It is often said that the LGBTQ+ community is woefully underrepresented in heritage institutions. The Museum’s Association’s blog in 2011 reported that,
‘In spite of equality legislation, most museums have done little or nothing about representing the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in their public programming, according to Richard Sandell, head of museum studies at the University of Leicester.’
Taking London as a sample, this, happily, seems to be changing. The V&A has multiple LGBTQ+ events and tours throughout the year, The British Museum is drawing attention to its ‘Same sex desire and gender identity’ artefacts, and even religious organisations are participating with the Jewish Museum hosting the ‘Through a Queer Lens: Portraits of LGBTQ+ Jews’.
Always ahead of the game, archives were getting in on the action decades ago with the establishment of organisations such as the Hall-Carpenter Archive, The Lesbian Archives Collective, and The Lesbian and Gay News Media Archive. At London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) work with the LGBTQ+ community goes from strength to strength. The Speak Out exhibition is in development at LMA will be opening on 4 May, inspired and directed by the voices of LGBTQ+ contributors.
After so many years it seems that the huge history of the LGBTQ+ community is starting to be recognised, and, more than that, appreciated.
Sir Gerald Maxwell Wilshire is undoubtedly one of the most interesting people that I’ve come across during my LGBTQ document searches. I first came across his file whilst looking through the patient records for Woodside Hospital, where he had been admitted and diagnosed with a psychopathic personality disorder.
The psychotherapist noted that Gerald has been ‘long been addicted to various sexual perversions, transvestitism has been the most prominent […] For the past year his life has been continually punctuated by long visits, sometimes for a week on end, to a West End Flat kept for the entertainment of perverts; he will remain here in a state of drunken bliss arrayed in feminine clothes and adornments.’ Sounds like fun to me, however the psychotherapist seemed concerned. He also noted that ‘The attitude he [Gerald] adopted was one of contrition and regret […] Notwithstanding this, he found it impossible to keep out of his voice a ring of pride when mentioning the distinguished people who were alike addicted to sexual eccentricities. It was quite clear that one was dealing with a Psychopathic personality’.
By this time I was intrigued. Further research revealed that Gerald was quite a character. He served a term of 9 months imprisonment for what the consultant termed ‘an unamiable piece of eccentricity’: After a night-time motoring jaunt with a young woman, he stopped the car, stripped off her clothes and smeared her entirely with boot polish. He then drove off into the night (presumably cackling maniacally).
After a bit of online research I found that Gerald had had a rather eventful life, including joining the military, marrying a chorus girl, subsequently divorcing her, becoming bankrupt, and running away to Australia with an acting troupe. Quite aside from the unfortunate boot-blacking incident, other ‘pranks’ included cleaning off the bar of a nightclub with a car crank, shaking itching powder into the costume of a Parisian dancer, and leaping through a plate glass window in order to ask a (shocked) woman to take tea with him.
Finding personal stories is one of my favourite things about working in archives – it’s a bit like detective work, but also a bit like reading a really good story. There’s always intrigue and inspiration to be discovered in the collections at LMA.
My name is Josie and I work as an intern on the Speak Out project, digitising the material that the volunteers and Rosemary have found that relates to LGBTQ+ lives. The LMA has such a wide range of different LGBTQ+ material that I am often surprised by what is in each box. I want to tell you about one of my favourite items so far: the Lesbian London Survey.
Lesbian London was a free magazine that ran from December 1991 to June 1994. In their July 1992 issue, the magazine contained a survey that was designed to replicate the surveys normally aimed at heterosexual women to find out about their lives. The survey ranges from questions on when the responder ‘decided’ they were a lesbian/bisexual, to children, the lengths and types of their relationships and finally to sexual subjects. The survey received about 230 responses and the LMA holds them all. Reading through the responses was fascinating.
The question that tended to receive the most amusing answers was ‘What do you dislike about being in a relationship?’ Many people wrote answers that had me wanting to track down the author and find out more.
Some people answered very specific responses relating to their partners:
‘Not being able to sit in my garden with her because she has hay fever’
‘Her tights drying in my bathroom. Her squeezing the toothpaste in the middle!’
Others just didn’t seem to have grasped some of the key components of a relationship:
‘Having to always consider someone else as well as yourself in decision making’
‘Having to think of someone else before going on holiday’
I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of responses the same survey would get today, in a society that is more accepting. Would people have come out at earlier ages? Or to more people? Do today’s lesbians and bisexual women have more straight friends than their 1992 counterparts?
Lots of new activity has started for the Speak Out staff and volunteers. Selection of exhibition documents is due to start next month and, with the creation of the website happening over the next few months, our intern, Josie, has been digitising as much of LMA’s LGBTQ+ collections as she can. Once uploaded, these will constitute an enormous range of material which anyone will be able to access.
