Monday, 13 February 2017
OUTing The Past
My notes of an event at the National Archives on 11 February 2017
This year, The National Archives was one of the national hubs for the OUTing the Past: National LGBT History Festival. The speakers at this event were chosen to reflect the TNA’s vast collection (some 11-12 MILLION items are archived there).
Mark Dunton spoke first about the Sexual Offences Act, 1967, which came into force 50 years ago. This topic has been touched upon recently on this blog, but I was able to glean additional insights, thanks to Mark’s excellent talk.
He showed an article from The Sunday Pictorial on 25th May 1952 with a bold headline “Evil Men”. It was not talking about murderers or gangsters, but about homosexual men - whom the article equated with paedophiles, as was par for the course in those times.
The 1950s were a repressive time when homosexuals were at risk of blackmail and there were many high profile prosecutions, including that of Lord Montagu in 1954.
In 1958, the Homosexual Law Reform Society was set up, at least in part because it was clear that the Government had no intention of following the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report, published in September 1957.
Wolfenden report: http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item107413.html
In October 1965, an opinion poll (in The Daily Mail of all places) suggested that a large majority of respondents, while still of the view that homosexuals needed psychiatric or medical help, thought that they ought not to be made criminals.
The Sexual Offences Act 1967 was finally passed by a vote of 99-14 (at 5.44am, which may explain the low numbers) and received Royal Assent on 27th July 1967.
Mark noted that the requirement that homosexual acts should take place ‘in private’ was followed strictly by the Police and so prosecutions went on at similar rate as they had before that Act for some time.
In her talk, Sapphic Suffragettes: The key role of lesbians in the fight for Votes for Women, writer Hillary McCollum explored the impact and role of woman loving women in the Suffragette Movement. As always, lesbian history is even more difficult to uncover than gay male history, but she wove a fascinating story about the Pankhursts and their associates.
The Bodyguard were new to me, a group of women trained in jujitsu by Edith Garrud who provided security at rallies and helped suffragettes escape from difficult situations.
So too, Lilian Lenton who was repeatedly arrested for arson and underwent force feeding. Several times she escaped custody or arrest dressed as a man.
Dr Emma Vickers of Liverpool John Moores University spoke about the Dry Your Eyes, Princess exhibition shown last year at the Museum of Liverpool. It was based on her research into the experience of trans* veterans before, during and after life in the armed forces and photographs by Stephen King.
It was interesting to hear that, while the forces are currently very willing to show how supportive they now are, with a number of media-trained personnel able to tell their stories, they are much less willing to discuss previous, much less happy stories.
There followed a break, during which we were able to look at some of the LGBT relevant documents held at the Archive. Then there was a moving performance by some of the TNA’s staff based on the writings of Oscar Wilde during his imprisonment.
In Sex at Sea: Homosexuality and the Royal Navy in the Great War, Dr Laura Rowe of the University of Exeter discussed life at sea during the First World War, where men in the Navy in particular were in a very homosocial environment. She used the term ‘homosex’ to talk about same sex sexual activity between men in a confined environment who might well not be homosexual, but who had no other sexual outlet.
Much of her evidence is from a limited number of discipline cases and courts martial of what were effectively criminal offences. Interestingly, she had found that sexual activity between men of similar rank was frequently ignored, but where there was a large difference in rank or where Boy Seamen (who might be as young as 15) were involved matters were taken far more seriously. Indeed, in the latter instance, the Navy took a very paternalistic view and might treat the older participant very harshly.
She noted also that naval regulations in this area were extremely lengthy and complex and took the view that male rape was not possible. The idea was that no man would submit unwillingly to such disgusting practices.
The final talk was in many ways the most moving - so my notes are annoyingly scant. E-J Scott spoke about the Museum of Transology. This is an exhibition at the Fashion Space Gallery, running until 22nd April 2017. It is a display of trans artefacts of various kinds, provided by individual trans* people, who in some cases felt the exhibition was so important that they donated items of great personal significance.
E-J is hoping to find a place to hold this collection once the exhibition closes.