2017 is the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. The Queer Cabinet Brigade placed pink cabinets across London in November last year as part of their campaigning for an LGBT history museum in London, but no museum has emerged. It’s not all bad news though for queer history – to mark the anniversary, several museums and other arts venues have created exhibitions on LGBT history.
There’s a fair amount of information in this post – I’ve split it into contents below so you can skip easily to a particular section if needed. However if you go from start to finish you’ll get a much clearer timeline; the highlights of queer history picked out from each exhibition go in chronological order.
- Why is LGBT history so important?
- LGBT exhibitions in London for summer 2017
- Learning more about LGBT history
Why is LGBT history so important?
Stepping back for a moment, it’s worth pointing out for anyone who hasn’t thought about it that LGBT history is particularly important when compared with other branches of historical interest. Most communities have a shared history passed down through families and locality, but the LGBT+ community transcends family and location. Not only is it more difficult to pass down history to future generations, the queer community has so often been repressed that countless pieces of historical evidence have been destroyed (or never recorded to start with) to ensure safety. E. M. Forster spoke of a “great unrecorded history”. That makes the artefacts which have survived even more precious.
Now consider that an apparent lack of any history is only going to increase the feelings of isolation so common in LGBT youth. It is therefore vitally important that what history exists should be preserved and shared for all to discover. It is difficult to explain to someone who has never been in that situation just how validating it is to discover snippets of queer history like the the Ladies of Llangollen; two women who ran away with each other in 1778 and lived happily ever after for 50 years (see below for more info!).
Outside of the LGBT+ community, spreading knowledge can only be a good thing. Ignorance is what leads to fear and persecution. Ignorance is why being gay can end in a death sentence in many countries around the world. Of course this does require some buy-in – at the British Museum’s LGBT exhibition, I saw a woman walk partway into the room, stop, then walk out again shaking her head. There’s little that can be done about people not willing to even try and learn, but for those slightly more open it can be enough to make them question assumptions they didn’t even realise they had.
Queer folk didn’t pop up like daisies in the 60s. We have existed in the millions since the beginning of time – gay, lesbian, trans, genderqueer, ace, bi – every letter of that LGBTQQIAAP acronym and more. The language might be new, but the people behind it are not. We have our own history and uncovering it is a fascinating story of a fight for recognition – a fight to not just survive, but exist authentically – across the centuries. This summer, multiple LGBT exhibitions in London are putting the spotlight on that history.
Read on for a full guide to four (almost five) LGBT exhibitions in London – where to find them, how to visit and a timeline featuring highlights of queer history collated from each!
LGBT exhibitions in London for summer 2017
Desire, Love, Identity: Exploring LGBTQ histories #LGBTQ_BM
Great Russell St, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 3DG
What is the Desire, love, identity exhibition at the British Museum?
Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories is a self-guided trail of LGBT history that can be followed throughout the British Museum’s collections. Purple and orange display panels are set up alongside 14 artefacts explaining how they are significant to LGBT history. The trail was based on the book A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across the World by Richard B Parkinson and ranges from a clay panel of Ishtar (a Mesopotamian goddess with the power to assign gender identity) from 1800 BCE, through to a 20th century ungendered Malian N’domo mask. There is also a dedicated exhibit room with a collection of LGBT history across two millennia on the top floor.
Highlights of LGBT history from the British Museum’s Desire, Love, identity Exhibition
The Epic of Gilgamesh, 1800 BCE
The Gilgamesh stories from ancient Mesopotamia are famous around the world, but did you know that King Gilgamesh had a prophetic dream that a ‘strong partner will come to you… you will love him as a wife‘? That partner was a wild man named Enkidu, and the two had adventures including killing a demon called Humbaba (pictured above).
Ancient Greek all-male drinking parties, 540 BCE
Did you know the British Museum once had a Secret Museum? The Ancient Greeks weren’t shy about what they depicted on their pottery, and items like the above were not considered appropriate for public display. In Ancient Greece but particularly Athens, sexual relationships between men (within specific age boundaries – older and younger men) were expected and even celebrated.
