By: Owen Jones/UK Guardian
Queer Britain in north London is a bold attempt to celebrate queer history in all of its forms. At a time when the community is under attack, we need it more than ever.
It is little over half a century since homosexuality was partially decriminalized in England and Wales, and it’s a period defined by both progress and trauma. When Lord Arran co-sponsored the bill that ended the total criminalization of same-sex relations between men – after his gay brother had killed himself – his preamble was bleak. “Lest the opponents of the new bill think that a new freedom, a new privileged class has been created,” he declared. “Let me remind them that no amount of legislation will prevent homosexuals from being the subject of dislike and derision, or at best of pity,”
After the Sexual Offences Act was passed in 1967, convictions of gay men for gross indecency actually increased, and gay people were still characterized as would-be sexual predators and threats to children. The 1980s HIV/Aids pandemic, ravaged a generation of gay and bisexual men, attitudes towards gay people hardened and a moral panic culminated in the passing of section 28, banning the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools: the first anti-gay legislation passed since 1885. Nevertheless, in this period LGBTQ+ people flourished culturally and artistically, while from the 90s onwards, hostile public attitudes crumbled precipitously as anti-gay laws were struck from statute books.
Yet as a reminder that progress is far from linear, Britain is in the grip of another moral panic, this time directed at transgender people. And while today’s LGBTQ+ communities are more united in defiance of government policy that any time since section 28 (more than 80 organizations pulled out of a government conference over its refusal to ban trans conversion “therapy”), Stonewall, the country’s main LGBTQ+ civil rights organization, finds itself under siege, while homophobic and transphobic hate crimes are surging.
So this really is an opportune moment to launch what is, astonishingly, Britain’s first ever national LGBTQ+ museum, established by the charity Queer Britain. Opening its doors to the public on 5 May, the space is ideally situated in King’s Cross, both for Londoners and for those visiting the capital by rail. Its opening is an important milestone for a minority that has only enjoyed widespread public acceptance and significant legal protections for the briefest of periods, and is, in a sense, still blinking, slightly dazed, in the light.
Launching a museum is an ambitious endeavour, and Queer Britain has come together with impressive speed. In 2017, its director Joseph Galliano visited the Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain and “realised you could create a blockbuster exhibition around queer subjects”. As a former editor of Gay Times, he tapped into his extensive connections with LGBTQ+ organisations and queer activists and artists, and when he spoke to potential funders, Galliano met constant astonishment that such a museum did not already exist or even been attempted in its own right before. Relationships were quickly built with the culture sector – such as the Tate and National Trust – as well as partnerships with the likes of M&C Saatchi “to help us develop our strategic outlook”. Thanks to the efforts of its patron ambassador Carolyn Ward donations began to pour in. Far from the national national lockdowns proving an obstacle, the inevitable shift to digital events helped: it was easier to get 500 people on a Zoom call than crammed into a room.
“Our donors stood by us,” says Gallianio, while a membership system allowed for people to contribute what they could afford: whether it be a pound or £100 a month. “You see people welling up as you’re talking about the museum and the vision of the museum,” he says with no little pride. “When I started seeing that happen, that was the moment that made me step back and think: OK, this is something I’ve got to really commit to making happen and commit to making it as ambitious as possible.”
One of the key tests of this museum is representation: LGBTQ+ spaces remain dominated by white, middle-class cis men (guilty as charged!). The trustees and advisory board reflect a laudable attempt to counter that with an impressive A-team of LGBTQ+ luminaries, such as the pioneering lesbian activist Lisa Power, Huddersfield-born Black artist and curator Ajamu X, Liv Little – founder of gal-dem, the magazine for women and non-binary people of colour – and the indefatigable trans author Christine Burns. As Galliano, ushers me into the museum – for now, three rooms of photographs serving as a holding pattern before its big summer exhibition in July – the commitment to that mission is commendably clear: queer families of colour, all conveying joy and love, adorn the walls. Why is this so important? Because the oppressed can be oppressors, too; research by Stonewall in 2018 found around half of Black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBTQ+ people suffered racial discrimination from local LGBTQ+ networks, rising to 61% among Black LGBTQ+ people.
“We built a board to make sure that there’s proper leadership structures that are diverse in themselves, as well as bringing in more skills that we need,” says Galliano. Uplifting underrepresented sections of the community is “absolutely written into the DNA”, with its first project being an oral history collection on those groups, accompanied by focus groups with representation from LGBTQ+ people with different and often intersecting identities.
