BY LIZ BAUDLER
Seeing History Queerly: A Review of “Queer, There, and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World,” By Sarah Prager 259 pages Harper, $17.99
Queer people permeate history, but it’s only recently that people have focused on trying to catch up with the queers of bygone years. When LGBTQ issues are barely addressed in the classroom, even the most well-educated people are sometimes shocked to learn that so-and- so was gay.
The cleverly titled “Queer, There and Everywhere” by Sarah Prager, introduces readers to 23 historical figures, some familiar, some brand-new even to the most ardent LGBTQ history nerd (aka your reviewer). While geared towards a YA audience, the easily digestible biographies it contains are absolutely worth brushing up on, no matter how old you are.
Applying modern-day labels to history is always tricky, but Prager offers upfront context and explanation for her decisions. She sometimes chose pronouns based on how the person preferred to relate to their world, for instance, using “they” for the legendary dreamboat Queen Christina of Sweden, who was ambivalent about being assigned female at birth.
She mentions that she deadnames individuals at times, but helpfully advises that this is rude in real life. She even gives an abbreviated history of queerness itself, across time and geographic region. And a shout-out to the chapter-heading illustrations, which might pique the interest of more visual or reluctant readers.
The mini-bios feel well crafted, if occasionally flip in tone and description, like Prager’s trying to appeal to teenagers but isn’t sure what they might like. Regardless, they will surprise you. While rumors of Abraham Lincoln’s close relationship with Joshua Speed have circulated for years, it’s startling to learn that Lincoln was tipped into suicidal depression by Speed’s departing their home to look for a wife. Sylvia Rivera is beloved as the first brick-thrower of Stonewall (maybe), but to hear that she also began a legacy of housing queer and trans youth gives even more dimension to a remarkable person. Prager has a knack for including charming little details to humanize her subjects, like Mercedes de Acosta’s habitual black-and-white uniform of silver-buckled shoes, long capes, and a tricorn hat, which Prager describes as “mod pirate.” And Phyllis Lyon throwing Del Martin’s shoes out the window because the latter had the temerity to leave them in the middle of the floor – haven’t we all been there?
There is an emperor and a soldier, an artist (Frida Kahlo), a scientist (Alan Turing), and
statesmen and women (Bayard Rustin, Eleanor Roosevelt. What, you didn’t know Eleanor liked ladies? OH HONEY), athletes and activists. It’s a wide range of individuals, quite a few Black, Latinx, and Asian, with no letter of the queer alphabet ignored. Modern choices like Fr. Mychal Judge, a chaplain who was the first official casualty of 9/11, and “Star Trek” actor and internet sensation George Takei, are especially welcome. Only one stands out as a bad fit.
As much as Joan of Arc is a historical badass, including her on the basis of cross-dressing is a weak argument. Joan (or Jeanne D’Arc as Prager spells it) believed that God was telling her to lead an army. It stands to reason that he might have also suggested she wear a suit of armor; part of a larger scenario rather than a genuine preference, and there’s nothing else to suggest any predilection for a certain kind of relationship or identity.
One could wish for some less familiar names: if you’re really a student of queer history, you’ll know there’s a whole legacy of queer scientists, writers, and filmmakers “Queer, There and Everywhere” doesn’t even touch. But Prager’s book manages to cover enough of the “everywhere” to make it feel like a great start for the curious, possibly queer teenager looking for themselves in the past.