It’s A Sin

This month is LGBT+ History month and if like me you’ve watched It’s A Sin you will have laughed and cried as our very recent history was brought to life vividly by Russell T Davies and the exquisite cast. I found watching it painful, especially episode 3, but it probably cut me deeper because it is a period of history I lived through. In thinking about this week’s blog I once again felt I needed to ask someone else to compose it and I am delighted to say that the brilliant Dan Vo agreed to help me out. Dan is co-project manager of the Queer Heritage and Collections Network (supported by Art Fund) and I first met Dan a couple of years ago when I joined his queer history tour of the V&A Museum. Dan, over to you…

The It’s A Sin cast

I need to make a confession. I’ve not yet had a chance to watch It’s A Sin – yes I know, it truly is a sin! It’s been LGBT+ History Month and it’s been just simply too busy to get into the show, thankfully the month is almost coming to a close, so when March rolls and I find myself with more time as my duties as an LGBT+ History Month Patron will be over, I’m going to get the biggest tub of ice cream I can get, buy a big box of tissues and dive in. 

Preserving stories and memories has been part of my working practice long before I joined the museum sector almost a decade ago. From 2004-2010 I was a broadcaster and senior manager at an LGBTIQA+ radio station in Australia, the country’s first, called JOY 94.9. Founded in 1993, one of the reasons why we were given our licence to broadcast was in the early days we’d already started collecting stories from LGBTIQA+ listeners about their queer lives, coming out, and their place in society. Our first broadcast was on World AIDS Day in 1993, bringing the memorial ceremonies into people’s homes, and one of the most bittersweet moments was receiving a letter some weeks later from the friend of a man who had listened intently and had been deeply touched by the service. The letter went on to tell us he had died shortly after of HIV / AIDS but his friend wanted us to know just how important it had been for him to hear the reading out of names of those lost and he felt as if he had been able to show his respects – as if he had been there in person.

Here’s the catch, even though this is part of the oral tradition of the radio station, I have been displaced from my own tribe, the radio station where the story is a vital part of our folklore. The letter is in a folder in the station’s archive, but it will soon be moved to a different building and I will not know where to find it in the new premises. My connection to this story has faded, sadly, to the point where I have even forgotten the man’s name. As vivid as the emotion is as I tell you this story, even though it is one of the most important stories I had the privilege of receiving as a young man, I have lost some of the detail as I have become a not-so-young-anymore man. 

Our station developed some of the earliest community podcasts in the media sector in Australia, and it’s interesting now to reflect on the wealth of stories that came before we started to archive shows in this way. I was recently amused, horrified, delighted to hear one of my own shows, one I had produced that included a documentary within the programme, and revisiting it for the first time in over a decade I couldn’t help but spot the glaring flaws I made as an early editor, but also I delighted in how some of it was not too bad, if I say so myself. However, for the most part of my time at the station the technology was simply not there, and the bandwidth and memory storage was not affordable or accessible enough yet to preserve everything. Without the promise of a letter in an archive to check on and jog my memory, I can’t even start to recount the hundreds of thousands of hours of stories broadcast on the airwaves that have been lost to time.

Open Letters to Queer Britain promo video featuring Asifa Lahore

This brings me to a project I’m currently working on as part of the team at Queer Britain. We’ve been collecting letters as part of a project supported by Levi’s UK and the Post Office called #OpenLettersToQueerBritain. Throughout lockdown we’ve been inviting LGBTQ+ people to write letters to us to tell us about them, about their lives, about the world around them right now. Most importantly to give us an idea of their experience as a queer person today. I’m currently preparing some of the letters to be presented at the ICOM Working Internationally Conference so they’re in a red plastic folder beside me. They’re going to be discussed in a panel that will talk about the global research team that includes Justin Bengry at Goldsmiths Centre for Queer History and Molly Merriman at Kent State University one of the the social media influencers who helped support the campaign, Asifa Lahore who you can see in the video clip above. To quote Asifa’s final paragraph of her letter which in a bold serif font declares, “I am British, Pakistani, South Asian, Mulim, Transgender, Queer and Disabled. I want to live in a world where these labels mean nothing and everything”. The panel will be rounded off with CEO of Queer Britain Joseph Galliano and myself in the hot seat as chair. I’m going to ask each person to explain the value of having an archive of letters. By now you’re already aware of how I feel about an artifact such as a personally handwritten letter, but there is certainly power in looking at Asifa’s choice, for example, to put a capital letter at the start of each of their chosen characteristics. There is power and strength to be observed there. 