The Ladies of Llangollen, late 1700s CE
As promised above! Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler were born in the mid 1700s and ran away from their aristocratic lives together in 1780. They moved from Ireland to north Wales and lived happily there for 50 years, acquiring celebrity-like status by challenging conventions of the time. The chocolate cups on display were from their estate, with a view of their house on one side and their entwined initials on the other.
Visiting the Desire, love, identity exhibition at the British Museum
When you enter the British Museum, go through to the main hall and stop off at the information desk for a map and a Desire, love, identity trail guide which lists the names and locations of all the artefacts. Don’t forget to stop off in Room 69a (top floor, next to Greek & Roman life) for an entire room on queer history. If you’re really focused on just the trail you could probably do it in 1.5 hours, but looking around the rest of the museum as well meant I was there for about 4 hours! (There’ll be another post soon on the history of writing at the British Museum.) Here’s some more items to look out for:
How much does the Desire, love, identity exhibition cost?
Both entrance to the museum and to the exhibit are free!
How can I get to the British Museum?
Tottenham Court Road or Holborn are the closest tube stops, or there are many buses that stop nearby at New Oxford Street, Gower Street or Southampton Row.
How long is the Desire, love, identity exhibition available?
The trail runs from 11th May to 15th October 2017, so as of this post there’s still 3 months to visit it.
Queer British Art 1861-1967
Millbank, Westminster, London SW1P 4RG
What is the Queer British Art exhibition at the Tate Britain?
The Tate Britain’s Queer British Art exhibition features works from 1861 (the year that the death penalty for sodomy was abolished) to 1967 (the year homosexuality was partially decriminalised) which are related to LGBTQ identities. It steps through 8 themed rooms:
- Coded Desires: Victorian art and its relation to queer subcultures – much could be expressed in art, so long as there was no suggestion it was acted on.
- Public Indecency: How sexuality and gender identity went public from the 1880s to 1920s, including Oscar Wilde’s trial (the door from his prison cell is on display) and queer novels of the time.
- Theatrical Types: The vibrant queer culture related to the theatre in the late 1800s and early 1900s, tainted by the secrecy among celebrities in same-sex relationships and censorship on the stage.
- Bloomsbury and Beyond: The Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers who “lived in squares and loved in triangles”, including Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, in the early 20th century.
Defying Conventions: Artists and writers who challenged gender norms, for example Laura Knight who depicted herself painting nude female models, or Claude Cahun who questioned the concept of gender binaries.
- Arcadia and Soho: Soho in the 1950s and 60s as a magnet for queer artists.
- Public / Private Lives: Contradictions of queer life in the 1950s and 60s, when the boundaries between public and private were vitally important to avoid jail.
- Francis Bacon and David Hockney: Two men with fearless artistic depictions of male same-sex desire in the 1960s; Bacon’s 1955 exhibition was investigated for obscenity.
Highlights of LGBT history from the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition
Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, painted by Simeon Solomon, 1864
[Tate Britain collection]
Simeon Solomon was a Jewish artist who is famous for his depictions of Jewish life and same-sex desire. In 1873 his career ended early when he was arrested and fined for homosexual offences; the next year he was arrested again and spent three months in prison. After this he stopped exhibiting and 1884 was admitted to a workhouse. He died in 1905 due to alcoholism complications.
The subject of this painting is the famed Sappho who lived on Greek island of Lesbos around 700 BCE. She wrote nine books of poetry, although little survived. The most complete poem asks for help from Aphrodite in her relationship with a woman.
Claude Cahun self-portraits, 1927-1939
[Jersey Heritage Collection]
Claude Cahun was born in Nantes, France in 1894 and was a prominent photographer, writer and artist. She directly challenged gender norms with androgynous self-portraits, featuring herself as a bodybuilder, skinhead, vampire and Japanese puppet. Her poetry also attacked gender roles. She settled in Jersey with her partner Suzanne Malherbe where they became involved in the resistance against Nazi occupation. She died in 1954 due to health problems after her arrest and maltreatment by Nazis.
