Recently, an acquaintance ( a straight, divorced woman many years our elder) was telling us about her best friend from college, a lesbian, who lives with her partner of 30-some years in St. Louis.
These women are both professionals at a healthcare institution and have worked together their whole careers.
Our friend was saying that for all these years, her friends have had the photographs of two men on their fireplace mantel, and have invented a detailed story about these "deceased husbands." Not safe as a publicly recognized couple, these women have spent decades living under a cover story of being widows too poor to maintain individual households. The pictures on the mantel have elaborate life (and death) stories about which those friends "in the know" joke frequently, adding to the legend.
It was supposed to be funny, and it was. It was supposed to be a reminder of how things have changed, and it was.
But it also made me think of exactly why I want to write what I'm writing these days. How many women throughout history in all kinds of locations have lived like the friends of our acquaintance and never been well enough known by anyone surviving to tell the true story? Even when traces are left–even when those traces are fairly glaring–academic work to uncover queer lives is fraught with challenges from those who would keep all of our ancestors in the closets they made for themselves in their lifetimes, never anticipating how much their descendants would want and maybe even need to know their real stories.
I'm not arguing for or against historical outings of real people. I've got my own little unprovable notions like most folks, some more plausible than others. And I appreciate people who do the work of painstakingly sorting evidence that leads us to greater knowledge about our predecessors in the realm of the queer. I can see both that we in the present can be willfully anachronistic when imagining the past and that we can be so careful and so contextual as to render anything that anyone said or did in the past meaningless.
But I'm getting off that train by your leave. I'm just going to make my ancestors up. And yet, I am certain my characters existed in some form–with false husbands and even with real ones and all kinds of other closets–whether we can ever prove it by historical standards or not. And I don't think making them up means entirely dismissing historical responsibility. What it means to me is taking what I know of the time and places in which they lived and creating them to fit within those perimeters but also letting my readers see them fully behind the disguises they might have needed to survive.
The idea is to insert possible people where real people have left great gaping chasms in the story of our past. The idea is to draw new pictures over the palimpsest of those that have been erased. But, you know, with NY Times bestseller and HBO miniseries potential.