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…
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.
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.
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.