History gets personal: LGBT history month

February is LGBT history month in the UK, and I've been wanting to write a post on this topic since this time last year. It failed to happen through a combination of real life being slightly distracting, and my feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the subject. As it is now, incredibly, an entire year later, I will simply offer some thoughts on presenting LGBT history in a museum context, why it's difficult, and why it matters.

Queer Valentines Days are the best

The very concept of LGBT history is fraught, because the terms gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender only appeared around the end of the 19th century or even later, along with modern concepts of sexual identity. (This article is a really good summary of how concepts of homo- and hetero-sexuality came about at this time). Of course, there have been people experiencing and acting on same-sex attraction and crossing gender lines throughout history, but those stories can be hard to uncover, and hard to tell without imposing modern identity categories. But it's still deeply valuable to find those voices and let them be heard. Because it can be difficult to assert historical 'fact' on a category as slippery as personal identity, museums have to be creative in interpreting such an inherently subjective and emotional topic.

In September, I visited a couple exhibitions in London, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offenses Act, which decriminalised male homosexuality in England and Wales (with a number of limitations, and not in Scotland or Northern Ireland). One was 'Queer British Art' at the Tate Britain, and the other was 'Gay UK: Love, Law, and Liberty' at the British Library. These exhibitions were able to sidestep the issue of whether their subjects would have identified as LGBT by starting their time frames around when these identity categories began to emerge. The Tate and British Library focused on works of art and documents, respectively, but I ended up being most struck by items that fell outside those broad categories.

The British Library exhibition had a number of listening points, where visitors could hear recordings of oral histories and music. The description for one said something like, "'Glad to be Gay' was written by Tom Robinson for London Pride 1976. It was popular in clubs and as a protest song." Now, I consider myself to be reasonably well-versed in LGBT history, but I had never heard of this song before, and I was surprised. As I lifted the clunky headphones over my ears, I fully expected to hear a fun campy disco song. Instead, it was a pointed description of discrimination and violence, the chorus defiantly ironic and bitter. The unexpected plunge into an entirely different reality gave me actual goosebumps, and I was rooted to the spot for the entire length of the song. If you've never heard it before, I highly recommend giving it a listen right now:


This experience underscored for me the vital importance of remembering and sharing history in ways that are accessible and compelling. I've studied this history, I was in the middle of a well-documented exhibition talking about legal and social discrimination, but I've also grown up going to Pride parades that are celebratory street parties, and living in a liberal bubble where being gay isn't a big deal. It took a piece of music to shake me out of my 21st century preconceptions and let me feel, in just a small way, what the reality of being gay was just 40 years ago.

The other thing that hit me in the gut in a similar way was at the Tate exhibition. I was going around the room, looking at paintings and drawings, and hanging on the wall like a work of art, there was a door. I was genuinely confused until I walked up and read the label. It was Oscar Wilde's prison door. Oh. Suddenly its weight and heavy bolts were a palpable symbol of the forces of repression and punishment. And the fact that it was wrested from its hinges and hung in a gallery like a captured prize was a potent reclaiming of that heritage, and a testament to the unstoppable force of the mind it had been meant to contain. Having the genuine object there conveyed its message more powerfully than any written or visual description.

This is what cultural history accomplishes, at its best: the things that people in the past directly experienced, the things they listened to and touched, can bring us into contact with the past in a way that nothing else can. Especially with the subject of identity based around love and sexuality, I think it's necessary to balance critical, objective study with human emotion. I mean, I can't look at this objectively; I'm a historian, and value documentation and awareness of historical nuance and complexity. I'm also bisexual, I deeply value my queerness, and feel an entirely subjective sense of connection with people in the past who may have felt the similar desires, even if they conceived of their identity in vastly different ways. Learning about this history was a vital part of forming my own sense of identity.

Some LGBT history: baby queer Emma in her first year at Smith

There is still a dearth of LGBT stories and characters in mainstream media, and those examples that exist can feel extremely limiting. I remember, when I was trying to navigate the internalised bullshit questions of, "Do I really feel this way or am I just trying to feel special?" and "Am I allowed to claim this identity?" how much it helped to be exposed to stories that fell outside the 'Born this Way' narrative of modern identity politics. It's a funny, contradictory thing, recognising all the different facets of queer selfhood throughout time, and still finding a common thread to connect them to yourself. I look at pictures of ambiguously affectionate Victorians, women in lesbian bars of the 1940s, and political protests of the 1970s, the way one looks at old family photographs: searching the faces of strangers for an echo of yourself, trying to map how these individuals in a different time and place contributed, in some way, to your being yourself, here and now. As W. S. Gilbert inimitably put it, "I don't know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are."

Unknown couple, c. 1899

Two women in a bar, c. 1946

Members of Lavender Menace, 1970

(These images are all from this wonderful compilation.)

Being able to look back in time and see people whose life experiences resemble your own in this ineffable way is incredible. Seeing those stories told on the walls of a museum is an empowering feeling. In the Tate exhibition, I realised I was looking at the art differently. The first room focused on late Victorian artists who couldn't acknowledge their sexuality openly, but often created erotically-charged art that reflected their desires. I felt like knowing that gave me more permission to enjoy it, in contrast to the heterosexual male gaze predominant in the vast majority of Western art. I could read about the Bloomsbury group (who famously "lived in squares and loved in triangles"), and see my own interconnected circle of friends and relationships reflected in theirs. It's vitally important for museums to keep pushing to include more varied perspectives, so that everyone can have the chance to experience those feelings of recognition and representation.

LGBT history is one of many marginalised aspects of the historical narrative that deserves to be told. My experiences with recent museum exhibitions say something about the importance of the emotional, and the palpable, in teaching these histories. By embracing the complexity of historical experiences and sharing them in compelling ways, we can try to get a bit closer to the truth: the true diversity of life in other eras, and a sense of personal truth in knowing where we come from.


"I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth..."
 

Adrienne Rich, "Diving into the Wreck"

--------
Further reading: If you want to learn more about LGBT history, this reading list is a fantastic place to get started.

Comments