Leafing through some of the letters, I’m deeply touched by the generosity of the people who have sent us letters by Freepost (you simply write ‘Freepost Open Letters to Queer Britain’ on the front of your envelope, there is no need for a stamp). There are neatly typed out letters like Asifa’s – I imagine some people writing like I do when asked to express myself freely, it can be a challenge, and I imagine them agonising over a sentence, deleting and trying again like I do. Then there are others where it’s scrawled across a page quickly by the writer as if they worry the thoughts swirling around their head might disappear if they don’t commit it to the page, with scratches, scribbles and strikethroughs punctuating the letter. Some have gone the extra mile and bound up zines for us as a bonus gift. This folder contains a queer treasure trove; a cheeky doodle leaps out at me smirking provocatively: gold ink shimmers and glistens as I turn one letter over: a blue wax seal is an elegant flourish on one written by Otamere Guobadia on the finest bond paper. I wonder what you would write to us? I’d love to see your letter too.

Letter from Otamere Guobadia for Open Letters to Queer Britain 

Back in my early days of the volunteer-based community radio station, I was aware of the fact that there seemed to be a demographic that was under-represented at the radio station and it could be partly explained by the fact that we had lost a generation of people to HIV / AIDS. I’ve seen that statement being repeated often across the many responses we’ve had to the Queer Britain social media posts around It’s A Sin over the last few weeks. Jesse Gough our intern, from Goldsmiths, University of London and currently studying an MA in Queer History, has been taking over the social media accounts each Friday night with a live Tweetalong. As I’ve already admitted, I’ve not yet seen the series, but I have seen Jesse do an incredible job of engaging with the audience who have come to us to mourn, celebrate and remember this generation of lost friends and lovers. 

Alongside this, I recently launch A Queer History of Objects online course at V&A Academy, and this morning I was very honoured to invite Professor Shaun Cole to returning to the collection to give a lecture that included an in depth exploration of the more than 100 posters that he had accessioned during his time as our curator. What is significant is that while Section 28 was still in play in the mid 1990s, he exhibited some of them in a museum display called Graphic Responses to AIDS, that included two posters that were seen in It’s A Sin (although to be clear they were not part of the posters that Shaun collected, they were already in the collection from 1987). It was a thrill to have Shaun show 35mm slides of the exhibition installation, almost unseen for a quarter of a century. What’s interesting is even though there were a great many posters collected from prominent charities like the Terrence Higgins Trust, Shaun’s display also cut across cultural barriers (HIV / AIDS being something that could affect anyone and everyone) and there were posters shown from all around the world. 

Having access to a brilliant archive like the one that Shaun put together for the V&A on HIV / AIDS related material helps educate me to a degree, but I wonder what a modern display on HIV / AIDS might include? Surely there would be much about new preventative medicines such as PrEP, recent campaigns like U=U, and the fact that many people live with HIV / AIDS today, and we must do better to break down the stigma associated. I feel it’s going to be something that Queer Britain could do very well, and I’d love to see an exhibition bringing the V&A exhibition up to date. 

As an aside, there’s a fascinating connection to be made between V&A’s deputy keeper Carl Winter and Patrick Trevor-Roper a co-founder of the Terrence Higgins Trust: they both testified as gay men before the Wolfenden Committee, arguing for decriminalisation of homosexualtiy England and Wales. Well, staying with the Terrence Higgins Trust I can proudly say I managed to get 5/5 for their It’s A Sin quiz (https://www.tht.org.uk/form/it-s-a-sin-quiz). But then, I have been engaged in conversations about HIV / AIDS since my days at the radio station. I wonder how you fare? Regardless, the important thing is we’re talking about it. I’m glad that a series like It’s A Sin is helping to bring this conversation so prominently to the fore.

The snap…

For those of you familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) you can skip down past the picture of Thanos. For those who didn’t spend 11 years closely following the saga, I hope this intro will bring you sufficiently up to speed. Across a little more than a decade Marvel Studios released a series of superhero movies featuring The Avengers. The big bad of the series was a giant purple Titan named Thanos who collected magic stones, fused them with a big metal gauntlet and with a snap of his fingers made half the Universe disappear…

For fans of the movies the only clear image of Thanos snapping is in Endgame!

