Archiving UK LGBTQ+ History at the Bishopsgate Institute
This is a transcript of a conversation between our art editors Matt David and Tayo Adekunle, looking back on images from their visit to Out and About!, an exhibition with Bishopsgate Institute. This institute has been collecting the lived experiences of everyday people for over a century; their unique special collections and archives present the story of individuals, collectives and organisations who fought for social, political and cultural change. This archive installation includes items documenting areas of pride, protest performance and art, from the gay rights movement to the everyday celebration and struggles of LGBTQ+ Londoners. The installation was accompanied by a programme of informal talks and conversations hosted inside the gallery by individuals whose stories were on display.
Matt: I went into this exhibition blind, I was invited along by some friends. I knew it was a queer exhibition and I knew it was kind of like an archival exhibition, but outside that I didn't really know anything about what that meant, or what kind of stuff was going to be in it. I wasn't prepared for how much wonderful stuff I was about to see.
I think for me there was a pleasant surprise in the amount of diversity [of representation of queer media] that was there. In the sense that it was nice to see that there was stuff not just from London, of course much of it was from London, but there was a lot of exhibits from all around. There was stuff from Scotland, from the Midlands and from Wales. It was it was quite a diverse range of queer media in the UK, but also really diverse in terms of queerness. Not just gay men, talking about lesbians, bisexuals, black queer people, Asian queer people. It was a wonderfully wide variety of stuff.
Tayo: Yeah, Muslim queer people as well.
Matt: But the diversity brought with it some sadness, it was like, "Oh my God, this has been happening for decades, and we have always been fighting for this [the right to exist]." For some reason we don't talk about that. These issues are still very much in the forefront today as they were then for these groups. You could easily argue a lot of the 'gay male' media was outdated compared to what are issues today, which shows progress there. People aren't necessarily going to be denying fundamental rights for gay bars to be open for example. Whereas issues for people like queer Muslims, queer black people, lesbians, bisexuals, that is still happening. It can be upsetting to think that not much has actually changed for these particular areas of queer rights.
Tayo: I was just thinking that, it was a really great exhibition. Especially for someone like me who's only started really looking into queer culture quite recently. Everyone knows that being queer and/or belonging to the LGBT+ community is not a new thing. But it's been really hidden from history books, and I really enjoyed seeing 50 years worth of lost stories in one place! We, as a generation, as younger queers, just haven't really had access to this information. So it's really great to see that. Despite people out there saying "Oh, everyone's gay now, or everyone thinks they're trans now!", none of this is new! This isn't a Gen Z, millennial thing, it's been happening, it's just been erased.
Tayo: It was affirming to see that amount of queer history in one place. Especially stuff like, the Bisexual+ Project, and the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre. Nowadays, you'll have club nights and events that are centered around black, queer people and I always assumed that was a new and quite innovative thing, but it's really not. It's great to see that those things have existed in the past, but very frustrating that these groups were dealing with the same issues that we are still.
Matt: Absolutely. For me, it's humbling because you think that newer generations of queer people are often deemed as very forward thinking youths, but there are so many examples of older queer literature, many of them at this exhibition, that is so nuanced and has so many different kind of diverse topics within it. It's kind of surprising that older generations talk about younger people being 'snowflakes' considering what activists were fighting so hard for when they were younger too! Like there's a magazine there called 'Gemma', which I'm looking at right now, which was about a queer, lesbian disabled couple! Talking about being disabled as a lesbian! Like, it's still a unique struggle to be queer and disabled today. There was also a magazine or a book there that was made in the 1970s. It was about a girl having two dads! It's wild to think that these things were being made.
Tayo: Jennie lives with Eric and Martin? So yeah, written by Susanne Bösche it was first published in 1981 in Danish, and then in English in 1983 by the Gay Men's Press. It was probably the first English language children's book to discuss to discuss male homosexuality. The availability of this book in schools (provided by the inner London Education Authority) was condemned by Kenneth Baker, who was the Secretary of State for Education.
Matt: Was that before Margaret Thatcher passed the Section 28 Bill?
Tayo: Yeah, it was used as a major contribution to passing section 28.
Matt: It's just frustrating!
Tayo: It's happening now in Florida! Even today, around the world, I don't even know if you can -in many schools- discuss homosexuality at all. Which is maddening to me. I don't understand that.
Matt: It's only just now passed in Scotland. It's now part of the curriculum, like, only just now.
Tayo: That's great, but also like, where's it been?
Matt: Yeah, well, it's not been, that's the thing! But we all know that. We as a society only like to talk about its issues and its problems that affect the majority or the status quo. Hence why, we don't talk about queer history. Topics that affect the majority, like Coronavirus, are going to be talked about in schools. If it was only affecting a certain section of the population we wouldn't be talking about it.
Tayo: Exactly. And I think, for me, one of the things that I find just really disturbing about things like this book being condemned; or that you're only just being allowed to talk about homosexuality in schools now in Scotland - why was it ever deemed inappropriate, and why still? When a certain group of people think about queer people, they just think about sex and sexualising the people who are identifying as queer. You see this poster right here 'Pits and Perverts' which was supporting the miners strike. I think that's great, but in the same way it's incredibly distressing to see an entire community be sexualised and called names when they're not doing anything different to anyone else in society.
