History Riot on: LGBT Month

LGBT History Month, as an official annual event, was begun by Sue Sanders in 2004. Since

Happily Ever After
Happily Ever After, Action Transport Theatre

2015, LGBT History Month has also been accompanied by a National Festival, which is hosted by different towns each weekend in February. This coming weekend, the 25th – 27th February, the People’s History Museum (part of the Imperial War Museum North) in Manchester is hosting, a museum with the truly wonderful mission statement “‘to engage, inspire and inform diverse audiences by showing ‘There have always been ideas worth fighting for’”.

For those History Rioters in the North, we strongly encourage you to go to the Museum on the 27th for an incredible programme of family-orientated events!

Across February, brilliant events have taken place across the country, in universities, schools, theatres and museums. There have been talks, rallies, dance pieces, archive viewings, theatre shows, walking tours and music performances. Where interpretation and participation in LGBT Month has been less visible is at Britain’s historic buildings and homes.

May Morris

 

This, we think, is a great shame, but there is a very strong beam of hope shining into the heritage world.Both our interviewees this month, Claire Hayward and Sean Curran, have worked to introduce, encourage and include LGBT history into the heritage industry (to learn more about their projects, have a look at their interviews on our Interviews page). Heritage sites are full of fascinating stories of LGBT people from the past, and the potential to explore these stories is vast, and the ways in which these stories can be told and present are as varied and exciting as the histories they can tell.

In The West Wing, there was a scene in which two characters (Sam Seabourn and Ainsley Hayes for you Sorkin fans) debated the Equal Rights Amendment – a proposed amendment to the American Constitution which was designed to legalise equal rights to women. Ainsley, a woman, was against the amendment, arguing:

“A new amendment that we vote on declaring I am equal under the law to a man – I am mortified to discover there’s reason to believe I wasn’t before. I am a citizen of this country, I am not a special subset in need of your protection. I do not need have to have my rights handed down to me…The same Article 14 that protects you, protects me, and I went to law school just to make sure.”

(Want to see more of this brilliant scene? Check it here.)

LGBT historical figures should not need to have the right to have their stories told handed down to them; they should not have to fight to be visible and present in any form of heritage interpretation. LGBT history should be an integral part of any piece of interpretation at a heritage site, as much as the history of straight, white men. Historical sites fascinate and draw in tourists because they are filled with the history of people. These centuries-old people were as varied, passionate and individual as we are today – just because we don’t hear about them does not mean they were not present in these societies. Absence of evidence of these histories is not evidence of absence of these histories.

Audre Lorde

This is not to undermine the work of LGBT History Month. Whilst these histories are marginalised and forgotten, LGBT History Month is very very necessary, just as Women’s History Month and Black History Month are. The myriad of different events celebrating LGBT History that have taken place across the country demonstrate how useful a dedicated month can be in inspiring and showcasing art, theatre and histories of the LGBT community. But, “if I had my way, February 2016 would be a glorious swan song for LGBT History Month”, as Sean Curran says in his interview.

In her interview, Claire Hayward echoes this thought, saying that one of the most important changes that needs to be seen at heritage sites “will be incorporating LGBTQ histories the year round”.

As brilliant as LGBT Month is, we can’t help but feel it will be even more brilliant when LGBT histories are celebrated all year round, consistently and clearly, and LGBT Month can exist as well as daily heritage interpretation, not instead of daily interpretation for 28 days (29 if we’re lucky) once a year.

 

Want to read more about LGBT History Month? Why not check out this discussion with Claire Hayward about Pride of Place or our interview with Sean Curran about whether this month should even still exist!

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Interview with Sean Curran: “We should be living in a post-history months heritage world”

February is LGBT History Month in the UK, so to celebrate we at History Riot have been speaking to heritage practitioners and public history researchers about their work in LGBTQ-inclusive heritage.

Sean Curran 4 blog

 

We spoke to Sean Curran, an academic and teacher currently completing a  PhD looking at queer activism and curation in National Trust historic houses. They told us about queer activism and the National Trust – and why if Sean had their way, this would be the last ever History Month.

 

 

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.

I’m currently writing up my practice-based AHRC-funded PhD. My professional background is in academic libraries and archives. I am part of the steering committee for the annual LGBTQ History and Archives conference at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) and the upcoming international LGBTQ Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections conference hosted by LMA, Bishopsgate Institute and the Queer London Research Forum at Westminster University. I co-curated ‘Twilight People: stories of faith and gender beyond the binary’ at the Islington Museum, which is an oral history and photographic exhibition about trans and gender non-conforming people of faith, and I am exhibition consultant for the LMA’s upcoming ‘Speak Out!’ LGBTQ oral history project. I’m also currently a teaching assistant working with ASD students in a secondary school in Hackney.

“I think fed up queers like myself and our allies who work outside of institutions are slowly making progress that over time will have to impact on the fabric of how heritage organisations and institutions operate in regard to marginalised histories!”

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126 Artwork by Alex Creep

 

2. Your Sutton House Shakespeare sonnets project was the first time that Sutton House  had participated in LGBT Month. How did the piece come about?