As someone who plies their trade in the charity sector I have seen the enormous power of the work that the hundreds of thousands of staff and volunteers conduct for our nation. Sometimes, it’s hyper visible from the volunteer vaccinators to the 2012 GamesMakers. But, more often than not the work is done quietly and humbly making a significant, yet silent, impact.

When archaeologists are searching for signs of ancient civilisation the first clue they search for is not money, or fine jewellery or buildings. No the biggest clue is the healing of a broken bone, a large one, like a femur. This is because in order for that bone to heal, others had to care enough for the injured individual to nurture them back to health. Without the support of their wider community they would simply die. I believe that today a proportion of that care has manifested itself in the modern day charity. Organisations that exist beyond the public purse that are the threads that hold and bind our community, the warp and weft, knitting us together.

Today they are under threat. If we believe in inclusion. That it is important to support children and families that are struggling to survive below the poverty line. To help victims of abuse to escape perpetrators and take bold steps to eradicating that cruel behaviour from society. To provide helplines and counselling support for the millions of us whose mental health has been severely damaged by the pandemic. To cure devastating and debilitating diseases or perhaps even help vaccinate a nation against a deadly pandemic. Then now is the time to act. So I hope the Chancellor is scheduling a chat with a charity CEO to follow on from his Zoom call with Gordon Ramsey. And I hope that you are taking the actions within your power. Donate to a cause you care about if you can and write to your MP to ask them what they intend to do in the short term to help us get through this crisis.

Returning to the protagonist of the piece. If we imagine Thanos as COVID we are getting worryingly close to the snap and the subsequent ‘dusting’ of not a friendly, neighbourhood Spiderman but the friendly, neighbourhood charities that support all of us when we are most in need. That thought is truly terrifying. In the movies, it took the Avengers 5 years and the ability to develop time travel to reverse the snap, what would it take us? Now is not the time to be tired…

Spiderman is ‘dusted’ by Thanos in Avengers Infinity War

Standing orders 1 Allyship 0

I was amused, shocked and saddened by the Handforth Parish Council video clip that went viral last week. I am delighted that the wonderful and eloquent Julia Unwin DBE has agreed to guest blog this week and share her reflections on the debacle…

Last week, an unusual thing happened. The internet was buzzing with a story about a parish council. Was this local governance getting some publicity and attention at last? Was social media going to finally help the public understand better the personalities, and the behaviours that are part and parcel of local community democracy? Sadly not. What we learned from a recorded and edited version of a Handforth Parish Council  meeting was something rather different.

The Handforth Parish Council meeting that descended into chaos

We could treat ourselves to the sight of technology tripping up a group of mainly elderly citizens. Then we could roll our eyes at the display of petulance, bad manners and temper tantrums, and gawp at the endless bickering over arcane standing orders, and finally, we could join in congratulating the stoicism and diligence of the clerk – there was even a hashtag #ImwithJackieWeaver to accompany a round of admiring media appearances. 

We witnessed a number of men railing at a woman who was trying to introduce order. We watched as they proved themselves completely incapable  of dealing with running a meeting without shouting and insulting others. And we witnessed the way that the rules of engagement  – the much pronounced standing orders –  did nothing to help matters progress. Small wonder that we looked on with horror, and anyone who has never engaged in any local or  community action,  made a silent vow to avoid any such activity in the future.

Well, right now we can all do with a laugh and a viral clip of a disastrous meeting hit the sweet spot for many of us. But along with the hilarity, it’s worth thinking about four other things that the recording showed:

  1. It is hard to imagine that  any woman, who has ever attended a meeting – parish council or otherwise – did not wince with recognition at the naked and aggressive misogyny on such blatant display in this event. The sight of a woman, keeping calm and carrying on, when all around were bawling at her, insulting her or laughing at her maniacally is an all too familiar one to those of us who have been involved in making the hard slog of local democracy and community engagement work. Of course, this was an extreme example, but a quick poll of women friends and colleagues showed I was not alone in having flashbacks to many an unpleasant and difficult meeting.  And sadly none of us were remotely surprised that no one intervened to stop the appalling behaviour. Not one of the people on the call seemed to have either the awareness, or the willingness, to speak out against such bad behaviour.
  2. We all talk about the need for difference in community organising. We know how important it  is that younger people join in and take on leadership roles. That they are made available to people from black and minority ethnic communities, disabled people and with all of us so they can genuinely reflect the rich, diverse and varied communities they serve. This was an object lesson in understanding  why that desire needs much more than talk. As I laughed at the video, I also knew that all too many meetings actually seem just like Handforth’s, and that if you are new to this work, it will look as bizarre, as ill-mannered and as intimidating as this one did. We have to behave differently. And that take practice and serious attention.
  3. Handforth’s travails also highlighted that skills and training are needed when people who care passionately about their community, are put in a room together and start talking. Time after time we talk about the importance of engaging residents, of involving those with ‘lived experience’, of the importance of ‘local participation’ – and then we expect people just to get together (on zoom or for real) and we stand back. Then we are either amazed or delighted when things go wrong. Board members of PLCs get training, and expensive board evaluation.  So do those sitting on the boards of housing associations and hospital trusts. But members of community groups are all too often just given an impossible task  and told to get on with it.  If they are given any rules, they are often in a format (those dratted standing orders)  that do nothing to help genuine engagement; that give no ideas for generating vital and authentic debate and that do nothing at all to protect the voices that are too often shouted down or ignored.
  4. And yet local democracy has never been more important. We’ll never get through our current  terrifying predicament without people prepared to get involved and make change happen. If they suffer abuse, are laughed at and challenged with hostility, can we be surprised that they don’t come back? If the rules are so obscure that they are either discarded, or they dominate proceedings, can we wonder that community engagement is so hard?

A few years ago I wrote a slightly tongue in cheek piece about how to undermine community involvement. In Communities – Nine ways to break them – I talked about the overloading of community groups, the disrespect we show and the lack of support we offer.  If I were doing it now, I’d write about aggressive and undermining misogyny, a woeful lack of attention to the skills training in those involved, and a set of processes that do nothing to enable active and supportive involvement. And I’d conclude again, that if we are really serious about the importance of local democracy, we’d take it all much more seriously. But I’d still want to stand with Jackie Weaver!

Pardon?

I wasn’t very good at languages at school. I could do the reading and writing bit, when I had time to reflect and think, but the spontaneous conversation (definitely the most important aspect) was quite frankly my worst nightmare. I remember sitting in nervous anticipation of being summoned in for my French GCSE oral exam. My palms were beyond sweaty and anxiety levels at a peak. That said one of the highlights for me of studying French was the introduction to the brilliance of the French farce. Our teacher would often show us French films twice once with subtitles on and a second time without them to help us improve our abilities to interpret. It built a passion for me that continued past my school days and my favourite French comedy is one I discovered at University called Le Dîners de Cons. If you can get hold of a copy I highly recommend it…

Le Diner de Cons, a fabulously funny French film

Anyway I digress, this week’s blog post is a day early and in recognition of Disability Time to Talk Day (4th Feb). With all of us wearing masks indoors I have missed the ability to connect with others through facial expression when I have made rare forays to the shops. With meetings taking place on Zoom, WebEx or Microsoft Teams the body language signals are missed, especially when we choose to turn off our cameras (often because we are virtual meeting exhausted).

So what does all of this preamble relate to? Misgivings about my ineptitude with foreign languages. Failed attempts to connect with other shoppers. Virtual groundhog day throughout the working week. The sum of my reflections is that while I have recognised that lockdown has been tiring for me – it must be incredibly difficult for my colleagues with hearing loss.

There have been a number of colleagues who have confided in me that they rely on lip reading to ‘hear’. At work it has taken us time to use subtitles on videos as standard. Some friends and colleagues had never disclosed they had hearing loss before but lockdown and mask wearing has immediately posed them challenges. What compounds this issue is when they have had to constantly remind colleagues to keep their cameras on or not cover up their mouths when speaking in work meetings. I cannot explain how draining and demoralising it is to be compelled to repeatedly ask for something simple to enable your engagement and involvement. If you want to empathise though try watching a foreign language film you’ve never seen before without the subtitles on…

Parasite, a wonderful film that would have been totally wasted on me without subtitles

So a small ask this week. Speak to your colleagues. If you are the type of person that prefers to turn your camera off for Zoom meetings ask others if they would mind. Take some time, especially today, to reach out and ask others if there are any changes or adjustments you could make to help them feel more included or aid their involvement. Be curious, be open, be kind. Choose empathy over sympathy. Let’s all work together to turn this year’s Time To Talk Day into a positive conversation about how we can work together to support our disabled colleagues.