9 fab pics from the British Library gay history exhibition

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The British Library’s free new exhibition Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty opens today – Friday June 2 2017 – and I went along to check out the press show yesterday. (Handy location given the amount of time I spend in the BL slogging away on my PhD.)

Gay UK traces the story of British gayness from Oscar Wilde to the present day, using a broadly legalistic framework pivoting around the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised male homosexuality in England and Wales. It’s a welcome addition to the list of projects marking the Act’s fiftieth anniversary by major cultural institutions, including Tate Britain, the BBC and the National Theatre.

The exhibition is a whistle-stop survey that benefits from some extraordinary archival material. There’s a real frisson to seeing some of the actual documentation testifying to this history, from the 1890 volume of Lippincott’s magazine featuring the original, fruitier version of The Picture of Dorian Gray to editions of Gay News covering the paper’s 1977 prosecution for blasphemy.

Legal oppression is also evident in material around Radclyffe Hall’s controversial 1928 lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, the subject of legal pressure and literary satire. Other exhibits include Shelagh Delaney’s original 1958 script for A Taste of Honey and issues of groundbreaking 1970s lesbian magazine Arena Three.

Pop culture is represented through a splendid collection of 1980s single covers from Culture Club, Erasure and the like, and recent magazine covers showing gay as mainstream (Elton and David on Hello!, Prince William on Attitude). A 1994 Pink Directory, meanwhile, is a landmark of pre-internet gay consumerist identity.

There’s also some cracking audio footage, including Noel Coward singing his own song Mad About the Boy, Vita Sackville-West reading out letters from Virginia Woolf about creating the novel Orlando, and Mark Ashton addressing a meeting of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.

There’s a large amount of campaigning material, including OutRage! posters, and a new film by Dickie Beau interviewing a range of subjects about decriminalisation, among other video exhibits.

Perhaps inevitably for a fairly small exhibition, Gay UK leaves many stories out. There’s very little on queer nightlife, for instance. And Gay UK is not very intersectional. Although there’s a fair bit of lesbian history and a few items related to BAME experience, the exhibition remains predominantly centred around cis, white, able-bodied gay male identity.

It therefore partly reproduces some of the structures of erasure inherent in legal and archival discourses and practices that have made other queer bodies, identities and experiences harder to express or discover throughout British history.

Bisexuality gets minimal attention and trans identity is explicitly excluded as ‘distinct from’ identities based in sexuality – an arguable case on its own terms, though it then seems like a slap in the face to see transphobic writer Julie Burchill included on a panel in a supporting event. (Other events in the otherwise tempting line-up promise a broader look at queer and trans subjects.)

Gay UK has some conspicuous silences, then. But the fact of major institutions such as the British Library foregrounding key aspects of LGBTQ+ history should be welcomed, even as they are encouraged to cast a wider net in future. The exhibition is a fascinating and powerful overview of a history of oppression, liberation and ongoing struggle.

Here are nine items that particularly caught my eye…


1. The UK theatre censor’s advice on homosexual content, 1958

The year after the Wolfenden Report recommended decriminalisation of gay sex, the Lord Chamberlain – the UK theatre censor of the time – issued recommendations about the treatment of homosexuality on stage. These guidelines were a big improvement on previous terms, which more or less banned it altogether, but weren’t exactly radical: the word “pansy” was allowed but not “bugger”; PDAs were also out, as well as work that was “violently pro-homosexuality”.


2. Kenneth Williams reports his friend Joe Orton’s murder in his diary, 1967

Kenneth Williams’s diaries confirm his status as a sacred monster of post-war gay London. In 1967, less than a fortnight after the passage of the Sexual Offences Act, Williams’s friend the playwright Joe Orton was murdered by his lover Kenneth Halliwell. Here, Williams records his reaction: “I just want to cry.” (On the previous page, visible in the exhibition, Williams reports Orton complaining the day before of “having trouble with his dick + wants a good doctor”.)


3. The Gay Liberation Front demands, 1970

By 1970, more radical demands for gay equality had begun to take shape, with the Gay Liberation Front crucial to their articulation. Of their eight demands, less than half have become reality even today.


4. Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, 1983

This children’s book by Susanne Bösche about a girl with two dads became a flashpoint for the 1980s culture war around supposed gay corruption of youth (a long-running slur, as Gay UK makes clear). Although the book actually reached very few children, it was Exhibit A in the homophobic media and government scaremongering that led to Section 28, outlawing the “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities, including schools and libraries.


5. Bronski Beat, Smalltown Boy single cover, 1984

Bronski Beat’s single was an instant anthem of young gay alienation. Fab cover too. T-shirt, anyone?


6. Continuity and costume notes and Polaroids, My Beautiful Laundrette, 1985

Written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Stephen Frears, My Beautiful Laundrette was the working-class, gay, interracial London love story that stuck two fingers up at Thatcher’s Britain. Lucky for me, it was on Channel Four a few years later. Gordon Warnecke and Daniel Day-Lewis in the back room of the laundrette. Yum. These are continuity Polaroids from the shoot.


7. Government information leaflet about AIDS, 1987

The UK government wasn’t silent about AIDS, as the Reagan administration was in the US. But its hard-hitting public awareness campaign instilled the fear of God into a generation, making a powerful link between gay sex and death through iconography such as icebergs and tombstones.


8. Sarah Waters’s notes for Tipping the Velvet, published 1997

Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet was the preeminent lesbian novel of the 1990s, offering a picaresque survey of Victorian class, politics and culture with powerful contemporary resonance. In Waters’s original notes related to lead character Kitty, we see the author drawing together sex, social savvy and music-hall history.


9. Recent queer zines

Coming up to date, Gay UK notes that the struggle for equality and freedom goes on for LGBTQ+ people, including within the LGBTQ+ community itself. These zines highlight issues around race, class and gender presentation within the scene.

Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty runs at the British Library until 19 September 2017. Free entry.