Documenting LGBT history across the UK

Collecting, reflecting

a dense colourful picture of many badges bearing varied gay rights slogans

Just a selection of the campaign badges held by the Lesbian and Gay Newsmedia Archive (with thanks to Bishopsgate Institute for the image)

We’re now well into LGBT history month, celebrated by The National Archives and many other heritage organisations and communities across the country. It seems like a good moment to reflect on how LGBT archives appear in the historical record, without which LGBT history month couldn’t exist.

Older records can be really problematic for studying LGBT history, and seem almost to conspire to hide histories rather than to reveal. Where a community was of necessity trying to avoid the eye of the authorities, there’s relatively little in the official records, and when it does exist, it’s often a negative portrayal. Jenni’s blog earlier in the month outlined what The National Archives is trying to do about that, revealing hidden histories and bringing together information on LGBT records so that it is easier to find.

High street scene with shoppers and protestors, including a prominent Glad to Be Gay banner

High street scene with shoppers and protestors (image from Bishopsgate Institute’s LAGNA archive)

We are not alone in aiming to improve the representation of LGBT communities in heritage, of course, as the 10th annual LGBT History, Archives and Culture Conference showed this past Saturday. Outside the government record, more positive portrayals of LGBT life can readily be found – but  the community is often under-represented in their local archive contexts. Groups that have had every reason to feel outside the mainstream have understandably often shied away from depositing their records with formal archives like those run by local authorities. That is changing, and for the first time we are hoping that in 2012 our annual survey of archive collecting – Accessions to Repositories – will show enough LGBT material coming into publicly accessible UK archives that we can create a themed LGBT history digest to assist future researchers. It’s early days for this year’s survey, but we’ve already seen important acquisitions like the records of Herefordshire and Worcestershire Lesbian and Gay Switchboard arriving at Worcestershire Archives and Archaeology, and papers relating to the Pride in Our Past project adding to the Plymouth LGBT Archive at Plymouth and West Devon Record Office.

There are also hugely important dedicated LGBT archives: including the Hall Carpenter, maintained in partnership with LSE; the Lesbian and Gay Newsmedia Archive at Bishopsgate Institute; and the Lesbian Archive at Glasgow Women’s Library. Many other LGBT groups continue to maintain and where possible offer research access to their own records. These dedicated, community-owned archives preserve much that would otherwise have already been lost.

One factor that hinders preserving LGBT history for the future is that classic institutional archives – committee minutes, accounts, official publications – don’t give a rich picture of people’s experiences and personal histories. The Voluntary Action History Society rightly say in their own blog for this month that much of what makes the LGBT community into a community comes from voluntary action, instead of official structures. That doesn’t necessarily lead to a lot of traditional paperwork. The records that are most readily collected may tell us the least, especially about capturing the experience of daily life which is the essence of community history. Oral history has therefore been a crucial part of developing LGBT history resources. Projects like Mapping My Journey, which is a Heritage Lottery funded project to collect memories of the trans community, are a key way of documenting such otherwise silent experiences, and letting authentic voices speak to history.

There’s no perfect single answer to documenting the lives of complex, diverse cultural communities, of course. But it’s good to see more and more archives are doing their bit to uncover hidden histories with LGBT source guides – like these at Surrey Heritage, London Metropolitan Archives, Manchester Archives and Lancashire Archives. Glamorgan Archives has also created a YouTube video where their head of service Susan Edwards explains the importance of LGBT History Month Cymru to the archives. I hope this time next year there will be much more to report from archive services around the country.

9 comments

  1. alison-cullingford says:

    Thanks Melinda! I think this is a great intro to the resources available and the challenges of developing and promoting collections in this area. I’m delighted to see the National Archives writing about this. The University of Bradford specialises in collecting archives of peace campaigners and we’ve found that there is often overlap with other campaigns such as LGBT. This is most notable in the early/mid 1980s but we have a fascinating example from the late 50s: CND pioneers Jacquetta Hawkes and J.B. Priestley were also active supporters of the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform. I told these stories in a recent blog post: http://specialcollectionsbradford.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/images-of-the-month-from-problem-to-pride-lesbian-and-gay-activists-in-the-archives/

    1. Melinda Haunton says:

      Thanks Alison, I’m glad you could link this fascinating blog here!

  2. Katie Birkwood says:

    Thanks for this post. As Alison says, it’s a great introduction to the resources available and the difficulties in locating documents. It’s brilliant that TNA is actively promoting these aspects of its collections.

    1. Melinda Haunton says:

      Thanks Katie – really happy to be able to support LGBT history month.

  3. Liz Rees says:

    Lots more work to do in this area both in ensuring modern materials (including non-traditional forms of records) are preserved and in following up clues in older records (see my blog post http://www.twmuseums.org.uk/engage/blog/hidden-history-lgbt-month/ for example)

    1. Melinda Haunton says:

      Thanks for the link Liz! (And I managed to lose a para in the above in posting, which we’ll reinstate soon, and underlines other good work going on.)

  4. […] has been discussed on this blog before, one of the largest difficulties in researching LGBT history is that before the mid-20th century, […]

  5. Nicholas Billingham says:

    You may be interested to know that a book is being published this month (March 2015) about the beginnings of modern lesbian and gay campaigning covering the 1960s and early 1970s in England and Wales. It is based on extensive interviews, research in local newspapers and the records of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE). CHE began as the North West branch of the Homosexual Law Reform Society which held its first open meeting in Church House Manchester in October 1964. It subsequently grew into a nationwide organisation of around 5000 members and over 100 local groups which provided places for lesbians and gay men to meet for support and campaigning.
    The book is called “Amiable Warriors – volume 1 A Space to Breathe” by Peter Scott-Presland published by Paradise Press.
    Anyone interested can find further details on the website below.
    http://www.amiable-warriors.uk/.

    Nick Billingham

    1. Peter Scott-Presland says:

      Jack Priestley and Jacquetta Hawkes are featured in Chapter 1 of Amiable Warriors, Volume 1. It is worth saying, I think, that although the Homosexual Law Reform Society presented itself as the Great and Good (presumed heterosexual) working charitably for those poor benighted homosexuals, many of them had a personal interest in the subject. The Priestleys had, I believe, (according to broadcaster Ray Gosling) a gay son, Max, and Mrs Priestley had herself strong bisexual tendencies, as shown in her autobiography ‘A Quest for Love’. I have tried to run down some of his journalistic writing on homosexuality in the popular press in the 1940s, but without success; it would be good to know whether any is in the Bradford archive.

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