However, the way in which archives can display their collections is governed by copyright laws. Some collections are owned by LMA, so we can go ahead and scan these to our heart’s content. However, others are simply deposited with us, which means that we have to be very careful in our selections of which bits what we can and cannot use.
Because of this, I’ve been taking the opportunity to explore the Rukus! archive. Rukus! is a unique resource at LMA: a collection which brings together historical, cultural, and artistic documents which capture the experience of black LGBTQ+ people living in the UK. Whilst the archive contains the records of Rukus! itself, it also contains the property of individuals who have contributed their personal records to Rukus! These people include the Reverend Rowland Jide Macaulay, an openly gay Nigerian pastor whose interests lie in reconciling spirituality and sexuality; Linda Bellos, ex-politician, businesswoman, and gay rights activist; and American poet and activist Essex Hemphill (among many others).
We can’t wait to share these collections with you, but in the meantime here are some images to show you what you can expect.
How can we possibly have too many words to describe the range of sexualities and gender identities within the human race?
How can we possibly keep up with the huge glossary of ever-changing terms which describe the range of sexualities and gender identities?
Difficult, isn’t it? But these are the opposing debates that we’re trying to suture together right now at Speak Out. Part of my job as Catalogue Editor is looking back through our catalogue for any reference to LGBTQ+ issues. However, a lot of it is quite difficult to find as it has been catalogued using outdated terminology.
To make it easier to search for LGBTQ+ material, I’m going to be adding in enrichment descriptions which will attach modern terminology to our records. This means that if you want to find the witness statement for Robert Northcott and George Harvey’s illicit Regent’s Park rendezvous, you will be able to search for records of ‘gay men’ instead of the rather ambiguous ‘unnatural misdemeanours’.
It could be argued that adding in this extra information is corrupting the historical record. For example, to call a woman from the 19th century a lesbian would be incorrect as the word indicates a cultural context that she would have been unaware of. She would not have thought of herself as a lesbian.
There is also the worry that the words that we use today could be considered antiquated or even offensive in the future. ‘Homosexual’, for example, used to be considered a polite term but nowadays, many consider it too clinical and diagnostic. And then, of course, there’s ‘queer’. As a member of the LMA LGBT History Club pointed out, a lot of people are very happy to describe themselves as queer, but quite a few people, particularly of the older generation, are still very uncomfortable being referred to as such.
Ultimately, the plan is for us to choose a list of about 10 LGBTQ+ words with which we can ‘tag’ our collections, but what those are going to be is still up for discussion. What do you think?
Written by Rosemary Munro (Speak Out Catalogue Editor)
Amidst the LCC censorship papers for the 1957 German film ‘The Third Sex’, there is a list of proposed subtitles. These include:
- ‘The frankest exposure of the age old problem Homosexuality’,
- ‘Who are the members of this odd sect?’, and
- ‘It could be the boy next door or your own son!!’ (Aaargh!).
The film was banned by the British Board of Film Censors but granted an X certificate in London, where the censors where a touch more liberal than their counterparts in the home counties.
As it turns out, the censorship files at LMA are a great resource for finding out about attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people around the middle of the twentieth century. They often contain press cuttings, poster designs, and letters from angry filmgoers.
‘The Third Sex’ was described in the press as a: ‘Homosexual melodrama, made in Germany. Briefly, it’s about a mother who pays a heavy price for rescuing her effeminate only son from a practicing pederast. The behaviour of “queer birds” is frankly revealed, but, oddly enough, they are let down lightly at the end […] It should, nevertheless, excite the curiosity of sensation seekers.’
The file also contains letters from concerned citizens wondering: ‘Why do the British authorities have to buy dirt from foreign countries?’ and ‘How can the youth of to-day become responsible citizens of to-morrow, when the example set by the authorities to-day encourages crime and vice?’.
A report from one of the LCC inspectors on a screening of the film reads: ‘The audience was composed mainly of men, and the house was less than one third full. The men were mixed, some being more interested in the posing sequences and some in the homosexual aspect.’ The question for me is: How did he know? Did he make them do vote? Or perhaps he lurked outside in the foyer afterwards and asked people individually why they had come to see the film? Maybe he simply had a strong belief in his ability to pick out the gay men in a crowd? Sometimes our collections throw up more questions than they answer.
‘Public bodies have historically given more thought to issues of race and disability than to sexual orientation’.[i] I haven’t spent much time checking through the records of public bodies before, but this fact was made very evident to me as I flicked through our catalogues relating to the LSPU (or London Strategic Policy Unit). There are reams of documents relating to race, but LGBT-related material is like gold-dust.
