Sunday, 19 February 2006

Queer London

I was asked by the power that be at LGBT History Month to write up some sort of report of a study day I attended recently. Here it is for your reading pleasure:

During Black History Month last year, I attended a lecture by Stephen Bourne at the Imperial War Musuem. After the event I approached the woman in attendance from the education department and asked her if the museum was aware of LGBT History Month and if they had planned any event. I first had to repeat LGBT several times and explain to her what it meant before she could tell me that she had heard of it but that the museum had not planned anything. To be honest, she seemed rather worried to be talking to me and even though she relaxed a little when Stephen Bourne joined the conversation and supported the idea of an event, she was not exactly enthusiastic about the idea. There is probably a case for some gentle lobbying to take place here.

In stark contrast with this, the Museum of London is getting quite active in respect to LGBT History. They have recently set up an advisory group to expand their collection in this area and are celebrating History Month in style with a small temporary exhibition, Queer Is Here, in the main entrance of the museum. The exhibition’s aim is to “give a glimpse of [the museum’s] collections and the hidden histories of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered communities in London, looking at issues affecting them both now and over the past 30 years.” They are hoping to tour the exhibition around the country later this year.

To complement this, and to mark the official opening of the exhibition on 04 February, they had organised a free study day called Queer London. The day was fairly well attended by a studious crowd of about one hundred people. After a word of welcome by Dr Darryl McIntyre, Director of Public Programmes for the Museum, Paul Patrick regaled us with his enthusiastic and funny account of the origins of History Month and of the crucial, if unwitting, role played by the Sunday People newspaper in the success of the first edition of the month. He reminded us of the importance of having positive representations of LGBT lives in schools and society at large.

Queer Is Here flyerWhile Paul was being whisked away to the nearby Schools Out conference, Dr Matt Cook, a cultural historian from Birkbeck College, specialising in the history of sexuality and that of London in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, took to the pulpit to tell us about “’A New City of Friends’, London and Homosexuality in the 1890’s.” He described how, despite the backlash following the Wilde trial, London remained the seat of a flourishing subculture where cross-dressing and cruising competed with a more political and utopian vision of same sex relations. ’A New City of Friends’ is a quote from the American poet Walt Whitman.

Next at the microphone, was Dr Laura Doan, professor of Cultural History and Sexuality Studies at the University of Manchester. The title of her paper was “’Which is the Rooster, which is the Hen?’ Female Masculinity in London’s Gay Twenties.” Doan explained that as a result of the emancipation, which took place during the First World War, women started to adopt a more masculine look throughout the 1920’s. The hairdos grew very short and pieces of masculine costume were included to the feminine wardrobe. However, what would look to our modern eyes as obvious signs of the Sapphic inclinations of those women was only the result of fashion. Radcliffe Hall was one of the devotees of this new look and it is only after her book, The Well of Loneliness, was banned in 1928 following a much publicised trial that wearing that type of clothes became a statement on one’s sexuality. ’Which is the Rooster, which is the Hen?’ is taken from the lyrics of a popular song of the time poking fun at the new androgynous fashion.

By then, it was time to have lunch and people scattered to convene again half an hour later and enjoy the short lecture by Dr Matt Houlbrook, from the University of Liverpool, to me, one of the highlights of day. Houlbrook centred his talk on Queer Perils and Pleasures in Interwar London and took us through same of the venues favoured by queer men around Piccadilly Circus, which was at the time the very centre of the Empire. This led Houlbrook to contend that the removal of all “gay” venues to nearby Old Compton Street as some sort of return to the closet, characterised by the need for lower visibility engendered by the crack down on homosexual activities in the during the Second World War and the 1950’s.

He also insisted on the importance, when researching LGBT history, of being careful not to superimpose onto the lives of past generations our experiences and our perceptions of ourselves. It is only with the gay liberation movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s that people really started to give themselves (or receive) labels. Before that, men engaging in sexual activities with other men would probably not define themselves as queer or homosexual; these notions being mostly linked with effeminacy rather than sexual activities.

Darryl McIntyre, Peter Tatchell and the London Gay Men's Chorus - © Michael Cheetham 2006This was followed by an intervention by Time Out’s television editor, Alkarim Jivani, who dealt with gay and lesbian London in the fifties and sixties, concentrating on listing well-known historical events rather than exploring the social history of the period. Jack Gilbert, Executive Director of Proud Heritage, was then scheduled to give a talk on the Ladies of LLangollen, two upperclass Irishwomen whose relationship scandalised and fascinated their contemporaries. They lived together for over 50 years in the first half of the nineteenth century. It was however time for me to leave the lecture and to join my fellow members of the London Gay Men’s Chorus for a warm up and a quick rehearsal before our appearance later on to close the day. This meant I also missed a reading by novelist, poet and playwright, Maureen Duffy, as well as a Q&A session chaired by activist Peter Tatchell.

The London Gay Men’s Chorus is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary this year and since the museum is already in possession of artefacts related to the Chorus’ history, we have rekindled links with the museum with the view of donating more objects. One of these mementos, a banner probably created in 1992 and featuring our logo of the time, was given pride of place in the Queer is Here exhibition and the Chorus was invited to come and sing for the official opening of the exhibition by Peter Tatchell. We performed four or five songs and finished with Something Inside So Strong by the black gay poet, Labi Siffre. I could see some people in the audience getting quite emotional by that time and the energy instilled in our performance proved that most of the chorines shared with me the emotion and the sense of occasion of what we were taking part in on that day; LGBT history being recognised and celebrated by the wider society through the institution that is the Museum of London. In its own small way a very historic day for LGBT people.

Other bloggers were there:
* Overyourheak
* Create My Life
* My London Diary (scroll down a bit)
* My London Diary (pictures)

24 Hour Museum also had an article on the event.

Further reading:
London and the Culture of Homosexuality, Matt Cook, Cambridge University Press, 2003
Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture, Laura Doan, Columbia University Press, 2001
Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis 1918-57, Matt Houlbrook, University of Chicago Press, 2005
It’s Not Unusual: A History of Lesbian and Gay Britain in the Twentieth Century, Alkarim Jivani, Indiana University Press, 1997
Alchemy, Maureen Duffy, Harper Collins, 2004

Picture of the London Gay Men's Chorus © Michael Cheetham 2006.

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1 comment:

  1. An excerpt from Matt Houlbrook's book, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957, is available on the University of Chicago Press website:


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