“This will not be easy if we’re to truly transcend tokenism,” the trustee and Black photographer Robert Taylor tells me, “but I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen so far.” It’s so easy to be “unconsciously excluding”, he says, and he wants to “keep an eye out for comfortable unconscious assumptions about what we’re doing, how and for whom.” Or, as Lisa Power tactfully puts it: “We love our cis white men but they’re part of a bigger story.”
Britain’s often tortured struggle for LGBTQ+ rights is reflected in many of the photographs, such as the flamboyantly dressed yet straight Jewish Labour MP Leo Abse, who successfully pushed for the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality from the backbenches. Maureen Colquhoun – the first openly lesbian MP who died last year – defiantly holds a placard emblazoned with “THE MPS MUST COME OUT”, while it’s difficult not to feel a pang of sadness at a photo of Justin Fashanu flexing his muscles: he was, of course, Britain’s first and still only out gay male professional footballer who killed himself in 1998. Such a collection would not be complete without that unlikeliest of LGBTQ+ allies, Diana, Princess of Wales, who helped upend the stigma of Aids, and is pictured lovingly touching the hand of an HIV patient.
This is a museum with huge potential. It includes space for events which – given that, unlike other major western capitals, London lacks a permanent LGBTQ+ community space – could make it a vital hub. There are, however, problems that the museum surely needs to interrogate in advance of the summer exhibition. One photograph, for example, features a Metropolitan police officer joyfully high-fiving a London Pride attender. That same police force has been criticised as institutionally homophobic by the families of the four men murdered by Stephen Port over its failure to investigate the so-called “Grindr killer”. Is the picture really appropriate, I ask Galliano. There’s a pause which seems to last a lifetime. “I think you make a good point, which I’d like to have a more considered answer for,” he tells me. “There’s a fuck of a lot to do in getting something like this set up, and it’s a lot of spinning plates, and the thing is you get some of them wrong.”
There is a lack of expression, so far, of queer love, too – of a non-familial sort, anyway – and sexuality, with the exception of a picture of the lower torsos of two kilted men holding hands. This is a family space, of course, and no one reasonable would expect full-frontal nudity, but it’s striking that the walls of a queer east London bar such as Dalston Superstore feature more challenging images about such important elements of the LGBTQ+ experience. It should be hoped, too, that the upcoming summer exhibition features more images of struggle: there are allusions, such as a Black woman holding a “LESBIAN AND GAY PRIDE ’83” balloon, but there are so many joyous moments to celebrate that are in danger of being forgotten by younger LGBTQ+ generations, such as the lesbian activists who abseiled into the House of Lords or stormed the Six O’Clock News to protest against section 28. “Wait for the summer exhibition,” says Galliano. Where I disagree with Galliano, though, is when he suggests “it’s very easy to kind of go ‘struggle, victimhood, difficulty’”: these moments should surely be seen as courageous acts of agency which spurred on change.
Given the full-frontal offensive against trans people it is welcome to see representation, including two portraits of trans people from award-winning photographer Allie Crewe’s You Brought Your Own Light collection. “As a trans person myself I am always surprised that the rights won by LGBTQ+ communities to date were very much won with trans siblings in the day-to-day struggles and fights from the outset,” says trustee and businessperson Antonia Belcher, “yet that representation has not materialised the same recognition for trans people – hardly fair.” She fears the museum may not succeed in challenging entrenched attitudes among older Britons, but it will be “welcomed by younger generations, like my own children and grandchildren, who are naturally inclusive”.
So who is this museum for? “It’s for everyone!” says Anjum Mouj, trustee and board member of Imaan, the Muslim LGBTQ+ group. She wants LGBTQ+ and heterosexual people alike to visit, with parents taking their queer and straight children; and for the museum to look beyond Britain’s borders, in a world in which 69 nations and territories still criminalise same-sex relationships. In its first year, the museum hopes to attract 26,000 people through its doors. It is easy to be pernickety about ambitious and well-intentioned new projects – this one has been four years in the making – but any critiques should surely be about wishing this endeavour well. It will make mistakes, but with such commendable representation among its trustees and advisers, and a genuine commitment to listen to LGBTQ+ communities, there are huge grounds for optimism.
In the half-century since criminalisation of male homosexuality was partly repealed, Britain’s LGBTQ+ communities have made dramatic contributions to British culture and society, often while faced with tremendous adversity. We surely deserve our own museum to remind us how our rights were won – at huge cost and sacrifice – as well as showcasing how we have flourished.
Queen Britain is at 2 Granary Square, London, N1, and will open to the public on 5 May.