Emil and Xaver; or, LGBTQ history as fiction
Guillem Clua’s riveting twitter thread #EmilYXaver begins with his narrator voice telling us about a chance discovery: that of a WWI gravestone in a small cemetery in Sighisoara, Romania, where two men are buried together. Over the course of more than a week, Clua weaves a story of around 200 tweets-worth about uncovering why these two men, Emil Muler and Xaver Sumer, who went to the same small-town high school, lay resting under the same grave-marker. Presenting documentary evidence (photographs, paintings and letters, as well as a death certificate) and following clues across the geography and demography of the town, Clua discovers Emil and Xaver’s tragic love story: lovers separated by families and communities, only to be reunited a few moments before one of them dies. At the end of the thread, and throughout it, the narrator’s pursuit is fuelled by the desire to ‘tell [these men’s] story’; he can even, poetically, hear them encouraging him from beyond their grave:
I’ve finally put a face on the two soldiers. I put their photographs next to each other. Both their gazes is riveted on mine. And through space and time, I see in them a common supplication: “Tell our story or we will never exist.” (Google Translate and my adaptation from the original Tweet)
LGBTQ stories like this, completely excluded in the past from history books, have begun emerging through the arduous work of (sometimes queer) historians for the past few decades. Academic or amateur historians reveal the histories of gay soldiers, lesbian philanthropists and transgender saints, now finally re-populating a cultural territory that had been, until recently, completely burnt down. THIS story however gained tremendous success — much more than I’ve ever seen any other pieces of LGBTQ history. Queer and mainstream news websites have picked it up; Clua went to at least three radio stations to talk about the story. There were people waiting with baited breath for the next instalment of ‘the true story of Emil y Xaver’. People made fan art, wrote poems, suggested the story to be picked up by Netflix for a documentary, and even created a short trailer. Much of the success of this historical piece is due to Guillem Clua’s brilliant writing and mastery of the format of digital storytelling.
Only that, Guillem Clua’s story is completely fictional; it says so in his Twitter bio. All those documents — most likely forged. Emil and Xaver? Nobody knows if they even knew each other; they are just buried under the same gravestone, like so many other WWI and WWII soldiers in Romania and around the world, for lack of space: 31 soldiers in 30 symmetrical graves. Clua’s thread, based on forged artifactual evidence, is nonetheless a story perfectly crafted for the medium. It takes into consideration pacing (telling the story over several days) and takes advantage of the bricolage of media that Twitter allows (linear, time-controlled text, image-collages, Google Maps snips and reaction GIFs of cats, Ru-Pauls drag queens and Amy Poehler). The author acknowledges his inspiration for this short historical fiction piece from creative, disruptive narrative methods that manipulate a specific medium, such as Orson Welles’ broadcast of the War of the Worlds, which, similarly to Clua’s thread, has tricked listeners into taking it at face value and believing the aliens have really landed on Earth.
‘Tricked’ is not a strong word here. Judging by the comments on the original thread, as well as on the English and Portuguese translations, many readers (queer or not) felt betrayed, cheated or manipulated when the author revealed, shortly after the end of the thread, that it was all a work of fiction. Clua repeatedly tells us that he did not do it as a publicity stunt, for ‘personal gain’ or as a gimmick — he states that he wrote ‘this fiction… to honor thousands of LGTB people whose stories will never be told because they were silenced.’
On making queer history, or making history queer
Nonetheless, over the course of the thread, Clua keeps presenting his work as the result of reading real historical documents, even using the word ‘proof’; his story unfolds (stylistically as well as narratively) as that of a Twitter historian unearthing a story deliberately erased from history.
