Yesterday I had the privilege of going to a drinks reception for ‘Queer Britain’. It’s a project to open a brick and mortar museum that celebrates LGBTQ+ people. It’s an exciting and daunting concept: to try and tell the true stories of queer people through history in one space.
‘Queer Britain’ and all it promises to bring really threw into shade something else that happened yesterday; yesterday I read about the story of Emil and Xaver…
The Emil Xaver story, for those who haven’t read it, is a long chain of twitter posts by Guillem Clua that tells the story of two soldiers who died in the First World War.
It links to a real grave which bears the names of two men in Romania.
The story reveals these young men as star-crossed lovers. It is a beautiful woven story. Think The Da Vinci Code crossed with Brokeback Mountain. It has made many people cry (including me!) and has even had offers to be made into a film.
The story is also packed with archival images, old photographs and evidence. It’s a beautiful, tragic gay love story. It is told as a true story, a story that has been researched and discovered by the author.
It’s also pure fantasy.
Blurring the line between fact and fiction
Despite the fact that the story is presented as real historical research, this is not the case. Whilst the author has been cagey about how much is true and how much he made it up, it’s now pretty clear that everything other than the graves and photographs are fiction.
The original story has been retweeted 23.7K times and an English translation has been shared 10.8K times. It has appeared in numerous online articles and publications where the line between fact and fiction has become blurred.
For many of us queer Twitter junkies, this was a real punch to the gut.
Many felt duped, or as if we had suffered a case of ‘emotional whiplash’. Something we connected with, that moved us, turned out to be fiction. Some of us aren’t disappointed anymore… we’re angry.
‘This story has jolted us’
I’m part of a whole bunch of people who are passionate about LGBTQ+ history. Around the world, paid and unpaid, we work hard to preserve and represent queer stories in museums, books, schools, TV and the public consciousness.
This story has jolted us. A viral tweet which claims to present a powerful piece of queer research – the kind we all hunt for – has been outed as pure fantasy.
There are three reasons why we’re raging
1. Real queer historians and researchers work hard to uncover the truth about LGBTQ+ lives. There is rarely more than a breadcrumb trail of hints and musty old documents to go on. The work these people do to reveal our collective queer story goes largely uncelebrated.
Archivists hunting through handwritten records, students reading between the lines of research papers and museum workers standing their ground against heteronormative assumptions don’t get retweets. These are the real heritage heroes.
Whilst their story may not seem as compelling as #EmilYXaver (your average queer researcher is more activist/librarian than Indiana Jones!), it has one thing in its favour. It’s true!
‘Impacts on the credibility of all queer history’
2. Often when the stories of queer men, women and people are put forward they are challenged as being fiction. You have to work ten times as hard to tell a queer story and be taken seriously. It’s draining.
For a hugely popular story that claims to be real queer history to turn out as a fairytale justifies this prejudice.
This impacts on the credibility of all queer history and masks real research into the lives of LGBTQ+ people. A semi-fantastical pseudo story, no matter how beautiful, can bury real stories every bit as beautiful. This story hurts us.
3. The author of ‘Emil and Xaver’ has written that the grave of the two men whose lives he fictionalized should become a memorial. He invites people to leave flowers. This is unethical! The two men are real, they really died. However, this story told about them is just a playwright’s daydream.
The photographs and manuscripts are only partially real (partially doctored), as are the people they depict. Using two men who died in war and creating a fictional gay soap opera out of their lives, whilst not being fully honest and open about the extent of the fiction is hugely disrespectful.
Yes, historical fiction often does this but it never pretends to be fact. There are plenty of graves of real queer people. Let’s remember and celebrate them instead.
‘I’m fine with being a party pooper if I think the party sucks’
I’ve been labelled a killjoy for these views, and honestly I’m OK with that. I’m fine with being a party pooper if I think the party sucks! We, the queer community, deserve better. Real queer stories breath life into our history, life that is rich and honest. (Please go seek ‘Fighting Proud’ by Stephen Bourne for real queer stories from both World Wars.)
Feel free to enjoy this story of Emil and Xaver. I don’t want to take that from you. It really is a lovely yarn and if it makes you feel connected to something that’s great. But remember that a beautiful lie is still a lie.
Follow Sacha on Twitter: @sacha_coward