50 years after the Sexual Offences Act 1967 partially decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales, the British Library'sGay UK: Love, Law and Liberty exhibition tells a story of love, legislative change and the battles for equality sought by gay men and women in the UK.
When Oscar Wilde went to trial for 'committing acts of gross indecency with male persons' in 1895, it was the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 and his written work that were used against him. In The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), the creator of the portrait, Basil, shares his feelings with Dorian: 'You became to me the visible incarnation of that unseen ideal whose memory haunts us artists like an exquisite dream. I worshipped you. I grew jealous of everyone to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you.' Even before gay people had 'a word' for themselves, they had words to articulate themselves. The law under which Oscar Wilde was prosecuted remained in place until 1967.
Gay people, or people attracted to their own sex, have existed throughout time. Snatched sentences, which affirmed and reassured that 'others live, feel and exist like me', became lifelines. In The Well of Loneliness (1928), Radclyffe Hall wrote 'You're neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad; you're as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else; only you're unexplained as yet -- you've not got your niche in creation.' Like Wilde's trial, when Hall was prosecuted for obscenity, based on her novel's depiction of female sexuality, it was the word that was used against the author.
Language is the most obvious challenge when curating a contemporary exhibition. The term 'gay' used in the title of the exhibition is certainly not the 'gay' envisaged by all, but stories always need beginnings.
In the UK, the word gay was established as an identity and claimed by people attracted to their own sex with the publishing of the Gay Liberation Front Manifesto in early 1971. Since the birth of the internet and increase of consumable digital technologies, new cultures and identities have been spawned. Young gay people now have a world of experience and opinion at their fingertips. However, the objects on display in Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty were the original keys to finding yourself. You would need a copy of Gay News (1972 - 1983) or Sappho (1972 - 1981) to find other gay people, the locations of bars and clubs, and to feel less alone.
It's hard to fathom, even now in the first few decades of our new digitally embedded culture, the talismanic quality that these objects had and continue to have. The Bronski Beat single Small Town Boy, about a gay teen having to leave his home town and move to a city to be himself, encapsulates this. Reaching number 3 in the charts in 1984, during a decade when UK pop culture was a flowering of angst towards the situation faced by a generation of young gay people who came of age during the advent of HIV, AIDS and oppressive social attitudes. 7-inch singles, and the songs they capture in plastic, were lifelines to isolated gay people everywhere, assuring them that they were not alone.
It's not just the items themselves that are important, but the personal thoughts and feelings about being gay that are captured within them. Kenneth Williams became a household name in the 1960s with his camp character Sandy, in the hugely popular radio program Round the Horne. In his diary, writing about his close friend and writer Joe Orton's death in 1967, Williams tells of the difficult, painful and repressed lives that many gay people lived in the UK. Yet, the actions of early gay rights activists in the Homosexual Law Reform Society and The Albany Trust, founded in 1958, attest to other voices and ways of living.
Personal accounts link us directly to the struggles that gay people have lived through. Hearing Ian McKellen 'coming out' on BBC Radio in 1988 to highlight that Clause 28, a central government act which stated homosexuality could not 'be promoted' by local authorities, was an affront to gay people like him. Clause 28 remained in force for 15 years, until 2003, and Prime Minister David Cameron publicly apologised for the legislation in 2009.
There are also lesser known stories, such as John Alcock recalling encounters with other gay soldiers during World War II, Tony Dyson discussing founding the Homosexual Law Reform Society and Diana Chapman explaining the reasons for making Arena Three (1963 - 1972), the first lesbian journal in the UK. These oral history recordings offer insights into the individuals that were brave enough to be themselves when everything in mainstream society was telling them that they were wrong, and had no place. It is memory, thought and feelings combined and articulated by the individual that lived the experience, the time.
Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty offers a small selection of objects and recordings from the vast collections held at the British Library, but I hope it will encourage others, from across the spectrum of sexual orientation and identity, to explore the Library's collections and find their own stories.Suggest a correction