“You could call her transgressive or you could call her a cross dressing Man Ray with surrealist tendencies.” – David Bowie, on Claude Cahun
When you reach the end of the exhibition, make sure you stop in the last room (marked as ‘interactive space’ on the map) to watch a few of the short films and read the notes written (and drawn) by previous visitors. One in particular stood out to me:
After a life of fear and unease, today I was able to hold my partner’s hand in public.
Visiting the Queer British Art exhibition at the Tate Britain
Go past the information desks and down the flight of steps to the basement. Continue on through to the back until you find a desk where you can collect or buy tickets and pick up the LGBT exhibition booklet. Your ticket will be scanned at the door just beyond that. There is no photography within the exhibition and it takes around 1-2 hours to pass through all the rooms.
How much does the Queer British Art exhibition cost?
Entrance to the Tate Britain is free, but the Queer British Art exhibition is £15 to enter. You can book this in advance on their website. A curator-led tour will be run by Eleanor Jones on the 8th September 2017 at 6:30pm; tickets for this are £20.
How can I get to the Tate Britain?
The Tate Britain is on Millbank, with Pimlico and Vauxhall the nearest tube stations. From Paddington station, catch the 87 bus and get off at Millbank. It’s also a nice walk along the banks of the Thames and through Victoria Tower Gardens if you want to walk south from the Houses of Parliament.
How long is the Queer British Art exhibition available?
5th April – 1st October 2017.
Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty #BLGayUK
96 Euston Rd, Kings Cross, London NW1 2DB
What is the Gay UK exhibition at the British Library?
The British Library’s Gay UK exhibition covers LGBT history in the UK from 1895 (the trial of Oscar Wilde) to the present. It’s a small exhibition but there’s plenty to take in, from oral history to videos to documents and posters.
Highlights of LGBT history from the British Library’s Gay UK exhibition
Wolfenden Report, 1957
The Wolfenden Report is critical to LGBT history in the UK. Officially titled the Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, the Wolfenden Report was commissioned by the government and went against common prejudices of the time to recommend that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence”. This eventually led to the Sexual Offences Act being passed a decade later, decriminalising homosexuality.
Gay Liberation Front UK demands, 1971
The Gay Liberation Front had its first meeting in the UK in 1970 following its formation in New York after the Stonewall riots of 1969. Their manifesto was published a year later, containing these demands. 40 years later most, but not all, have now been met. Discrimination and police harassment is illegal, homosexuality is no longer treated as a disease and the age of consent has been lowered. However the demands for equal sex ed in schools and gay people feeling free to hold hands and kiss in public are not quite done with yet.
Pits and Perverts concert, 1984
If you’ve watched the film Pride you’ll know exactly what this poster is about. In 1984 the group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners set up a benefit concert called ‘Pits and Perverts’ to support miners in south Wales during their strike against Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners raised £20,000 in total for Welsh mining communities, which in turn led to miner support at the 1985 Pride parade in London and support for LGBT rights enshrined in the Labour party.
A full archive of the group’s work is available at the People’s History Museum in Manchester.
Visiting the Gay UK exhibition at the British Library
Head in through the main entrance and go up the steps. Just before you reach the King’s Library you’ll find the exhibition – start on the right and work your way through. It’ll take you 30 minutes to an hour. The British Library is also hosting a series of events over the summer, such as an evening exploring Alan Turing’s life and a panel discussion on Queer London.
How much does the Gay UK exhibition cost?
Free to enter the British Library and the exhibition!
How can I get to the British Library?
The British Library is right next to King’s Cross, St. Pancras and London Euston train stations, all of which have tube stations as well as train links across the country.
How long is the Gay UK exhibition available?
2nd June – 19th September 2017. This is the one that ends soonest (to be replaced by a Harry Potter exhibition which I’m also quite excited for), so get on it!
In Visible Ink: Tracing LGBT+ stories at the NT
Upper Ground, South Bank, London SE1 9PX
What is the In Visible Ink exhibition at the National Theatre?
The National Theatre’s In Visible Ink exhibition is the smallest of the four LGBT exhibitions in this post. It is intended to mark 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality and 25 years since Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes was first performed at the National Theatre. A timeline of 25 years of LGBT history has been set up, featuring politically & socially important events alongside recollections from National Theatre staff.
