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Response to Review of A Little Gay History of Wales

It is a marker of the growing maturity of what I shall call ‘Queer Wales Studies’ that a review of my A Little Gay History of Wales, a book of fewer than 200 pages, is able to generate so many grounds for debate, further research, and reconsideration of the evidence. That breadth is characteristic of Kirsti Bohata’s generous and informative reading, but also her own absorption in the wider corpus of evidence—historical and literary—upon which we are now able to draw in order to challenge a long-received heteronormative image of Wales and the Welsh. The general terms of Professor Bohata’s review I accept and so I want to use the opportunity of this author’s response to add my own nuances to some of the issues raised—namely the relative balance between a ‘kaleidoscopic’ queer history and a more ‘telescopic’ gay or lesbian history, for example; the taxonomic range of descriptors and allusions used by the Welsh (which continues to expand); and the fruitful interplay between literary and historical analysis—in both official languages—of gender and sexuality.

The easiest of these points to tackle is the middle one, and so I shall begin there. As a non-fluent speaker of Welsh, I recognise that some of the terminology in contemporary and historical use I will have missed—whether obvious to a fluent speaker or more esoteric. Our collective understanding of (and fluency in) the bilingual taxonomy of sexuality and gender, essential to the decipherment of the past, continues to expand, and demonstrates the distinctively Welsh character of this aspect of history. Indeed, in the absence of clear evidence of Molly Houses in Wales, the echoing possibilities of a term like cadi, with its links to the forename Catrin, which was in use in a variety of terms with translations ranging from ‘tomboy’ to ‘sissy’, are tantalising, as Professor Bohata suggests. I cannot help but wonder what else might be found in the iaith lafar—the spoken language—which, particularly in the industrialised southern counties of Wales, has faded away and is less prevalent in the Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru entries which serve as the starting point for this kind of research.

This brings me to the second of my themes, namely finding the balance between kaleidoscopic and telescopic historiography. I am certain, as noted in the review, of the need for historical acts of recovery across the entire spectrum of gender and sexuality. A Little Gay History of Wales ought to be joined on the shelf by A Little Lesbian History of Wales, A Little Bisexual History of Wales, and A Little Trans History of Wales, and so on. Queer Wales, with its roots in literary studies, already exists. Such diversity of analysis is a marker of a mature historiography and would serve as a robust challenge to studies of ‘Gay Britain’, ‘Lesbian Britain’, and ‘Trans Britain’, which are not only often absent Wales as a political entity (understandable, until the advent of devolution in 1999, if irritating to scholars of Wales) but also, and more fundamentally, the Welsh. Part of the internal debate Queer Wales Studies practitioners are likely to need to have as this field develops is about the methodologies involved in producing studies of the kind mentioned above, and then the process of queering all of that, and producing large-scale synthesis.

Were I to write the book again, and with the freedom afforded by a larger word count than was allowable for this book, there are points in the text, some identified by Professor Bohata, where I would have clarified or expanded to avoid having ‘lesbian history…off stage’. But it should also be recognised that clarifications are not always going to be possible, at least in an archivally-rooted methodology. Despite considerable efforts to trace the founders of the CHE women’s section in Cardiff, for example, I was unable to do so. Nor were the extant records for CHE in Cardiff any guide to the group’s activities; the women felt side-lined and remained so in the paperwork. And whilst the logbooks of Cardiff FRIEND are available, those of Cardiff Lesbian Line are not. We approach similar difficulties in North Wales, where records are either not deposited (one hopes ‘not yet’) or are mixed in with variations upon a theme of ‘Cheshire and North Wales’ or ‘Lancashire and North Wales’ and archived elsewhere. This raises questions of methodology once again, of course, but at this juncture I followed the archival lineaments and encountered the silences or marginalisation, which were as frustrating to me in the search room as to Professor Bohata at the reviews desk.

All of which brings me to the final theme. If the silence in the archival record for Wales and the Welsh is to be overcome, it seems obvious that historians and literary scholars (and linguists) are going to have to work together to scour the alternatives. This brings attendant risks, typically of the over-representation of wealthier members of society, which is why I wrote much of A Little Gay History of Wales as a study of the working class, but it also offers numerous possibilities. To pick an example from some recent research that I have been doing, what does it say of the South Wales Coalfield that record shops in the first decades of the 20th century advertised their wares by promoting the best known music hall stars of the day: Harry Lauder, George Formby Sr, and the drag king Vesta Tilley? That snippet of evidence alone challenges so many stereotypes of ‘the valleys’—inside and outside of Wales.

I shall conclude by reiterating my sincere thanks to Professor Bohata for her welcome review of A Little Gay History of Wales and look forward not only to our mutual discussions (when lockdown is finally over) but also to the continued advance of Queer Wales Studies.