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Speak Out London Exhibition, Wall G

​A wall at the Speak Out London Exhibition

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer histories have always been part of London's history. However, prevailing social attitudes towards LGBTQ people have meant that these histories have been marginalised, ignored and misrepresented in archival collections. This takes the form of collections that describe LGBTQ people as criminal, ill or immoral and catalogued using descriptions that use archaic and potentially offensive terms. Although these records reflect an important and troubling aspect of LGBTQ history, they are not synonymous with it.

Tom Furber and Clare Summerskill explore London Metropolitan Archives' project Speak Out London Diversity City, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund's Our Heritage funding stream, which directly addresses the marginalisation of this part of London's history and seeks to create a living archive of LGBTQ people in London today. The work of volunteers has been central to the project and Andy Kirby gives us a volunteer's view.

Speak Out – the project

Since 2014 Speak Out volunteers, supported by London Metropolitan Archives, have been creating a community archive using oral histories and memorabilia to complement and, where necessary, challenge more formal collections held at LMA. Over the last two years we have interviewed 51 people and digitised new and existing collections for viewing in LMA's Mediatheque.

A highlight of the project was a four month exhibition in which newly acquired items and oral histories were set alongside existing collections. This showed the work that had already been done, but also invited people to come forward with their own stories, ideas and documents to help tell this fascinating aspect of London's history.

The initial impetuous of Speak Out was to seek stories from older LGBTQ Londoners. Previous work in this area has shown that as each year goes by we are losing possibilities of recording the experiences of a generation of LGBTQ people who have stories to tell that have never been documented.

Two contributors, now over 90, told us about being gay in the post war period in London and the various clubs and pubs they visited, and the cruising that apparently occurred nightly in Leicester Square. We have heard personal accounts of loss, bravery, and prejudice during the 1980s when HIV/AIDS devastated the gay community. Older lesbians have described political debates of the '70s when the intersectionality between feminism and lesbianism created both celebration and schisms within factions of the Women's Movement. Older transgender people have shared stories of meeting in a Fulham restaurant in the 1960s after getting dressed in their cars outside.

Speak Out London exhibition launch

​Speak Out London exhibition launch

One interviewee spoke about the very first meetings of the Gay Liberation Front at the London School of Economics and a GLF commune that he subsequently joined in Bounds Green. Another told us about how and why the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre was created in 1985. Stories of how lesbians and gay men fought for London councils and national unions to accept and protect them against prejudice during the Thatcher years were recounted by political activists, and several contributors spoke about how the policies of the Greater London Council had allowed for the creation of safe spaces, including the London Lesbian and Gay Centre. These interviews allow the voices of an often silenced, frequently shamed, and historically criminalised group of people to now be listened to, to be heard and to be deeply treasured.

As well as gathering wonderfully moving, politically significant and occasionally hilarious stories from an older generation of LGBTQ people, we also had the pleasure of interviewing younger LGBTQ people for this project, and we have created a living archive of a wide range of LGBTQ people in London today. All of the contributors have generously shared their experiences with us, and we are privileged to have these recordings in the LMA archive to share with others now and in the future.

Speak Out – a volunteer perspective

Visiting LMA to research local history, I joined the LGBTQ History Group, learning terms like "heteronormative" and "domestic materiality". Speak Out offered the opportunity to actually work on LGBTQ issues alongside LMA staff.

The project's impressive range of activities is described elsewhere. Speak Out developed my skills. I learned how to interpret old handwriting and preserve documents. I thought I was a good interviewer – I was a good interviewer – but skills for the fair selection of job applicants do not sensitively elicit stories of living a gay life in London, often exploring sensitive memories for the first time.

I also thought I wrote concisely when needed, which I do, but I learned to write clear 100 word captions that explained what an artefact was, why it was exhibited, and provoked questions while making no assumptions as to the age, sexuality or education of the reader. I was proud to see my words on show - including on the questioning of the fascinating and elusive Eleanor (John) Rykener, who we would call a sex worker, from 1395.

Andy kirby

​Andy Kirby

I was concerned that my interviewees fell in the overrepresented white gay male middle class demographic. However, seeing how many interviewers were women interviewing women, I realised that my interviewees would offer a unique and important voice to the first generation of AIDS survivors.

The project led to me joining a National Sound Archive LGBTQ focus group, and helping a PhD student with her thesis on the childhood reading of gay people.

My involvement with the project continues. LMA staff have developed a Clerkenwell LGBTQ historical walk which I am adapting for the website. My current project documents the 2016 London Pride Trafalgar Square LGBTQ pedestrian crossings (see them while they're still there) which I am sure will also feature on the site. Activities around tee-shirts and badges are spoken of. And the interviews continue….

On 19 August, Speak Out hosted volunteers campaigning to save the Black Cap and Royal Vauxhall Tavern - iconic queer venues. They wanted to use guided walks to combine education, fund raising and performance. One of them said something like "we may not have a lesbian and gay centre in London but now we have this amazing place."

Hearing that reassured me that LGBTQ Londoners individually and collectively will continue to be supported by, and ourselves support, LMA.

Published:
05 October 2016
Last Modified:
10 August 2018

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