In Summer 2013 I started volunteering at Sutton House in Hackney. One of the few middle class luxuries my family had when I was growing up was a National Trust membership, and it profoundly shaped my interest in, and passion for, domestic history, beautiful buildings, and kitsch. Sutton House is quite an anomaly in the Trust’s portfolio, given it’s relative lack of original objects and furniture, it’s location in a busy urban area, and it’s initial rejection by National Trust stalwart and house-scout James Lees Milne who visited it in 1946, and described it in his diaries as a “wretched” house in a “slum” area. I offered to curate an exhibition in February 2014 for LGBT History Month, and the staff there kindly agreed. In ‘Master-Mistress’ I used four of Shakespeare’s Fair Youth sonnets as inspiration, and recorded four LGBTQ identified people reading them. These were played on loop in four of the Tudor-interpreted rooms, and were played from mock-tudor speakers made by artist Judith Brocklehurst. This was the first ever LGBT History Month exhibition at any National Trust property. I was invited back the following year, and rather ambitiously crowd-sourced recordings of all 126 of the Fair Youth sonnets. I also asked contributors to record a 10 second moving “selfie”. The result was a phenomenal cross section of the LGBTQ community, with a huge variety of interpretations of the sonnets and the video brief. I edited these into one long film, and it became ‘126’, part of the first ever Queer Season at Sutton House. I was also invited to screen the film at the V&A’s first ever LGBTQ themed Friday Late ‘Queer and Now’.

 

LGBTQ histories, black, womens, disabled, all of these histories are an integral part of all history, and the more we continue with the idea of history months as being the only time museums and heritage sites engage with these narratives, the more we enforce the idea that real history is only about straight cisgender white able-bodied men.”

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Still of 126 film in the chapel of Sutton House

3. The National Trust owns Sutton House. How do you think heritage is changing to incorporate more inclusive histories? 

I don’t think heritage is changing to incorporate these histories, I think fed up queers like myself and our allies who work outside of institutions are slowly making progress that over time will have to impact on the fabric of how heritage organisations and institutions operate in regard to marginalised histories.

Most of the groundbreaking work in museums, archives and historic buildings is being led by freelancers, independent curators, artists, grass roots groups and educators. It’s more risk free for a massive membership organisation like the National Trust to let a volunteer lead an LGBTQ project, than to do it themselves.

Thankfully, the Heritage Lottery Fund is recognising the value of these projects and is really keen on funding LGBTQ ventures. The next thing that needs to happen is for heritage organisations to start creating jobs for (or giving jobs to) those of us who are prepared to think outside of the box and be a bit anarchic.

 

4. How can heritage sites/ museums/ historical homes start, or continue, telling the stories of the LGBT members of their communities? What would you like to see across the heritage sector in February 2016?

If I had my way, February 2016 would be a glorious swan song for LGBT History Month. As far as I’m concerned we should be living in a post-history months heritage world now. LGBTQ histories, black, womens, disabled, all of these histories are an integral part of all history, and the more we continue with the idea of history months as being the only time museums and heritage sites engage with these narratives, the more we enforce the idea that real history is only about straight cisgender white able-bodied men. LGBT History Month has been a great starting point, but the conversation should have moved on by now.

 

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‘Twilight People: Stories of Faith and Gender Beyond the Binary’, running at Islington Museum until 5th March 2016.

 

5. What’s the most interesting story/ conversation/ obstacle you’ve encountered during your work around LGBT themes?

I offered to make a soundscape based on the relationship between May Morris and her long term companion Mary Lobb to Red House, a William Morris National Trust house, and they turned it down, even though I was offering to do it for free. I decided to make it anyway, and host it for free online. I also made a zine, explaining their refusal, and a protest tea towel, which was a play on the tropes of the National Trust tea towels in the gift shops. I had an opportunity to exhibit this in a group show at the Institute of Education. I hope to revisit this fascinating story one day, as it’s completely silenced in Red House, Kelmscott Manor and the William Morris Gallery.

 

You can keep up to date with Sean’s  work at Towardsqueer.blogspot.com and follow them on twitter @MeltingSwans

 

Want to read more about LGBT Month? Why not check out  our interview with Claire Hayward about Pride of Place or this little editorial we wrote about it.

Interview: Claire Hayward tells us about ‘Pride of Place’

February is LGBT History Month in the UK, so to celebrate we at History Riot have been speaking to heritage practitioners and public history researchers about their work in LGBTQ-inclusive heritage.

hayward

 

We interviewed Claire Hayward, a public historian, Further Education History Lecturer and the Project Researcher for Pride of Place, a LGBTQ Heritage Project by Leeds Beckett University and Historic England (formerly English Heritage).

