The century of queer Britain you didn't learn about in school
From personal memories of the HIV crisis to Oscar Wilde's jail cell, discover the exhibition showcasing LGBTQIA+ history in the UK
image Rahil Ahmad
words Megan Wallace
In 2021, it was announced that Scotland would be the first country in the world to make the teaching of LGBTQIA+ history in schools compulsory. This is great news for Scotland but, for most people across the UK, education about queer history and culture is still greatly lacking. As a result, many queer people are currently growing up without easy access to their forebears or an extensive understanding of the struggles that their communities have gone through over time, as well as the many battles they have won.
In a bid to counteract some of this cultural amnesia, the museum Queer Britain opened its doors in London’s King’s Cross at the beginning of this year. As the UK’s first dedicated, national LGBTQIA+ museum it aims to provide a physical space to document the realities, culture and history of being queer in the UK.
Starting its programming off with a bang, it launched its first exhibition in July: an exploration of 100 years of queer life in the UK. Titled We Are Queer Britain, it explores different LBGTQIA+ histories through story-telling and significant mementos. From personal memories of the HIV crisis to Oscar Wilde's jail cell, the realities of marginalised LGBTQIA+ people as well as tales of joy, it’s a unique look into the stories that have led the way for contemporary queer life today.
To find out more about expanding ideas of “Britishness” and the key items to look out for, we spoke to the exhibition’s curator, Dawn Hoskin.
How do you think Queer Britain as an institution is changing the UK cultural scene?
Hoskin: I think it is crucially positioning LGBTQIA+ histories as important, insightful, varied and therefore deserving of a focused permanent home – where these histories and objects are suitably valued and presented to a high quality, centre-stage.
Queer Britain have already been developing a strong supportive network across a number of big and small institutions, groups and individuals. They are also importantly demonstrating a genuine openness as to how it will evolve in relation to what may best support communities – looking to collaborate, co-curate etc. and be able to respond quickly to situations when needed.
What was the creative jumping off point for this exhibition?
Hoskin: Queer Britain’s first exhibition We Are Queer Britain!: 50 years, 50 voices aims to celebrate the range of contributions by individual and groups throughout these five decades. It also recognises the legacy of longer histories that continue to influence and inspire.
The 1972 first Pride event in London was a key moment of celebratory and defiant visibility in the face of homophobic society. Fifty years later, the opening of the UK’s first LGBTQIA+ Museum is a similarly momentous event. We took advantage of this fortuitous timing and decided to use these dates as clear anchor points for the exhibition.
We knew we could only scratch the surface of the vast, rich, varied, intersecting and complex histories of LGBTQIA+ experiences in Britain, but looked to offer a queer cornucopia that provided what I called signposts and seeds. The signposts raised awareness of certain experiences, events or groups and indicated where visitors could find out more if interested. The seeds were ideas and subjects that could be propagated and grow in subsequent exhibitions and programming.
What are some of the standout pieces from the exhibition?
Hoskin: In many ways the power is in the collective, colourful presence of all the objects together but some key objects that I feel have a particular powerful presence include:
Oscar Wilde’s prison door from Reading Gaol, kindly on loan from the National Justice Museum. In 1895 Oscar Wilde was imprisoned with hard labour on the charge of gross indecency. Behind this cell door he wrote De Profundis [a letter he wrote to lover Lord Alfred Douglas]. The door's solid physicality reminds you that his experience was not just a story in a book and I think its functionality, almost mundanity, gives it an extra emotional punch. It is symbolic in the space, casting a shadow of an inherited fear or threat of oppression by the legal system and society. But you can turn away from it to be greeted by a room full of queer activity and creativity.
One of the Switchboard logbooks from 1987, showing entries noting callers' fears and concerns in the midst of the HIV crisis. We have paired this with a rotary telephone where visitors can listen to memories of Switchboard volunteers and those who called them. The telephone makes this a very direct, personal and intimate way of literally hearing these stories.
A rainbow khimar hijab, lent by Faizan, the co-founder of IMAAN. It is displayed alongside a camouflage shalwar kameez and a Palestinian keffiyeh, both based on traditional south Asian and Arab dress with a queer, punk twist. These outfits were worn at Pride in 2005 and Faizan has described how, during the march, "we were jeered by gay Islamophobes and in defiance we gave a speech to 10,000 people at Trafalgar Square" and a soundscape of this speech accompanies the display. The work is an important reminder for LGBTQ+ communities and individuals to look within and question just how accepting and supportive they are.
How does We Are Queer Britain! expand dominant notions of queer British history?
Hoskin: We made efforts to include representation of all elements of the UK. Although many key events and protests took place in London, we aimed to include more reference and signposts to activities happening across the UK.
Often [queer] histories are shared primarily by repeating homophobic and transphobic media headlines, but we wanted to show how key events and experiences can be shared in other ways. Whilst people may be familiar with the visuals of protests, we also looked to include examples of less visible but equally important activism, through newsletters, conferences and other political campaigning.
And, finally, while restrictive laws have impacted on LGBTQIA+ people for years, we also wanted to expand beyond a history of legal legislation and included depictions of queer joy, love and intimacy.
How does the exhibition interact with ideas of “Britishness”?
Dawn Hoskin: We haven’t looked to define or depict a particular take on "Britishness: but did make a conscious effort to avoid repeating the often-assumed whiteness of it, or the notion that London represents the whole UK. We didn’t create artificial rules as to who or what was "sufficiently" English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh. Instead we approached it more as thinking of the UK as a place where different people have experienced life as LGBTQIA+ individuals and which has influenced, and been influenced by, many countries and cultures. This included making reference to the legacy of homophobic British colonial laws that remain in place in many countries.
What has the reaction from the public been?
**Dawn Hoskin:**Overwhelmingly positive. There seems to be a general enthusiasm for seeing so many objects and stories together, showing the variety of what makes up our LGBTQIA+ histories and identities – and also an excitement for what is yet to come.
I think an important factor is the team and the physical space: Queer Britain is a free, accessible and welcoming space. I’ve heard a number of comments about the power and joy of simply being able to be physically present in a space surrounded by others who are interested in LGBTQIA+ histories.
Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
We Are Queer Britain is now open and runs until Spring 2023.