Author Hannah McElhinney surveys thousands of years of queer heritage in her new book, Rainbow History Class. But the years she keeps returning to are the ones she spent in high school, studying a past that didn’t seem to contain anyone like her. Or any LGBTQI+ people at all.
“It’s like a gift to your younger self,” McElhinney tells Broadsheet, talking about her book and the wider Rainbow History Class project. “I had no knowledge in high school. I think if I had information like this, I might have come out sooner and that experience might have been more joyful. Something cool to learn about yourself versus the unburdening that young people often experience.”
The author has been known to call her work “the queer and trans history you don’t get in school”, and she’s not short of students. So far, close to half a million followers have signed up to be schooled on the Rainbow History Class Tiktok she launched with co-creator Rudy Rigg in 2021. The project’s virtual faculty now extends to queer talent from the Philippines, UK and USA. And of course, McElhinney’s research is now an entertainingly written book that she laughingly promises is “accessible for people who might not have a degree in gender studies”.
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McElhinney’s own background is in copywriting, content creation and scriptwriting – a vocation that requires heavy-duty research skills. And so she started reading up on her LGBTQI+ forebears. “There’s a whole lot of really cool stories from history,” she says. But they were all over the place. Historians – even queer ones – tend to specialise in very narrow time spans and very specific cultures. There was no Big Bumper Book of Queer History. So McElhinney decided to make one.
Drawing from her ongoing Tiktok passion project, the book charts queer histories from the ancient world (like in 371BCE when a Theban army comprising 150 pairs of male lovers smashed Spartan opponents) to the present (like the confected culture war over they/them pronouns).
There are tales of resistance, oppression, liberation and celebration. Plus everyday queers going about their business through the ages. At one point during the book’s production, McElhinney says, “I had this insane Excel spreadsheet of a timeline that was so long, I mapped out from 8000BCE to now.”
Rainbow History Class covers concepts that are often left off the traditional syllabus. It examines how Western imperialism forced a rigid view of sexuality on large parts of the globe. It shows how queer people have been scapegoated throughout history for everything from earthquakes to Covid. It canvasses notions of gender fluidity in pre-colonial North American and West African cultures.
That last point, McElhinney says, resonates particularly with gender-diverse audiences. “It can be really affirming for people who are non-binary and transgender to know that you’re as old as time.” It’s also “helpful ammunition”, she admits, when popular rhetoric tries to paint gender diversity as a modern invention. Highlighting ancient approaches to (non-binary) gender is always “a good comeback”.
On top of debate talking points, McElhinney delivers a litany of excellent dinner-party conversation starters. Like the theory (now backed by infrared examination) that the Mona Lisa may be modelled on a man in drag. Or how Sailor Moon fits into the evolution of Japanese sapphic fiction. Or why there are so many lesbians in Alice Springs.
“The whole point of history is to understand how we have always lived and loved, and those big universal themes that make us feel part of something,” she says.
History also gives us heroes and icons, so which era does McElhinney take most inspiration from? “I think that the 1920s, maybe in New York or Berlin, was an incredible period for lesbians. Lesbians were at the height of the fashion world, which is something that didn’t happen again for about a century. The editor of Vogue magazine was a lesbian. In Berlin, there was a cool group of lesbians called the Hot Sisters … They just looked incredible and had a brilliant time. It was really celebratory.”
Hannah McElhinney’s Rainbow History Class: Your Guide Through Queer and Trans History is out now through Hardie Grant Books.