Peter Tatchell says it is time to exhibit the hidden history of queer Britain
Cardinal John Henry Newman is buried in the cemetery adjacent to the country house of the Oratory Fathers at Rednal Hill. He lies in the same grave as his life long male partner, Ambrose St John, much to the horror of the Catholic establishment which has tried to suppress all knowledge of Newman’s homosexuality. Inseparable in death as in life, the two men’s joint memorial stone is inscribed with the: “Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem” – From shadow and images into truth.
Their epitaph sums up why a Lesbian and Gay Museum is a timely idea: to bring the hidden history of queer Britain out of the shadows, into the light.
I first had the idea for a gay museum in 1972, when I was 20-year old activist in the Gay Liberation Front. During those early struggles for queer human rights, it suddenly dawned on me that we fighting a great liberation struggle handicapped by an almost total lack of knowledge of our own past. Our minds were colonised by a straight version of history, where we queers were invisible.
The battles of those who went before us, like the nineteenth century gay rights pioneer, Edward Carpenter, were unknown. Even the homosexual law reform campaigns of the 1960s, led by people like Allan Horsfall and Antony Grey, were (and still are) largely undocumented. Our existence was erased from the historical record. Apart from Oscar Wilde and the faggerati of ancient Greece, none of us knew much about the homo contribution to human civilisation. The only queers who got any public attention were mass murderers, spies, child abusers and men entrapped by the police in public toilets. We were the enemy within.
Unlike other communities, we had no families to pass down, from generation to generation, the stories of our tragedies and triumphs. Queers were a people without any sense of a collective past. We were expunged from all official records – except the criminal ones, which documented grisly accounts of trials, imprisonment and executions for the “abominable crime of buggery”.
But when a few of us in GLF began scouring libraries and the basement archives of museums and the public record office, we discovered buried fragments of past queer lives. It was shocking to learn that gay men faced the death penalty until 1861, and life imprisonment until 1967.
Then, via contacts with the queer rights movement in Germany, we began to piece together details of the Nazi bid to exterminate homosexuals. From this history of ‘homocide’ we liberated the pink triangle that the Nazis forced gay concentration camp prisoners to wear; turning it into a symbol of pride and defiance.
My GLF colleague, Allan Bray, made the startling discovery that there had been a vibrant gay sub-culture in Renaissance England. Using records of criminal trials, Bray, and subsequently Rictor Norton, unearthed details of the bawdy, fun-filled eighteenth century molly houses – the forerunners of gay bars – where gay men met to drink and socialise, and sometimes to have sex and stage mock weddings to their dearly beloved.
Jeffrey Weeks, another GLF friend, began his ground-breaking research which catalogued the heroic, inspiring nineteenth century homosexual reform campaigners John Addington Symonds, Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter, together with the lives of early twentieth century lesbian pioneers such as Radclyffe Hall.
These revelations were both fascinating and empowering, but they were no where to be seen in mainstream museums. This absence convinced me we needed a dedicated Lesbian and Gay Museum to celebrate the queer contribution to British society
The idea lay dormant in the back of my mind for over 30 years, until the London election campaign in 2000. I stood as a Green Left candidate; proposing a gay museum as part of my Manifesto. At the time, no one else backed the proposal.
When I joined the Green Party earlier this year, I was asked to contribute suggestions for the Green’s ‘Manifesto for a Gay-Friendly London’. Hey presto! Darren Johnson, the Green Mayoral candidate, took up the idea. Now everyone is supporting it.
What would be in a queer museum? The same kind of things as in any other museum. Noteworthy letters, diaries, photographs, drawings and personal possessions of famous homosexuals and bisexuals, such as Lord Mountbatten, Beverley Nichols, Florence Nightingale, William Pitt the Younger, Catherine Cookson, Lawrence of Arabia, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Winston Churchill, Lord Byron, Daphne Du Maurier, and William Shakespeare.
Some of these people were, of course, celibate and only gay by orientation. Others, like Winston Churchill, who had a fling with musical comedy star Ivor Novello, appear to have had only one-off gay encounters. Providing these distinctions are made, the queer museum should include them all.
How to display the museum’s contents? One possibility is thematic exhibitions, along the lines of The Queer Kings of England and Scotland. There are plenty to choose from, including Edward II, Richard the Lionheart, James I and King William III of Orange (please note Ian Paisley: your hero was one of the sodomites you despise).
Another theme might be Gays at War; chronicling the stories of gay soldiers during World War 2 and of lesbians who served in the Women’s Land Army. Given the long-time ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces, it might also be fun to reveal the secret gay lives of Field Marshals Kitchener, Haig and Montgomery. Kitchener, for example, caused quite stir by surrounding himself with beautiful young officers; eventually favouring one, Captain Oswald Fitzgerald, who he appointed as his aide-de-camp – in more ways than one. They died in each other’s arms when the HMS Hampshire struck a mine off Orkney in 1916.
We all know about Benjamin Britten, but what about the almost forgotten lesbian composer, and suffragette, Dame Ethel Smythe?
More recent gay rights history could figure too, with badges, leaflets, placards and banners – plus photos and video footage – from the campaigns to equalise the age of consent and repeal Section 28.
Significant anniversaries could be commemorated with special events. October is the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of the North West Homosexual Law Reform Committee in Manchester. The NWHLRC was the first grassroots gay rights organisation in Britain, and the first to be led by openly gay people. Right now, I am struggling to persuade Manchester City Council and the People’s History Museum to organise an event to celebrate this milestone. If we had a gay museum, it could host the celebrations.
The ideal location for the museum is the former Bow Street Police Station, where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated after his arrest in 1895. Perhaps the current owners, the Metropolitan Police, could be persuaded to donate it to the museum project, as a gesture of reconciliation and reparation for more than 100 years of victimisation of the lesbian and gay community.
As well documenting the history of queer Britain, the museum could become the new home of the Hall-Carpenter gay archives, which already has a sizeable collection of queer memorabilia but no exhibition facilities. The museum could also provide a gallery space for queer arts and photographic exhibitions.
In addition to permanent displays, the museum could host guest exhibitions on queer life in different cultures, such as India, Zimbabwe, Mexico, China, Iran, Brazil and Russia. It’s a queer world. Let’s celebrate diversity.
Originally published as ‘Inside the gay museum’, Guardian G2, 8 June 2004