A phrase echoes through my brain: “Tell our story or we won’t exist.” Is that really the destiny I want for Emil and Xaver? Has their story not been erased once, as has happened to millions of other soldiers who rest under the soil of the whole continent? It was not fair for me to abandon them again in that tomb of oblivion. (Google Translate and my adaptation from the original Tweet)
The story is presented as historically true (by the author, as well as later by translators and journalists), until the bomb drops at the end, hidden behind links and language barriers: it’s just fabricated. Clua is defensive regarding the readers’ disappointment: the story is made up, but so what? The trip through historical fantasy was good enough, wasn’t it? The author validates and acknowledges, within the text of the thread, any uplifting feelings the story or specific scenes within it may have created; but then, superimposed on the entire story, he dismisses any other types of emotional response like the anger and hurt expressed by the readers: ‘If you [were hurt], well, I’m sorry you fail to understand them.’ Didn’t you feel good to be represented in history, even for a while before learning that it’s actually only my invention? Would you rather have a story that is fake, than no gay history at all? [As if these were the only two choices we have] The author further comments:
Claiming that fiction undermines the real stories historicists (sic) can find through their hard work is, in my opinion, ridiculous. Do you really think LGTB history won’t be taken seriously just because someone wrote a love story on Twitter? (@GuillemClua, 2:00 AM — 12 Dec 2018)
My answer, as one of those ‘historicists’ who has worked hard for the last 8 years to uncover queer history, and the answer of so many of my colleagues, is YES. Yes, LGBT history will be taken less seriously if one expects a disclaimer that this is all made up at the end of the thread. Yes, LGBT historians will have their credentials doubted when presenting real artifacts that are testament to historical queer lives because, guess what, Clua’s incredibly popular story trains us to doubt our own eyes when it comes to queer artifacts. Yes, LGBT history won’t be taken seriously because of a Twitter story, when it all plays out on the background of the history of queer historiography (‘making history’) itself, which for decades has been and still is being perceived as fake, a liberal or deviant fantasy.
You know what the term is for historical fiction presented as truth? Propaganda. Queer history in and of itself has historically been perceived as ‘gay propaganda’, weaponised for the advance of the ‘homosexual agenda’; not an intellectual pursuit or a right of people to have a past. And it is not just a thing that happened once upon a time, like it did under the Romanian Communist Regime. This rhetoric still reverberates in eastern European countries. Where did we hear the term gay propaganda last time? Oh yes, it’s still used today in Russia. UK repelled a piece of legislature condemning ‘gay propaganda’ only 15 years ago, and at the pace queer rights are stripped nowadays, USA might soon have something resembling just that kind of law.
So presenting a piece of historical fiction as thorough historical research does indeed ‘undermine the real stories historicists can find through their hard work.’ Alex Drace-Francis makes a great point on Twitter that ‘this [story] wilfully overwrites local experiences, imposes templates on them, makes still unheard stories harder to research/recover.’ Clua, a gay man himself, choses to sell his people, his cultural history, and package the story in the same formula of ‘two men suffer from historical homophobia, get killed or kill themselves’ just to please the rest of the world with yet another story of the ‘sad old gays’. The virality this story gained, when a few days before an actual historian posted on Twitter a historically true love-letter between two medieval nuns, is testament to the fact that audiences (queer and allocishet) are still craving the same template not only for stories, but also for history. The letter does not conform to that template, so was far less popular — you, reader, might not even have seen it across your timeline.
Clua’s story made the news as rediscovery of gay history just a few days after the historical piece of evidence about the medieval nuns’ feelings was shared; but through the juxtaposition of these two, presented in the same tone and on the same platform by the original posters as well as by the press, Dr Wade’s piece of historical evidence is thrown into questioning and easily regarded as fiction presented as truth, or as wish-fulfilment fantasy promoted by academic professionals.
This rhetoric hurts LGBTQ historians whose work is portrayed within this story as a personal pursuit of a romantic who has chance encounters with historical documents, and with-out the story as pure fabrication or elaboration on one piece of unreliable evidence. Through the formal presentation of the Emil y Xaver story as (falsified) history, Clua participates in a narrative that is used to suppress exactly in what he repeats as the mission statement of his thread: making visible stories not told.
But who am I to say this???