Imagine my excitement then, when I stumbled across a file enticingly labelled, ‘Lesbians’ which, as it turns out, includes a report about immigrant, refugee, Afro-Caribbean, Asian, Irish, Jewish and other ‘ethnic minority’ lesbians. At the time it was written (1986), the author asserts her belief that there were only two articles about and by non- white lesbians in Britain.
The report highlights the way in which lesbians from non-British nationalities have had their rights and, sometimes, even their existence denied in this country. Many have been brutally attacked for their race and sexuality. There is even one extract detailing how an Arab lesbian was beaten so badly by a group of white lesbians that her spine and her hearing in one ear were permanently damaged.
The paper proposed thirteen recommendations to improve the lives of these women including:
‘Immigrant lesbians should be allowed to stay with their lovers on the strength of their relationships.’
‘It should be acknowledged that we are different from white, gentile, indigenous lesbians and some of our needs are different from theirs.’
And perhaps most importantly:
‘It should be acknowledged that we exist.’
[i] Guasp, April. ‘Serving black and minority ethnic gay people properly’, The Guardian. <http://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2012/aug/24/serving-black-minority-ethnic-gay-people> [Accessed 2/9/15].
Written by Rosemary Munro (Speak Out Catalogue Editor)
Speak Out volunteer Jill Allbrooke shares some discoveries from the archives.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that when you’re researching original documents you’ll inevitably spend more than half your time reading the bits that are unrelated to whatever it is you’re supposed to be studying.
Last week I was looking through the Bow Street Magistrates Court records for 1971 searching for gay-related cases and marvelling at the rich variety of crimes listed. My heart went out to the person charged with stealing a packet of Vesta curry, a mainstay of my student diet until a room-mate taught me some rudimentary cooking. Turning the next page I found something far more exciting.
Most people reading this blog will probably know that on 20 November 1970 the Miss World contest at the Royal Albert Hall was disrupted by dozens of feminist demonstrators who let off smoke bombs, blew whistles and threw leaflets at the stage.
On 12 February 1971 four of them – Sally Alexander, Jennifer Fortune, Catherine McLean and Jo Robinson – appeared at Bow Street. Presumably they’d originally appeared in court the previous November and been remanded to return at a later date. The charges against them included using insulting/threatening behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace; assaulting a police constable; having various offensive weapons at the Royal Albert Hall including a DDT stick, a smoke bomb, a stink bomb and a paper bag containing flour; and my favourite, “Wantonly throwing a missile, viz, a smoke bomb, to the danger of the Miss World contestants”.
The court records show that the defendants pleaded not guilty to all the charges, most of which were dismissed, leaving them only having to pay fairly modest fines, though I believe they had originally spent the night after the demonstration in Holloway.
Unbelievable as it seems now, back then the annual Miss World contest was one of the most popular TV shows of the year and drew audiences in the tens of millions. I can remember watching it with my parents as a child, as it was considered appropriate family viewing. The 1970 demonstration did not stop the contest taking place in future of course, but it was hugely successful in terms of the amount of publicity it generated around the world for the incipient women’s movement. I was thrilled to find the raw material relating to this iconic moment in feminist history at the LMA.
More here: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/nov/19/feminists-disrupted-miss-world-tv
The Speak Up! Speak Out! conference will take place on Saturday 5 December 2015, 10am-4.30pm at London Metropolitan Archives, 40, Northampton Road, EC1R 0HB
The thirteenth annual Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, Queer History and Archives conference focuses on community history, collecting, caring for, understanding our past and sharing our heritage, inspired by the Speak Out LGBTQ+ oral history project.
There will be particular focus on history held in the memory of buildings and places and how this can be lost, rediscovered and preserved.
We are inviting proposals to contribute to this event. It is hoped the day will include the following themes / areas of work – but other community history themes are very welcome:
- The opportunities and challenges of oral history
- Alternative / subversive community history – what’s out there that is breaking the mould? How has the idea of LGBTQ community history moved on? What are the downsides of mainstreaming and centralisation?
- Place, memory and activism.
- Young people’s projects. What inspires them and what impact do they have?
- Who / what is community history for? How is it shared? In reality does it really speak out and up?
- Archives, archiving and the community voice. The impact of formal practice and institutions on the meaning/ value of community history.
If you are interested in being involved in the day as a group, individual speaker, panel member, exhibitor, stallholder and / or performer please send an expression of interest with a brief description of your idea (no more than 200 words) to Rosemary.firstname.lastname@example.org by midnight 13 September 2015.