What’s coming home?

Before I get started this week I want to state that I am as deliriously excited as other England fans. My first memory of a major tournament was Mexico 86 – Gary Lineker scoring that hat trick against Poland with his bandaged hand and Diego Maradona dumping us out of the World Cup with his ‘hand of god’. Since then I’ve had the pain of Italia 90, heartache of Euro 96 and the despair of penalty shootouts (especially ’98 and ’04), Ronaldinho from the half way line and that Lampard ‘ghost goal’ in 2010. I am ecstactic the team have surpassed my wildest dreams and even if we don’t get over the line on Sunday I am grateful to them for making the ride go right the way to the end of the line. But what I value most about this team is their united stance against discrimination from taking the knee before matches to wearing a rainbow armband or laces during them.

Raheem Sterling & Kalvin Phillips take the knee before a pre tournament friendly at the Riverside Stadium. Photo: Sky

However, before a ball was kicked in anger at this tournament, there was anger, a lot of it and it was all aimed at our England team for their stance on racism. Our own supporters, many of whom I guess were probably bellowing out Three Lions on Wednesday night, were booing our team for their stance (see a mind boggling conversation with James O’Brien below). There was criticism from MPs with Tory Lee Anderson going as far as saying he would boycott the matches because players were taking the knee, he must be regretting that statement now. As the tournament has progressed some England fans have continued to boo the knee as well as the opposition’s national anthem. But all of this against an increasingly euphoric backdrop of fever pitch excitement, celebration and choruses of ‘it’s coming home’.

Which leads me to my question. What is coming home? Is it a trophy or could it be much more than that? Football is also known as the beautiful game and one of the most precious things about it is that it is a universal language that succeeded where esperanto failed. Sir Mo Farah recalls a story about when he came to Britain at the age of 8 (for the record he did not need to claim asylum as his father was a UK born citizen) that he could not speak much English but he integrated into primary school and made friends through playing football. In contrast, there are quite significant pockets of our nation that have criticised the national team for their anti-racism stance. Our supporters have consistently booed other national anthems and there is yet another fine on its way to the FA for the fans boorish efforts in the Danish match (which also included focussing a laser on Kasper Schmeichel’s face before Harry Kane’s penalty). Our newspapers have harangued our Black footballers, especially Raheem Sterling, who is often the focus of their ire (and ironically the best England player in this tournament), and this discriminatory practice emboldens racists and fuels social media harassment of players.

On the eve of the Euros, manager Gareth Southgate wrote an eloquent letter to out nation and I wonder when the competition is over whether this team can continue and amplify the conversation about inclusion that they have started? In his letter, Southgate writes

“Our players are role models. And, beyond the confines of the pitch, we must recognise the impact they can have on society. We must give them the confidence to stand up for their teammates and the things that matter to them as people. I have never believed that we should just stick to football.

This role modelling extends beyond matters of racism. In addition to taking the knee, we saw Harry Kane don a rainbow captain’s armband in the match against Germany in recognition of Pride month and Jordan Henderson score his first England goal in the quarter final against Ukraine whilst wearing rainbow laces. This is not just a football story but one about inclusion, solidarity and allyship. It disturbs me to read articles criticising the brave and positive steps taken by this team and their exemplary manager. The claim by Financial Times, commentator Gideon Rachman that the letter was ‘suspiciously well written’ smacks of an elitist view that being a successful footballer and being able to string together a coherent piece of prose are incompatible skill sets. The team has not been hijacked, they are a group of young men who believe as a nation we can be better, as a society we can be more inclusive and that treating people with fairness, decency and respect should be fundamental pillars of our culture.

As a fan I will be willing them on with every fibre of my being, but in my eyes they are already winners. I hope their true victory lies in helping us to heal as a nation and encouraging more people to think, act and behave differently. The Italian national anthem is an absolute belter, in my mind probably the best of all anthems. Here’s hoping it is fully respected by those fans lucky enough to be in the stadium and that come the weekend we will all witness a new bit of football history and the start of a new social era. #ImNotTired

And the winner is…?

