‘A Pretended Family Relationship’: Chaucer, Lesbians, and the Long Shadow of Section 28



London, British Library MS Stowe 955, f. 13r. Just two women, lots of hearts, nothing lesbian at all (genuinely).

I found this post hard to write.

It used to be that I struggled with academic writing. I think most academics do, when we first start writing. We familiarise ourselves with the terms. We warily excavate a few phrases from The Scholarship and try to adapt them. It feels dry, uneven, monotonous. We feel clumsy, as if we’re pretending.

But when I finished writing my forthcoming book, last year, I felt a huge sense of triumph about the writing (I still do). That book is, amongst other things, about language: specifically, the brilliantly risqué and unexpected profusion of innuendos about deviant female desire that I found in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women and in medieval English romances that respond to the Legend. So I knew from the start that I wanted my own language, my own writing style, to be more than just functional. I wanted to capture the way my medieval texts slip in suggestive verbs and smutty puns and unexpected ambiguities that make you second-guess yourself. What was that I just read? Did she mean that to be a pun?

Whether I’ve succeeded or not I don’t know, and probably I won’t ever know, but I’m pretty happy for now. The strange thing, though, is that as it’s become easier and easier for me to write this book, it’s become harder and harder to write the non-academic; the personal. A recent experience made me think again about this, and since it’s relevant to Pride Month, I thought I’d share it here.

Way back when, in December of 2019, before the world went to hell in a handcart, I applied for one of those Holy Grail jobs that don’t come up very often – a permanent job, in a department that felt like a good match. Time rumbled on, and longlisted turned to shortlisted, and eventually I interviewed for it, last week. And didn’t get it. As rejections go it was the ‘good’ kind – I placed second; they liked me; they had nice things to say about me. But, as always, it felt like a body blow. Before the interview, I kept thinking back to a blog post my friend Rachel Moss wrote, about the weird experience that is academic job hunting. You lay out the pieces of yourself as teacher, scholar, writer, administrator, colleague, and present each in a slightly new and polished way for the specific criteria of each post, and then rebuild yourself in the narrative of the cover letter, framing yourself as the person they need. … And then, when the answer is no, you will unpack yourself again, wondering what can still be sifted and refined, so that the next time the answer is different.

Rachel captures, perfectly, how very personal (even bodily) it can feel to reconstruct yourself over and over for interviewing committees. She also made me think about what is at stake in this process of sifting and refining and rebuilding your professional self, when things don’t go to plan.

When I closed the zoom link to the job interview that I’d been preparing for since December, one question hit me over and over – that one question that makes you stumble (though my best understanding is that it wasn’t a stumble the panel saw) – and lose your place. As I talked about my work on female same-sex desire, one of the panel asked how I knew I was not reading into medieval texts from a modern perspective.

How did I know I wasn’t reading into medieval texts from a modern perspective?

During my PhD, I worked on medieval reading culture. I would look at manuscripts, examining the ways in which texts were laid out on the page and how books were put together, and I would try to understand how medieval readers would have responded. I don’t think anyone ever asked me if I were imposing a modern perspective, which is strange when you think about it. We know that reading is a culturally-conditioned practice; that the very verb ‘to read’ did not mean the same thing in the Middle Ages that it does now. But we do not call into question the very fact of reading. We take the reader as read.

Sexuality generates a much more anxious, much more fraught debate. The issue is precisely the same: ‘homosexuality’ doesn’t mean the same thing (indeed, doesn’t really mean anything) to medieval readers and writers that it does to modern ones. The tangle of activities and emotions and desires that might go towards a definition of ‘same-sex desire’ patently does not hold steady across times and cultures. I’m familiar with this. As academics, we are supposed to be distanced and objective. This question gave me an opportunity to perform scholarly distance, scholarly objectivity, to cite all the places where I’d trawled through the medieval archive to support my arguments for same-sex desire in the texts I discuss. It gave me an opportunity to show that I was not just playing a game with the text, dressing it up with a distorting modern reading, turning it into a bad imitation of modern culture.

So why did this question stick in my mind? After the interview was over, I realised as I waited to hear from the panel that my feelings had to do with a much more recent history. I grew up during the tenure of Section 28. For those unfamiliar with it, Section 28 enacted a ban, stipulating that local authorities should not ‘promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’. This meant that state schools were banned from ‘any teaching … of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. Independent schools, like the secondary school I went to, where teachers could discuss the subject, were very much in the minority. Section 28 caused a particular, pervasive kind of harm. The language is particularly, skilfully, cruel. Homosexuality is a ‘pretended family relationship’. Not a moral outrage or a transgressive perversion (would it be too cynical to observe that teenagers often enjoy to be thought outrageous or transgressive?). But a pretence Pretending is what children do; pretending is play; pretending is an imitation done for fun. So homosexuality is displaced from the adult world, relegated to the childish world of make-believe. Yet, simultaneously, homosexuality is precisely what children must not be permitted to discuss. For teachers, the safest thing to do was to avoid the subject; at worst, to ignore homophobic bullying in fear of being seen to ‘promote’ homosexuality. Implicitly, the silence around homosexuality sent a message that it was exclusively an adult topic. Children expressing interest in it would be inappropriate, out of place. You don’t need to know about that yet. It instilled a weird kind of denial. The easiest official response to awkward student questions was evasion. You must be mistaken. It’s probably a phase. Just wait until you’re older … Homosexuality evidently existed; gay sex was legal. Yet gay adults apparently emerged, fully formed, on their eighteenth birthdays, their history up to that point a blank.

Section 28 came into force in 1988, when I was four years old, and it was repealed in 2003, just after I started university. In ghost form, it lingered on –  in 2011, Michael Gove attempted to include a recommendation that schools should promote the ‘benefits of marriage’ (still then, by definition, a heterosexual institution); in 2013, a survey found more than forty schools still voluntarily using the terminology of Section 28.

Meanwhile, in 2001, when I started studying English Literature for A Level, our set texts included both The Color Purple and Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, both of which explicitly reference lesbianism and both of which would (I imagine) be nigh-on impossible to teach without making some reference to the fact of lesbian sexuality. Looking back, that seems an almost surreal contrast. Pretending to talk about these texts must have allowed an awful lot of students to talk about what they weren’t able to talk about openly and personally. You could discuss a lesbian relationship, or same-sex marriage, so long as you did it with reference to the characters written by Alice Walker or Jeanette Winterson. There must be a whole generation of children who became students who became academics (or authors, or artists, or …), who had to learn to speak about same-sex desire obliquely, in displaced forms, at a distance, from an angle, in a removed context. Yet the language of ‘pretence,’ the second-guessing, self-doubting language of displacement, follows us.

Rachel’s description of that process of laying out the pieces of yourself, unpacking them, sifting and refining yourself, reminds me that, in the process of sifting and unpacking, something is always sifted away; lost. I could stop, reframe my work, demonstrate my good scholarly objectivity even more carefully, pull further away from any suspicion of ‘reading into’ a text. Or I could make peace with it. Yes, we’ll never know exactly what medieval readers and audiences did or didn’t see of the innuendos of same-sex desire I find in Chaucer and medieval romance. But perhaps a solution would be to pretend less about ourselves, to try to resist that unpacking and sifting and refining to fit what doesn’t fit. The truth is, I know I’m not reading in to Chaucer’s Legend, or any of the medieval English romances I study, because I can see those subtexts, those displaced, disoriented, sideways, oblique snippets of language designed to have a conversation in a culture that silences conversations. I was taught to do it, from 1988 to 2003.