Matt: That's actually funny because the 'Pits and Perverts' is queer people reclaiming that stereotype against them in protest. That's a very famous poster for 'Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners' or LGSM group, started by Mark Ashton. I was amazed and a bit emotional seeing that poster, this iconic queer poster, like seeing a real physical, original version of it was amazing. Calling it 'Pits and Perverts' as a fundraiser is purely because, especially back then, most people thought gay people and queer people were 'perverted'. So to market it as such was as much for straight people as the queers involved, getting people to realise these 'perverts' are raising money for you and your causes. These 'perverts' are doing charitable work for you. So it's redefining all these words used against us.
Tayo: Which I love, and I mean, obviously fighting for gay liberation is really not funny, but I do love the fact that when you have an oppressed group, there's usually humour that group finds from within. I think it's absolutely beautiful.
Matt: It was just nice to have rich literature just to read and to actually physically touch and I personally love the aesthetic of the media from the 60s and 70s. I just love the look! You can clearly see how like a lot of queer, modern zines are influenced by how people made magazines back in like the 60s, 70s, 80s. Aesthetically I don't know what that process is to replicate that look, if it's photography or if it's a specific printing technique, but I love them.
Tayo: Yes! I absolutely love them! I think they look so good. One that stood out was 'Square Peg'. This is again another example of, as they say 'contemporary perverts', which I just absolutely love. I think it is just pretty cool there's so much freedom within the content that they could include. I'll read out this little bit here from the about: "A journal for contemporary perverts. Showcase art style politics, with unflinching articles on sexually explicit acts, S&M, fetish kink and rubber fashion. Gay skinheads, heroin addiction, policing, body image, misogyny, and racism. Alongside thoughtful pieces on subjects such as co parenting and the benefits of a macrobiotic diet for people with HIV." Like, this is everything!
Matt: There isn't anything wrong with talking about sex. There's nothing wrong with talking about addiction. There isn't anything wrong with talking about HIV! What people are afraid of is being uncomfortable. For me, it feels like being queer is making people uncomfortable because it's outside of the norm, but who cares?! All of this exhibit has reminded me this has always been a thing and we shouldn't have to change for society. We should be talking about this stuff. It's not and never been “you have to be a kinky person to be queer”, but in this community you can talk about whatever you want and express yourself how you want.
Tayo: Exactly, exactly. It must be part of the reason why kink is strongly associated with being queer. I think that's because with queerness comes with a departing from the established norms, or what society deems as acceptable. Once you come out as queer and live your life authentically, it's easy then to realise that there are so many other parts of life that we've had to conform to, things that have absolutely nothing to do with who you're actually attracted to. Coming out, you you've broken one barrier down, you can't help but break a bunch of other ones down because you wake up! We've been taught not to talk about these things, like you said, it's because it makes people feel uncomfortable. People don't like to feel uncomfortable, it challenges the way they think. If other people are living in a wildly different way, cisheteronormative people feel weird because they think it reflects on them, makes them feel like they're wrong. What actually reflects on them though is their weird feelings, they should just try be happy doing whatever it is that they feel comfortable doing, same as us. I believe every person in the queer community wants to just be happy and comfortable, but we keep getting told that we're not allowed to be.
Matt: Pretty much! The censorship and the laws preventing progress on fundamental rights from happening is literally just because of society, some dumb 'decency' rules, and we're just like, well, why? WHY?! Why do we have to fight to exist?
Tayo: Why?! I find it frustrating when people talk about being 'indecent', with sex. The fact that the queer community talk so openly about sex, and then they're like, 'but it's not appropriate for kids'. Yes, but this content isn't made for kids, is it? This exhibition isn't made for kids.
Matt: I think overall the exhibition was so beautiful, it was emotional seeing my history. Our history. By which I mean the UK LGBTQ+ community. Also realising that an organisation has spent the past 40 years collating all this stuff, so we actually have access to queer history in this country, that's quite special. There was something about it that made me angry though, and I touched on it before, this was publicly accessible, free exhibition but unless you're in London for this specific time, in this specific area, you weren't going to experience this. This isn't UK wide or global information and just isn't accessible for everyone. This is not the exhibition's fault, but the fact that this isn't information that everyone could see and access bothered me.
Tayo: I love doing archival research and stuff, like I think it's so important to draw from real first hand sources. I feel really privileged that it's based here so I was able to go down and look at it with ease. But you're right, young queer people need to be able to see stuff like this because they'll be finding community in history. Knowing that you're not strange, or weird or wrong, and knowing that so many people have thought the same way that you have. If you don't have family or friends you can talk to, people who might not understand, you need the camaraderie of a queer family, a community, and this exhibit is just one way to access that. It is sad that not everyone can have that access.
Matt: To find out more, go to Bishopsgate.org.uk. They aren't specifically a queer organisation and they have many archives of history in general, but there is a lot of queer history there. They have information on the history of activism, going as far back as Victorian era, highlights of a walking tour of Spitalfields, the history of drag protest, and lots more.