The Author wishes to begin with a slightly pointless revelation – I am a gay man. It’s really rather superfluous to announce that fact, it’s a tiny almost irrelevant aspect of my personality and the footprint I leave on the World. However, occasionally it is necessary to frame a subject with such a declaration and in the case of a post about LGBTQ+ Heritage, it is necessary. I am admittedly a caucasian, male, anglo-saxon, with historical links to Germany and to Yorkshire; some of these links are closer than others, I am a Fenman, a brother, a son, a grandson and a friend. All of these things go in to the melting pot of personal identity and from me, there spreads a web connecting to differing aspects of global history – as does your web, dear reader, in which you are the kernel and you have your own incredibly personal threads. The thread we are going to tug on now, is my sexuality.
Sexuality is a dreadfully difficult thing for some people. That may well be an enormous understatement but I’m not here to draw a line in the sand, I don’t wish to put anyone on the spot however this is about Heritage, we must grasp the nettle and feel the sting, otherwise we will allow things to fester and that is never good.
“LGBTQ+” as a subject of Heritage is a difficult one, it’s divisive even amongst those who have legitimate claims to it. There are those who would seek to share it and celebrate it, publicly, loudly and with courage. Equally there are those who would rather it be a part of a wider narrative, with reference made but without it being the sum and total. Where does the Author sit on this matter? Does it matter? I suppose it does for the purpose of this post.
I believe, wholeheartedly, that LGBTQ+ heritage should be very much in the public eye, however I equally believe that it’s position is not one that should be elevated above all others, in fact it should be one amongst equals. It is no more important than any of my other strands, nor is it more important than any of yours, dear reader!
So what is “LGBTQ+ Heritage” and why is it a fairly new field of study? Well according to Historic England “Gender diversity and same-sex love have long been part of England’s history. But LGBTQ identities as we understand them today only date from the last decades of the twentieth century. Prior to this, same-sex love and gender diversity were treated as criminal acts or moral sins, medical or emotional problems, or absorbed within accepted family and community relationships. So LGBTQ people and their histories have often been hidden, marginalised or suppressed.” A fairly apt explanation one feels. It is true that “LGBTQ+ Heritage” has for centuries been something left undiscussed, something hidden, something one shouldn’t be proud of – times, thankfully, are changing. However, as with all change, there are issues – there equally isn’t a suits all solution. The following are some of the issues the Author believes exist. The list is not comprehensive and is written from a personal position.
Who do we include?
Now that’s got to be one of the most controversial issues. Homosexuality has existed for as long as the human race has…. Oh wait, no. Sorry it predates that what with animals displaying the trait. (Beware the tangent) Back to my point; there are aspects of Heritage dating back to long ago that can feature a LGBTQ+ element to the narrative. From Medieval Kings of England, who Historians have outed, including Edward II. There even exists speculation about the issue of Oliver Cromwell, Richard (The short lived Lord Protector) due to his effeminate nature. Possibly entirely untrue and unless one believes in spiritualism we will probably never know. History is full of famous LGBTQ+ individuals or those who have had sexuality assumed. Do we include that in their narrative? Is it fair to do so? The Author is very private about his sexuality and so are many others. One of the most recent examples would be Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, the last Lord of Fellbridge Hall – His legacy and sexuality became the focal point of a campaign by The National Trust to highlight LGBTQ+ Heritage – this caused outrage amongst some of the staff, individuals who had known Ketton-Cremer, who had been aware of his sexuality and equally aware of his personal privacy which he preserved during his life – they, in my opinion, rightly challenged the NT on their decision to publicise this personal aspect of his life, contradictory of his choices in life. This is unforgivable, respect and understanding should be one of the very foundations on which Heritage is built. There is an ability to tell the story of LGBTQ+ people without needing to out those who never wanted it. We can consider a number of things, overarching concepts, events and narratives, featuring those who wish to be identified as LGBTQ+. We must respect wishes, even long after death.
What do we include?
Being LGBTQ+ hasn’t ever been easy. There are periods of extreme persecution and there are times where, though not a concentrated assault on LGBTQ+ people as a group, persecution and abuse are rife. Alas they still are in many countries and even in my home country of England. Perhaps including a more obvious LGBTQ+ narrative in Heritage and interpretation, we may change that… Here is to hope. What however do we include? Do we side step the sadness and talk about heroes and moments in History where LGBTQ+ people have been celebrated? Do we talk about Decriminalisation but ignore the period preceding it? Do we talk about what Pride has become, a mass celebration of identity featuring everyone but ignore its origins as a protest against oppression and a fight for the right to an identity and the associated violence and aggression that met those original marches? I would argue that we include all of the above. The narrative cannot be edited to ignore the darkness, in fact surely the darkness provides a contrast that makes the light of better days far brighter. We must not ignore the actions of the the Nazi Regime in Germany, with the persecution of LGBTQ+ individuals – thousands died, as much as we must respect the wishes of those who don’t or didn’t identify openly as LGBTQ+, we must respect and honour those who died. We must not ignore the violence of the original Pride marches or indeed the Stonewall Riots. To do so would be unfair and unkind. Time may be an ever growing tree and the roots may run deep, but we mustn’t forget the growth of that has gone before.
How do we include it?
The Author remembers seeing something on a social media platform some years ago, in which the question was posed “How do I tell my children about gay people?” the response offered was wonderfully to the point – “If you can explain to them, with a straight face, that a man flies around the world in one night and brings gifts via the chimney, you can explain to them that people love other people and that gender doesn’t matter” A refreshing response I am sure you will agree. It is that philosophy that we must utilise. Children are wonderly adept at adapting. Their unformed perception is influenced by an enormous collection of social, economic, spiritual, personal etc elements and Heritage should be one of them. Why should it be “Shocking” that one man loved another? It doesn’t need to be placed like a thumbtack, ready to pierce the foot of the unsuspecting – for as long as we make it an issue, as long as sexuality is made to be contentious, it will remain so. We can create specific sites and collections, a narrative built around LGBTQ+ issues and the associated heritage and that is entirely appropriate and I support it but that shouldn’t be the end of it. LGBTQ+ should be included as we include all things in the narrative, where appropriate, where respectful to those who are referenced would be comfortable with it.
There is an inevitable hope that by talking about and interpreting LGBTQ+ subjects, individuals and their associated heritage, we will move society towards greater cohesion.
Disclaimer – I don’t speak for every LGBTQ+ individual or group, I speak for me, a gay man. A gay with a love of heritage and History and a desire to see all represented.
Here is a new feature – A reading list – These are just a few suggestions of texts to read to further discussion and research.
From Prejudice to Pride: A History of LGBTQ+ Movement by Amy Lamé
50 Queers Who Changed the World: A Celebration of LGBTQ Icons by Dan Jones