You see, there are several personal connections that made this story resonate, and finally disappoint, so much. I am a queer historian of medieval queer identity; more specifically, I am a trans man who works on trans bodies in medieval art (yes, that’s a thing). I feel like I am pretty good at it, as well. Nonetheless, I have been told (by my own family, who have no affinity to queer history, and by lay people, as well as by senior academics in my own field) that my interest in transgender history is political. The implication being that I will somehow be fabricating, falsifying or manipulating history to prove the existence of trans identities in the past only because I am trans; that I am projecting my modern, deviant identity on a history that has no such stories to recover; all the while the same scepticism about scholarship is never heaped on white or allocishet history. This is not an uncommon vector of thinking, as Catherine Baker remarks:
Almost all of Queer History Twitter… has been feeling betrayed, because it plays into the same hands that dismiss the traces of real LGBTQ histories as fabrications…
Moreover, this way of thinking — that queer history is fabricated by individuals who are only interested in these histories because it validates their identity — also has wider-reaching, institutional consequences. My (subjectively motivated, therefore somehow fake and dismissible because not ‘real/objective’) scholarship is less valuable because of my personal and political position. As Jack Shoulder testifies, LGBTQ histories are put under unfair amounts of scrutiny because of this very way of thinking:
R. B Parkinson, author of A Little Gay History, stresses the importance of academic rigour when presenting an object as being LGBTQ, or presenting an LGBTQ narrative to make the case for it airtight.[…] I’ve heard those in charge of interpretation refusing to acknowledge any queer history due to ‘lack of evidence’ — even in the case of figures with well-documented same sex desires like James I.
The effect of questioning these ‘dissident’ histories is not only excluding these stories from the cannon, but is also silencing the voices that tell these stories because of their vested interest in them. This is a silencing uncomfortably similar to that of women, POC, or disabled voices that have tried to reclaim their history, within the institutional context of historical research, in the past. This is exactly how systematic exclusion of some histories normalise a mythological history that is uniformly white, straight, cisgender, Christian etc., the very base against which queer scholarship is weighed for truth-value. This dismissiveness of academic voices that work on subjectively-oriented fields of study is exactly why queer academics, academics of colour etc. are not only less visible, but are actively dissuaded from pursuing academic degrees and further careers.
I was also born in Romania; in Transylvania; actually, 40 km away from Sighisoara. And because I loved medieval history ever since I was a child, I would spend my high-school summers in Sighisoara organising medieval history tours for foreign tourists. I know the geography Clua describes; I met the woman selling tickets for the cathedral on the hill; I know the man in charge of the Tower Museum. I am also deeply familiar with personal and institutionalised homophobia in Romania and the rest of Eastern Europe. I was shouted homophobic and transphobic abuse at in that very cemetery; I feared to hold my beloved’s hand on those very streets. Throughout my read through the thread, I kept wondering what would my parents do if they could see this. You know how my parents (quite liberal, educated Romanians) would react to the news that the thread was, indeed, just a story? They would not feel betrayed, as most readers of the thread have; they would be relieved. Great, it’s just a story — actual Romanian history, obviously, is free of them queers. It’s just fiction, imposed from the Western Thought Inc. onto a geography that fitted; we’ve had that before (with Sighisoara!!!) embodied in Dracula, and we all know that’s bullshit Disney/Hollywood mythology. It’s just fiction: not just the Emil y Xaver story, but the existence of any kind of LGBTQ people (famous or not) in Romanian history. And next time anybody would want to assert the historical presence of Romanian queers (something that is still in need to be reclaiming), they will dismiss it on the base of exactly this story — oh, no worry honey, it’s just a story with no basis in reality, we’ve had that in Emil y Xaver, remember? There’s no dead queers in Romanian history.
This project of presenting a fictional story as history is an especially dangerous one at a time when Gender Studies (and LGBTQ history as a subset) are under constant attack and discreditation not only in Eastern Europe (see Central European University in Hungary) but also around the world. Eroding and eventually erasing the power of historical research into LGBTQ history has a very important role in political rhetoric of Eastern European countries such as Romania, Hungary and Poland, (but not exclusively) where the rights of queer people are actively endangered by current political systems.
While Emil y Xaver is a great piece of digital storytelling, Guillem Clua’s attitude towards what is fiction and what is truth, his non-engagement with real historical stories of queer people in the second world war after his admission of fabricating the story, and especially his complete disregard (and even dismissal) towards the larger implications of fictionalising queer history hurts the very queer history that Clua is supposedly propping up.