Melanie Gillman on Researching Stage Dreams

Melanie Gillman gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the importance of the research process, even in fiction.

Though Stage Dreams is a work of queer fiction, quite a lot of historical research ended up informing it. That sometimes surprises people, because in the US, one of our popular myths about queer and trans people is that they basically didn’t exist prior to the mid-20th century. Most queer history (if it’s taught at all) stretches back only as far as the Stonewall Riots in 1969. So, if you’re setting out to write a book about queer and trans people in the more-distant past, where do you go for information?

I started my research process with a baseline assumption: of course there were LGBTQ people in the past, in every era. We queer people are not recent inventions—much as many conservative pundits would like to believe we are! We are a normal and essential part of humanity. It stands to reason that if LGBTQ people existed in the past, surely there are some records of them, even if they’re hard to find.

I cast a wide net, doing my research in a variety of venues—in books, in online archives, in old newspapers preserved at my library, and in history museums in every new city I visited for work. The research was complicated by terminology—for instance, you can’t go into an archive of 19th century newspapers and search for terms like “transgender,” because the word didn’t exist at the time. Over time, though, I did start to notice patterns in the types of stories being told, which made my search a little easier.

For trans historical figures, the historical record most often features them only because they were outed after their deaths, usually by coroners or medical professionals. These stories would often make the local news with highly-sensationalized (and unfortunately, frequently misgendering) headlines, to the effect of “Local man discovered to have been a woman all along.” Many trans people tried to avoid this posthumous outing. Dr. James Barry, a pioneering trans surgeon who died in 1865, famously left instructions to “bury me in my bedsheets without further inspection.” Ironically, there are many trans historical figures who we only know about today because such requests were not honored. Those who were not outed posthumously against their will may have quietly disappeared from history, presumed to be cis.

For queer historical figures, the search was sometimes a little more nebulous. Many queer relationships were conducted in complete secrecy, deliberately kept away from the public eye; or they were written off as merely “close friendships” by journalists documenting the period. You occasionally find news stories about such “close friends” eloping—usually to the bafflement of the families they left behind. (In one of my favorite cases, Ora Chatfield and Clara Dietrich’s decision to run off into the sunset together in 1889 was attributed to the women having been allowed to read too many romance novels.) I think it is fair to read between the lines on some of these “close friendships.” Knowing straight historians—those with the most power to institutionalize their version of the historical record—default to straight interpretations of history, I feel it is our right as queer people to ask what if.

Running away was a common theme I found for both queer and trans people in the 1800s. If you wanted to live as a queer or trans person, this often necessitated starting an entirely new life, somewhere far away from everyone who knew you. While this was a necessary safety precaution, it also makes them that much more difficult to track through time. Those who were most successful at living their lives without public scrutiny or legal consequences, also tended to make themselves invisible in the eyes of history. Thus, surviving historical records on many past LGBTQ people are often, unfortunately, incomplete.

This is where I think queer historical fiction can be particularly valuable. Though it might be difficult to find many 19th-century queer people from the American West with complete histories, and enough available research to fill up a whole book—in fiction, I can take multiple incomplete historical records and weave them together into a solid, unified whole. Stage Dreams‘ two protagonists may be fictional—but behind the scenes, their stories are patchwork quilts I sewed together out of surviving records from dozens of different queer and trans historical figures.

Spread from Stage Dreams.

For me, writing unabashedly queer fiction is also how I stake my own space in the historical record, as a living queer and nonbinary artist. This is a necessary task, because the lack of research on LGBTQ people is a self-perpetuating problem. If historians don’t research a topic, and don’t bother archiving historical documents on it, then those historical records tend to be lost at a much faster rate over time. This is as true of records being made today, as it was of those made in the 19th century. As queer people, we’ve seen enough history pass by now to know that there’s a very good chance historians in the future will be tempted to dismiss our genders and “close-friends” our relationships.

Every bit of LGBTQ literature that manages to be published today is, in a way, a lifeline we’re trying to throw forward through time, in hopes it can be caught by future queer and trans people. If queer and trans authors today write loudly, it is because we must, if we want any echoes of our words to last long enough to reach the ears of our descendants. It is my hope that historical fiction like Stage Dreams is a connection point—building a bridge between past records and future readers, and making it a little harder to bury memories of our shared history as LGBTQ people, across the centuries.

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