“It’s not all misery and gloom. Some of it really was fabulous.” | Holly Cruise on unearthing the past’s most interesting tales in her Queer History of Britain

Tell us about Hollyzone History.

The best way to describe what I do is ‘performance history’. I like to tell stories and get people thinking about history, but I also like to point out the absurd, the weird and the wonderful. History is vivid and wild, there’s really no excuse for boring lectures on it, so I refuse to give boring lectures.

How did you get into writing and talking about history?

At one point I wanted to be a history lecturer, but, unfortunately, getting into academia is both expensive and precarious. Also I graduated with a History MA in 2007  and ten seconds later the whole world economy crashed so there was no funding for PhDs anyway. But my love of history never went away.

Fast forward to the 2017 general election. I already had a reputation among my friends as being the History Nerd. After that inconclusive election I discovered a large number of my mates had literally no idea who the DUP were or what it meant that they were now propping up the Tories. I was happy to post something on Facebook to explain, but I realised there was an opportunity here to tell people about history, and specifically about the history of Ireland which is a super-important topic that many people in Britain know little about. I only know lots about Irish history because I am a historian and my family are Irish.

I spoke to a group who put on talks and they organised a night for me to talk about Irish history in London. Then I think they went bust. But no problem, as I had discovered that it was something I enjoyed and the audience did too. I self-organised an Irish history talk in Manchester and got another great crowd. I felt compelled to find another topic to talk about, and luckily I have loads. It will be my two year anniversary in March and I’m not stopping.

How do you decide which historical stories, places and figures to talk about?

The Ireland talk was born out of the DUP suddenly becoming relevant, but in general I choose topics I think are interesting. It’s better to have passion about a topic, it makes it easier to talk in a more interesting manner. It also makes it more fun and engaging to do the research because I like to have a good depth and breadth of sources to inform my talks, and trust me, it’s not easy to read loads on topics which don’t interest you (thinking back to the lecture/seminar on military history I had to do at uni, snore, I don’t care about the troop formtions at the Battle of Waterloo).

So far my topics have been the Space Race (for 2019’s 50th anniversary of the moon landings), history’s naughtiest popes, the English Civil War (a Brexit metaphor? Who can say?), and my most popular show, Fearsome Fabulous Female Pirates. I’ve taken that one on tour around the country to arts festivals and theatres.

What is your favourite thing you’ve learned since you started writing Hollyzone History talks?

The sheer volume and variety of animals which got blasted into space during the Space Race, but especially the fact that so far the only country to send a cat into space was France, because of course it was.

What is your secret to getting people really engaged with history?

Show that the people from history were often just like us. My mum once said that she finds it hard to engage with history unless she can see something relatable and personal there. And it’s always there! Those people in the past, they were like us. Showing people in 2020 how people in 1620 were like us, the same emotions, the same weaknesses, the same desire to send cats into space, that’s the way to show history is real. 

That’s why I am really looking forward to my next talk – A Queer History of Britain – because queer history is often hidden or ignored. I want to change that. 

Tell us about your Queer History of Britain events you have coming up in February.

Queer erasure is an issue. Partly due to queer people throughout history trying to hide so we can avoid persecution which often happens, and partly because straight historians often don’t think to look for us. Sometimes I read about two historical figures sending each other letters proclaiming their love for each other, or writing about sharing a bed together, and in the very next line the historian will write about what good friends they were.

This talk is the antidote to that. I want to show that queer people have always been here. That we have sometimes been treated appalling and sometimes treated surprisingly well. That we’ve given this country some of its most important and interesting figures. And I want to make jokes about straight people because honestly some of the stuff they’ve said and done over the years when confronted with queer people is just hilarious and ridiculous.

Do I have an agenda? Of course. Am I talking about this because I am queer? Yes. But as I said, I started doing this because I was an exasperated Irish person who needed to do something about the ignorance of Irish history. I feel the same way about queer history. And will I include queer Irish people in the talk? Of course. Oscar Wilde is a very important figure.

How did you decided which elements of Britain’s queer history to include?

I want to give a mix of things. An overview of our history, but also specific examples of people because that’s engaging for the audience. I also want to be sure to include a decent amount of light amongst all the darkness – queer people have endured some difficult times and some horrible persecution, but it’s not all misery and gloom. Some of it really was fabulous.

What’s the most unexpected thing you’ve learned putting together these talks?

That despite sending a cat into space, the French haven’t yet sent a lesbian into space. An oversight, I think.

What’s the most important thing you think contemporary society can learn from properly studying queer history?

Never assume. Don’t assume people are cis heterosexual. Don’t assume the queer people are immoral or monstrous or defective. Don’t assume that acceptance of queer people is some gentrified middle class thing because there were definitely times when you can find more civilised views among the working class than among the middle class. Don’t assume queer people are a recent invention and not a feature of British life since there were Brits. Don’t assume queer history in the UK is a white history, and don’t exclude queer people of colour from your narratives.

Always talk to us, don’t assume.

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to learn more about these topics?

We’re still in the beginning stages of having access to good, widely available resources about queer history, unfortunately. A lot of what I’ve used in my talk is either from university libraries, or is gleaned from books on broader topics which happen to mention queer people and their lives. You can find a lot of accessible history via podcasts – I am currently listening to Bad Gays.

There’s also the graphic novel Queer: A Graphic History which is another medium which isn’t traditionally seen as a source of history, even though actual historians have considered the likes of Maus and Persepolis as great historical books for years. Hopefully in future I will have better and more easily available answers to this question.

And if people like they can always come to my talks.

Holly is bringing her Queer History talks to London on February 12th and Manchester on February 20th.

You can keep up with Holly’s work by following her on Facebook.