 

 

  1. So what is the Pride of Place project all about then? And how did it come into being?

Historic England and Leeds Beckett launched Pride of Place in June 2015. It builds on from other diverse history projects by English Heritage on The Slave Trade and Abolition, Women’s History and Disability History. These projects, Pride of Place included, aim to make often marginalised histories more visible, and to trace the ways that they are found across buildings and landscapes in England. One of the key aims of Pride of Place is to show that lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer histories can be found everywhere across England, and that LGBTQ histories have played an important part of local and national histories. Our online map, which anyone can add to, launched last year. The map shows LGBTQ sites across England, and covers everything from personal domestic spaces to long-gone ‘LGBTQ’ pubs and clubs. We’ll also be producing Teachers’ Resources and guides to researching the queer heritage of buildings and places for local authorities and community groups. We will be launching an online exhibition later this year, hosted permanently on the Historic England website. We’ll also be writing amendments to descriptions of already listed buildings, so that their LGBTQ heritage becomes a defined part of their national significance.

 

2. This is an area of Public History which has interested you for a while, isn’t it?

I took over this role from Justin Bengry last month, who has done an incredible job building the Pride of Place map as well as other resources yet to launch. I’ve just finished up my PhD in History at Kingston – my thesis was about LGBTQ public histories, and explored the ways that members of the public encounter and influence LGBTQ histories. Pride of Place is a great example of LGBTQ public history, particularly because the map that is being produced as part of the project is community-led, so I’m really excited to be working on it. Before the PhD I took an MA in Early Modern History, focusing on women’s and gender history in the eighteenth century.

“There has been a significant shift in how heritage organisations approach diverse histories over the last decade or so.”

Pride of Place man
Image from Pride of Place (Historic England)
  1. Historic England is behind this project – the traditional image of heritage organisations is very much “here’s a big old mansion with a tea room, don’t touch the tulipiere”, whereas this project actively engages with LGBT communities and histories that have been marginalised.

How do you think heritage is changing to incorporate these histories? Is it something that’s happening across other heritage organisations and sites too? 

There has been a significant shift in how heritage organisations approach diverse histories over the last decade or so. Historic England is not alone in this, and other major institutions such as the National Trust have in recent years begun to reach out to their diverse visitors and include wider histories in the narratives they tell. For example, the National Trust’s Sutton House hosted Sean Curran’s exhibitions Master-Mistress and ‘126’ during LGBT History Month in 2014 and 2015. I was privileged to take part in a panel discussion about LGBTQ histories in museums and historic houses at the launch of ‘Master-Mistress’, which you can listen to online. Projects like Pride of Place and events like those held at Sutton House show that conversations about LGBTQ histories are now taking place in heritage organisations, and that they are also taking action to address the often marginalisation of diverse histories.

We’re still only at the beginning of this change, and there’s still a long way to go. One important change will be incorporating LGBTQ histories the year round. Although LGBT History Month has provided a specific time, and perhaps as a result more funding opportunities, for heritage organisations to connect with LGBTQ histories, it would be great to see a similar level of enthusiasm continuing outside of February.

 

  1. How important do you think social media is to this sort of project (and more generally in histories of sexuality)? Is it more about linking up with other interested parties in the same field and making connections, or letting members of the public know about its existence and spread the word? 

Social media is hugely important to projects like Pride of Place as it allows us to reach wider audiences, and to reach people who might not otherwise me able to connect with the project. Because the Pride of Place map is crowd sourced, social media plays an even more important role. It means we can share stories and encourage others to contribute, and people can add comments via Facebook. It’s also great to hear about other projects, heritage institutions and academics who are working in similar fields, and social media allows us to share their work too.

“Although homosexuality was still illegal, this didn’t matter in their Brixton community. Instead, ‘Cyril and Terry were simply beloved members of the community, lovingly helping friends in need’.”

 

  1. What’s the most interesting / intriguing story or mapping connection you’ve come across? 

It’s difficult to pick just one! Some of the entries are of national significance, while others are personal. The personal ones are incredible because they mean we can find out about histories we otherwise wouldn’t. For example, one entry explains why Brixton is an important LGBTQ site to the contributor; it’s where they grew up in the care of two gay men during the 1950s. They explained that although homosexuality was still illegal, this didn’t matter in their Brixton community. Instead, ‘Cyril and Terry were simply beloved members of the community, lovingly helping friends in need’.

Personal stories like these are incredible ways of sharing memories, and they show that LGBTQ histories can be found in all kinds of places. Personal stories have also appeared in our comments feature. Many of the histories on the map are personal and anecdotal, and some people have commented on entries for pubs and clubs to explain what it was like when they visited, or if it was the first ‘LGBTQ’ bar they went to. These connections are really important to Pride of Place, and they mean that some of the sites have multiple histories and stories attached.

 

  1. How can people contribute to Pride of Place?

You can contribute to our map of LGBTQ sites in England on mapme.com/prideofplace. You will need to either create a log in or log in via Facebook or LinkedIn.

You can also log in anonymously using the email LGBTQPlaces@gmail.com and password lgbtqplaces. We’re interested in any places in England, whether they are important for personal reasons or for national significance.

You can also host a pinning party with a community group – you can email me on claire.hayward@historicengland.org.uk for more information and to ask any questions about the project.

 

Want to read more about LGBT Month? Why not check out  our interview with Sean Curran or this little editorial we wrote about it.

 

Source for banner image: Pride of Place Facebook Page