From Tom Cruise handing back his Golden Globes to Sam Smith being excluded from the best artist categories at The Brits, it’s been an interesting week in the world of awards. Let’s start on the other side of the pond. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association organises the Golden Globe Awards and has come under fire for questionable financial practices and a lack of diversity. This has been brewing since the LA Times expose in February and has now gone into overdrive with Tom Cruise returning three of his awards and NBC stating they will not broadcast the 2022 ceremony the Globes may well be on their way out. Action has been taken by people with influence and though the financial irregularities and questionable practices are certainly major factors, it is ‘positive’ that the same attention is being placed on the questions of racism and sexism within the organisation. That this move from influential individuals comes now at a time of heightened focus on equity and inclusion in society is poignant. It feels like a major step forward in tackling systemic and institutional issues of inequality

Back to the UK then and interestingly The Brit Awards was being celebrated for its warm embrace of diversity and inclusion, particularly the collaboration between Olly Alexander and Elton John performing the Pet Shop Boys classic “It’s a Sin”.

However, there was a mixed picture on a gender front. It was a big night for female artists with Dua Lipa winning two awards and Little Mix remarkably becoming the first female act to win the Best British Group award. That said the decision to continue to have gendered awards in other categories meant that Sam Smith who is non-binary was excluded from the shortlist for solo artist. This is despite their album Love Goes performing extremely well in the charts and being eligible for Best Album.

‘Music for me has been about unification,’ said Sam Smith in a statement. Photograph: Madison Phipps/Getty Images for MTV

My reflections this week are twofold. There is enormous power in allies and individuals with influence using their position and status on behalf of others. Though I am sure that the reasons behind Cruise and others returning their Golden Globes is likely to be complex the impact that they have had is notable. The second is that we must stand in solidarity across all areas of difference and identity. So it whilst it is important to celebrate and be proud of moments of progress we saw at The Brits we must raise questions about all aspects of inclusion or we run the risk of creating an unhelpful hierarchy of identities. If we continue to push for everyone we’ll all be winners! #ImNotTired

Can I have a ‘T’ please Bob?

I look back on the 80’s with a lot of fondness. In our household growing up we were definitely fans of a gameshow and my childhood years were brimming with (what I hazily remember) as high quality entertainment. My second favourite show was Blockbusters – my first was Bullseye and I spent my formative years thinking that everyone dreamed of owning a speedboat. Back to Blockbusters and I still cannot fathom how two people needing to answer 5 questions was fair when compared to one person needing to answer 4… This week’s blog has a tenuous link to that quiz show and the polite chuckles that seeped out when a contestant seemingly asked for hot beverage (we saved the serious guffaws for when they requested a trip to the loo).

That is as light hearted as this week’s post will get as we turn to much more serious matters. The decision to grant the LGB Alliance charitable status has caused a stir. I feel out of my depth on this debate and hope that others will be able to share their own reflections on the situation. I can only go by what I have seen from organisations I respect like Stonewall.

I am concerned about the lack of understanding and support for the trans community. I feel there is a public debate being played out where people hold strong opinions or perspectives but have only heard one, incredibly biased side of the story. Elliot Page is playing his part but we need more voices, especially from high profile allies. I have been fortunate and blessed to have some open conversations with a small number of trans people and from those discussions have a greater appreciation of how challenging a place the world is for them and how actually small changes by me could make them feel a greater sense of being included.

The outpouring of concern and criticism from the LGBTQ+ community suggests that many see the award of charitable status to the Alliance as a negative and divisive move. The campaign against MP John Nicolson who questioned the decision fuels my concerns. My own inclusion perspective is that as minoritised audiences we have greater strength in numbers. We need to be mutual allies across all identities and I have always seen great strength, solidarity and efficacy within the unified LGBTQ+ community.

So this week is a solidarity post. A reaffirmation of my intention to stand with the trans community to do what I can to challenge hate, provide support and help open the minds of other people to be empathetic and understanding of trans colleagues, friends or family. I know I need to learn more, I am sure I can do more and I am committed to finding out what that could be. #ImNotTired

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.