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 ( 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.

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!

Where do you belong?

Welcome to the first guest blog on the site that has been kindly shared by Nikki Squelch (@squelchisms), thank you. As always please feel welcome to join the discussion using the comments box below.

I am a white immigrant. I know I am privileged. I have never had to escape a country because of my political or religious beliefs, my sexual orientation or even for economic reasons. But nonetheless I am an immigrant. 

At 28, I became an accidental immigrant. I have spent more time in the UK in my adult life then anywhere else, yet I often feel like my legitimacy for being here is questioned. I know that I am loved by many here, yet there are times when I feel like a visitor, or worse a trespasser.

Who doesn’t want to live on a big Island reputed for sunshine and surf? Who doesn’t want to live in the land of plenty? Why would anyone leave Australia, when so many want to live there?

Well, me.

Actually, I am torn. I miss family and friends. I don’t miss the heat or humidity. My heart sometimes aches to see folks back in Oz and to breathe in the vast horizons. To smell the sea and eucalyptus that is so uniquely ‘home’. But I come from a long line of migrants. The great grandparents travelled from Ireland, Scotland and England to the shores of the US and Australia.

I grew up believing that where I was, was the best country in the world. I had nothing to compare it to. And it is the best country for some. But it is not the best country for all people. I know what lays beneath the sun, sea and shine of the great sunburnt country. I have witnessed the ugliest forms of racism. All forms are ugly and unjust, but when informed by policy and law and acted upon by people, it is wrong and causes a pain that runs deep through the country.

As a person who loves to travel and enjoys meeting new people and has witnessed the beauty and richness that diverse cultures can bring to community life, I find racism perplexing, bewildering, confusing, on top of it all being plain wrong. It has an impact on how I feel about living in both Australia and the UK. I have the appetite to learn and try to understand more and what I can do about it.

But cultural difference and racism runs deep and is complex. That doesn’t mean we should do nothing. In fact, it is because it is uncomfortable and perplexing there is even more reason to act.

In the UK, I am often asked when am I going back to Australia. Why do I live here? Or even, how could I live here. I’ve experienced people mocking my colonial past. Correcting my pronunciation of certain words and joking about my written English. It has impacted on my sense of belonging. Feeling like an outsider.

It’s an odd space to occupy. A desire to be here, to have the life I choose. To know that I am privileged to have this choice. To know that many would choose differently. To have to explain why here and not there. To have it assumed that I must surely have a plan to go back.

It’s an odd space to occupy and it impacts on how much I feel I truly belong.

Now, I imagine what it would be like if my skin colour or my hair was different. My spine shivers and I also worry about my past behaviour and the unintended negative impact it may have had on colleagues and friends. I have experienced cultural micro-aggressions that have made me feel I don’t belong. I know that I have probably delivered micro-aggressions too. Sorry!

I know that having the desire to be anti-racist and an ally is not enough. I know that reading about it, is not enough. I got to a point where I have moved from asking ‘is it racist’ to the operating reality of asking ‘to what extent is racism at play here’.

I will take my personal experience to improve and avoid making assumptions about any culture.

My personal actions to show that #ImNotTired are:

  • To stay curious. Continue to read, learn and listen.
  • To be both humble and brave. If I witness something that seems wrong, then it probably is and I will speak up. If I am told that I got something wrong (and I will) I will say sorry and seek further understanding.

What else can I do to be a good ally?

What else can we all do to make sure that everyone feels like they belong?

If you want to read more from Nikki head over to