“As most of us knew her:” Leaving Space for Queerness in the Archives
By Karen Robertson
Five years ago, I wrote this blog post about a collection of family photographs from the late 19th century. The collection was pretty average in the scheme of things I see in my line of work- an average family doing average things at a fairly average point in the past. But for some reason, it felt like there was something more to be found in these papers and photographs.
The people who appear most often in this collection are Laura Belle Cunningham, Lucy Ross, and Mary Eva (or Ned) Ross. Lucy is Ned’s older sister, and Laura is their cousin (and the compiler of the collection, so it bears her name). Laura Cunningham, Lucy Ross, and Mary Eva Ross lived together in Lebanon, Ohio, throughout their adulthood.
Ned Ross in particular lived a life full of hobbies and career successes. She served as the postmaster in Lebanon, Ohio, apparently learned how to ride a bike, and was an amateur photographer. She was so good that she even included a professional photographer’s mark on many of the photographs in the collection.
Recently, after reading this article, titled Queer Possibility, I slowly realized what I had missed about this collection. I couldn’t seem to see it at the time, but now it is clear that Ned Ross was living outside of the gender norms of her society in a queer way.
In the article, author Margaret Middleton points out that museums (and by extension, historians) generally only mention that a historical figure may have been a member of the LGBTQ+ community if the figure described themselves that way, or if there is strict documentation of queer behavior. These rules are so entrenched that I applied them to Ned without even realizing what I had done.
So why do we keep following these rules? Often it comes down to two key points: language and phobia.
Language evolves, as do our conceptions of gender and sexuality. Ned almost certainly did not use the word “queer” to describe herself and lived during a time when Americans were only just beginning to define terms like “lesbian” or “gay.” So to define her by our own modern terms and understandings will always be imperfect.
In the photographs in this collection, Ned is frequently posed in masculine stances and dressed in masculinized clothing, with jackets, ties, and hats. Her sister and cousin also wear these types of clothing, as they fell into the fashion of the time, but never to the extent of masculinized presentation that Ned follows.
Clearly Ned was experiencing gender presentation in a very different way than her peers, but on my first pass through this collection, I ignored this part of Ned’s story, because there didn’t seem to be a word that fully encompassed her experience. Was Ned a tomboy? Masculine? Making unique fashion choices?
The people of our past lived in a completely different culture from our own. But as historians, our job is to translate the past for a modern understanding. Although imperfect, we have to use our own modern language to explain our history. As Middleton points out, if Leonardo da Vinci traveled to 2021, he would likely be just as confused about being described as a gay man as he would “Renaissance” artist. Neither of these terms are of da Vinci’s time, but these are the terms we have to understand da Vinci.
With all of this taken into account, I believe the modern term that Ned might have chosen would be gender queer, gender nonconforming, or transgender. (If there was more information available, it might be possible to narrow this down further.) Identity is a tricky and personal thing. It is always best to define a person in the way that they define themselves, past or present. But often details of a person’s life are left out of the historical record, and we have to make inferences. Why not infer queerness?
Judging by details available in the collection, one of the inferences we can make about Ned is that she preferred her more masculine nickname by the end of her life. In letters and notes from her teenage years, family members and classmates addressed Ned as “Mary Eva” or just “Eva.” The nickname probably did not develop until early adulthood- it first appears in her photographer’s mark. The very fact that Ned would have used this name on an official and lasting mark, that likely cost her some time and money to create, indicates an inclination towards the name.
Furthermore, when she left handwritten notes on the back of many of the photographs in this collection, Laura Cunningham used the name “Ned” to identify her cousin. This likely means that, by the end of their lives, this was the name Ned was using with those closest to her. Laura’s notes appear to follow the pattern of someone labeling a collection for the purpose of donation, so that future archivists (like me) would know what was being represented in the photos. If this is the case, then Laura is also signifying that “Ned” is the name future historians should use for her cousin.
Historians are afraid to infer queerness, because we don’t want to leave a negative mark on someone’s historical record. However by refusing to make space for reading queerness, we reinforce the idea that queerness is a negative thing worth hiding from. I might be wrong about Ned, but I also might be wrong about the hundreds of other inferences I’ve made as a historian. To say “based on this evidence Ned Ross might have been queer” should not be more shameful than saying “based on this evidence Ned Ross probably enjoyed riding bicycles.”
A final piece of important information in this collection comes from a photograph of Ned with a particularly interesting annotation on the back. One simple sentence reads: “Ned Ross, as most of us knew her.” This sentence suggests that in this photograph Ned is presenting in a way that may not have been known to the public, but certainly was to her friends and family.
Practically speaking, a history that invites queerness is simply a more accurate history. Queer people helped build Ohio, and their queerness affected those experiences. But most importantly, we must start to invite a queer lens to our history to allow ourselves to see our own reflections. Queer people deserve to know their ancestors, and young queer people, who are doing the hard work of getting to know themselves, deserve access to the stories that might help them understand their own lives.
Let’s include more queer stories in our history books, so that next time an archivist comes across a Ned Ross in their work, it doesn’t take five years to figure out what makes her collection so important.
All photographs featured in this blog come from AV 298 Laura Cunnigham photograph collection.