Highlights of LGBT history from the National Theatre’s In Visible Ink exhibition
Soho gay pub bombed, 1999
On 30th April 1999, a neo-Nazi trying to stir up racism and homophobia planted a nail bomb in the Admiral Duncan gay pub in Soho, London. Andrea Dykes (27), Nik Moore (31) and John Light (32) were killed, with 80 others injured. Following the attack the Met Police Assistant Commissioner established a crime scene van to gather statements staffed entirely by gay and lesbian police officers. This marked a start in improved relationships between the police and LGBT+ community in London.
Equal marriage legalised in England, Wales & Scotland, 2014
Although civil partnerships have been available for same-sex couples since 2004, it was only three years ago that the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 came into force, allowing the first same-sex marriages to take place in England and Wales. 395 MPs voted for the Act, with 170 voting against. Scotland followed suit in 2014, however same-sex marriage is still not permitted in Northern Ireland. This is due to the Democratic Unionist Party (the one currently in bed with the Conservative government) abusing its ability to veto legislation, despite majority support within Northern Ireland.
Visiting the In Visible Ink exhibition at the National Theatre
The In Visible Ink exhibition is in the Lyttelton Lounge. Go through the foyer, to the right and up the stairs. The exhibition is all along one wall. You’ll need to pick up a pair of old 3D style glasses from the introduction board to read everything, or take one of the available booklets if you’re not so keen on the glasses.
There were also several talks and discussions for Pride but these have now finished. However Angels in America, a 2-part play by Tony Kushner, is currently performing (and broadcasting to cinemas from 20th July). It focuses on a gay couple and AIDS in 1980s Manhattan.
How much does the In Visible Ink exhibition cost?
How can I get to the National Theatre?
The National Theatre is on the Southbank, next to Waterloo Bridge and walking distance from many central London attractions. The nearest tube stations are Waterloo, Southwark or Embankment, or get any bus which crosses Waterloo Bridge.
How long is the In Visible Ink exhibition available?
23rd June – 21st September 2017. Angels in America is performing until 19th August 2017.
Pride in London parade
Oxford Circus to Trafalgar Square
The ultimate LGBT exhibition of the here and now! Of course it’s already passed for this year, but here’s a few photos from the 2017 parade to whet your appetite for next year. And never forget that Pride is inextricably linked with LGBT history: the first Pride was a riot, at the Stonewall Inn in 1969.
Learning more about LGBT history
There are many places to learn more about LGBT history in the UK and beyond – these links are just a few pointing you to other sites to explore:
- Prejudice and Pride: Exploring LGBTQ history at National Trust places (National Trust)
- Pride of Place: England’s LGBTQ heritage (Historic England)
- London Pride: LGBTQ Stories from History (English Heritage)
- Out in the Museum (Victoria & Albert Museum)
- 10 LGBT Museums and Archives Preserving Our History
- Why LGBTQ historic sites matter (US National Park Service)
- Same-sex desire & gender identity online collection (British Museum)
LGBT History Month is in February every year so there are often special exhibitions on then. I’ll be posting more LGBT history that I couldn’t fit into this post on my tumblr under the queer history tag – check it out occasionally or follow to see it all. You can also learn more about LGBT history from the books, theatre and film mentioned in this post:
Disclaimer: These are affiliate links, meaning I earn a small percentage of any sale if you click through to buy, to support the running costs of this website.
LGBT history is vast and varied, but evidence is scattered throughout the centuries. Visit these LGBT exhibitions in London while you can – all will be gone by the end of October. It’s a shame that with so little easy access to LGBT history that it’s often hidden away or only available during special exhibitions. Hopefully an LGBT museum in London will emerge soon (sign the petition!), but until that point immerse yourself in what queer history is available! Research online, hunt out whatever is in museums, teach others, and never forget that the LGBT+ community is as old as humanity.
Now – tell me what I’ve missed! What LBGT history sites should I visit next, in the UK or further afield? What’s your favourite event in LGBT history? Tell me in the comments, or hit up my askbox on tumblr for further discussions! I’d love to hear from you 🙂
And finally, if you learnt something or found this post helpful please share! Spread the knowledge! 😀