beyond that. The term ‘Classics’ hadn’t entered my vocabulary. It wouldn’t be until I began studying on the university’s Access Programme in 2018 that I would have my first real exposure to the ancient world, or least the Graeco-Roman one, and a brief introduction to the writing of Herodotus, Suetonius and Virgil. It was enough to convince me that a degree in Ancient and Medieval History was the route I wanted to go down and the rest, as they say, is history.
However, soon after entering this new world of academia and ancient history, I became closely acquainted with the term “imposter syndrome”. As an undergraduate student in their late twenties with limited exposure to history as a discipline, beyond Eyewitness Guides and the Horrible Histories books, I found myself trying to navigate a world that was rich and fascinating, but one that was entirely new to me. In fact, I was more concerned about being “outed” as a fraud, as someone unworthy of their place on their degree programme, than I was actually coping with the workload itself. I’m a first-generation university student who’s worked as everything from stockroom assistant, to barista, to florist and at times I found myself asking: is Classics really for me? I could put together a perfectly adequate thistle buttonhole, but I didn’t know my sestertius from my Septimius Severus.
Thankfully, it didn’t take me too long to find the answer to that question. Yes, Classics is for me. It’s for anyone. There is no one way to be a Classical Studies student, just as there is no right time to go to university. I’m a man of material culture, of coins and curios, and it’s the study of tangible ‘things’ that excites me more than anything else – more so than the linguistic and literary focus of straight Classics (Tacitus’ Agricola notwithstanding) – but that wasn’t an overnight realisation. I used to envy students who had it all mapped out before they had even begun high school and a degree by the age of 22. However, life isn’t always as linear as that, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As a 29-year-old trans man, I’m still very much on my Odyssean journey of self-realisation, but I’m grateful to have found my little nook, in sculptures, seals and, indeed, sestertii.
So my advice? Don’t let yourself hold you back. There’s a lot we can’t change regarding our circumstances, and we all have very different backgrounds and very different levels of prior knowledge, but that does not equate to your worth. If we’re going to ensure that the study of the classical world not only survives for years to come but really thrives, in a way that is both relevant and meaningful, it’s us that needs to make that happen. And I want to be a part of that.
A significant amount of the discourse I engage in (if one of my lecturers reads this, I have probably stalked you on Twitter) surrounds the definition and inclusivity of Classics both in terms of its scholarly areas of focus and those who study it. Being a multiply-marginalised person with academic interests that are often on the fringes of standard Classics, I have been questioning and challenging my place in the field since I started dipping my toes in it. I am, technically speaking, not actually a Classics student: I actually study a History degree, but I think studying Classics from this angle has given me an invaluable perspective on the discipline and how it’s structured at the university level.
As a first year History student, the most important courses I took were in Islamic History, the first half of which is an indispensable part of the Late Antique landscape. As these were courses about history, I was allowed and encouraged to take them, but at the University of Edinburgh they official belong to the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies section of the School of Literatures, Languages, and Cultures, meaning that even though their subject matter is at the very least relevant to Classics or the Antique period, this classification could potentially be a barrier to first- or second-year students reading a Classics degree depending on required courses, administrative rules, and other factors out of our control. On the contrary, most if not all sub-honours university courses regarding Classical civilisations are open to students pursuing History degrees. Once in your honours years, the classification of courses into certain administrative areas is more relevant (and sometimes more frustrating) than ever. For example, as a History student, I am taking a course on Iranian history this term, again offered through IMES as an approved outside course for us. The Persian Empire from the Achaemenids to Sasanians was one of the strongest key players of the Classical Mediterranean and extremely interconnected with the Hellenistic world – indeed, even knowing this going into the course I did not expect to be reading so much Herodotus. However, a student studying an Ancient History degree (which falls under Classics’ jurisdiction) at my university would not be allowed to take this course, as it doesn’t fall under the university’s jurisdiction of ‘Ancient History’. There are, luckily, some wonderful honours Classics options that do discuss the Near East and related areas, but I personally would love to see more of them and offered earlier and more enthusiastically.
Furthermore, the unfortunate truth is that when thinking about whether you want to enter the Classics academia space, and where you want to do that, your personal background is something you need to consider. As a disabled and queer person of colour, who has often been the only (or one of precious few) visibly Muslim student in my courses, my identity and perspective is not always welcomed or given the platform it deserves. I have loved my experience studying at the University of Edinburgh and am pleased to say that I haven’t really felt marginalised by Classics staff or students in my time here – I have generally found my tutors and lecturers to be themselves educated about and openly against the insidious underbelly of the discipline, and my efforts to create a supportive, accessible community for disabled students in pre-modern studies have been very warmly welcomed by staff as well as the students in Classics Society and the Classics courses I’ve taken. There needs to be progress across the whole discipline, but I find the University of Edinburgh to be engaged with that progress and am hopeful about the future of Classics here.
I’m likely biased, but I truly do believe that a well-rounded education in Classics should include some knowledge about the Eastern Mediterranean taught through a lens that isn’t Greco- or Italo-centric. I would encourage prospective university students to explore the various course options for all the different degrees offered within the Classics and History disciplines to find what path best allows you to explore your interests. The Scottish system allows us to take quite a few electives in our first two years at university, so even if you know for sure that you’d like to stick to more ‘traditional’ Classics courses later in your university career, it’s a great way to round out your education and explore new ways of looking at the field earlier on. While personal tutors in Classics may not be aware of or actively pushing their students to take these, I would highly recommend looking into courses on religious history, non-western ‘area studies’ courses dealing with earlier periods, or even social science courses that discuss topics such as gender, sexuality, race, and disability – reception is an important and interesting area of Classics and having a diverse and inclusive background is such an asset. There are amazing scholars researching these topics within the context of the entire Classical world, so whether you think Classics ended in 476 or prefer to test the limits of periodisation with Byzantium’s longevity, you can engage with your learning in a valuable and increasingly necessary way.