LGBT History Month: Brighton

Grand LGBT Barn Dance25th February 2015

By Kate Elms

February is LGBT History Month, a good opportunity to promote material from The Keep’s archives that represents the local LGBT community, and also to draw attention to other interesting sources of information.

Pride is perhaps the best-known celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender identity in Brighton & Hove, and the history of the parade itself is documented on the Brighton Pride website. It can, however, also be explored through our newspaper archive, from the tentative steps of the first march in July 1973, to the vibrant carnival spirit of the present day. For local coverage of wider issues, we also hold a more general collection of newspaper cuttings from the past 25 years.

Brighton Gay GuideIt would be difficult to better the research carried out since 1989 by Brighton Ourstory into the LGBT history of Brighton and their charity is quietly flourishing after twenty-eight years of work. The Ourstory website remains live at the time of writing and is well worth consulting for its fascinating and insightful glimpse into the past. Part of the Ourstory archive is now held at The Keep, and our online catalogue shows which of the records – from publications to personal stories and ephemera – are accessible to the public. To find out more, click here

Making an Exhibition of OurselvesOur Reference Room collections include community publications that celebrate the cultural heritage of Brighton & Hove’s LGBT community, such as Brighton Trans*formed, published by QueenSpark Books,  Queer in Brighton, a collaboration between New Writing South, Pink Fringe and Photoworks, and Daring Hearts, published by QueenSpark in conjunction with Brighton Ourstory. And the Brighton Pamphlet boxes contain, as ever, an eclectic mix of resources. These range from club flyers and entertainment leaflets to information relating to charities and support groups, city guides and newsletters. One of these records a moving Service of Remembrance for the Gay Dead of World War II.

It seems appropriate to mention that Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, one of The Keep’s partners and former home of the Brighton History Centre collections now archived here, features the LGBT community in one of its recently devised Object Stories trails, which highlights work by Glyn Philpot, Grayson Perry and the late Alexander McQueen, among others.



LGBT History Month: Coded Lives in the Archive – The National Lesbian and Gay Survey

a Lesbian Looks Like: Writings by Lesbians on Their Lives and Lifestyles' (Routledge, 1992)18th February 2015

By Jessica Scantlebury, Mass Observation Archive 

The theme of this year’s LGBT History Month, ‘coded lives’, is easily applied to the context of an archive. Codes are everywhere at The Keep; much of the work we do involves numbering documents, barcoding boxes, creating reference numbers and cataloguing and listing materials. The purpose of these codes is to allow researchers to discover documents, uncover histories and make sense of the person who the document originally belonged to. Essentially, codes in an archive are used to promote access. However, for the LGBT community, codes have routinely been used to enable illicit loves and identities to go undetected, and to signal to like-minded individuals that they are in friendly company.

 “It’s funny, but I think my first feeling about homosexuality and sexual arousal was a strong urge to keep it secret forever. I definitely knew the name for it. I was twelve. My parents tuned into a wonderful radio show called “Round the Horne” every week. I adored Kenneth Williams as Sandy with his ‘friend’ Julian, obviously a gay couple. I loved the camp sense of humour, it sort of felt part of me.”  – NLGS respondent

This dual use of codes can be seen in the National Lesbian and Gay Survey (NLGS), which was deposited with the Mass Observation Archive in 2004 and is available to view in The Keep Reading Room. The NLGS was launched in 1986 by Kenneth Barrow who, inspired by his membership of the writing panel for the Mass Observation Project, sought to collect autobiographical reports from gay men and women.  As part of the administration of this survey, each individual was given a code to use so that they could write anonymously, and candidly, without disclosing their name to the reader, or even to the administrators of the Survey. In a time where LGBT identities were often stigmatised, this was a necessity. We have used these codes to catalogue the collection, which has given then the dual functionality of protecting identities and providing access to researchers.

“As a child I was very tomboyish and a rather George-like figure (George, of the Famous Five books) desperately unhappy about being a woman. I began to lead a double life, spending the weekends wandering around record shops with a crew cut and a leather jacket, assuming the identity of a boy.” NLGS respondent

Between 1986 and 2004, 725 people took part in the NLGS, answering questions on varied subjects from first sexual experiences to the Gulf War. Many of the subjects covered are arguably particular to the gay community: coming out; cottaging; images of gay people on television, while others cover topics that were relevant to British society as a whole: the death of Princess Diana; Christmas Day and the General Election.  Responses to the Survey could be used to study how British society has changed, not just between 1986 and 2004, but further back, through the memories of older writers, to a pre-Wolfenden report era when homosexual acts between consenting adults were illegal.

“I found [a psychiatrist] through my GP at college and went for ‘the cure’. This consisted of various methods of aversion therapy… In those days before decriminalisation, homosexuality was generally perceived as a problem, as a curse everyone would want to have removed. How many young men and women must have gone through with that sickening and degrading process?” NLGS respondent

The responses to the Directives could also be used to chart the development of LGBT identity politics in late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century Britain. The Survey name itself comes under discussion, with Survey participants being asked if they would have signed up for the NLGS had it been known as the ‘Queer Survey’, foreshadowing the embracement of the word queer as code for a proliferation of identities in in early-twenty-first century. Opinion is divided, although most writers do recognise that there is power in reclaiming the words that have been used to hurt or belittle communities.

“First, let me say that I hate labels. I think that’s the problem with most things, putting people in little boxes, like straitjackets, and nailing the lids shut.” NLGS respondent

The collection would be useful for anyone researching LGBT history, and those researching late 1980s and 1990s history and culture in general.  Two books on the Survey were published in the early 1990s: ‘What a Lesbian Looks Like: Writings by Lesbians on Their Lives and Lifestyles’ (Routledge, 1992) and ‘Proust, Cole Porter, Michelangelo, Marc Almond and Me: Writings by Gay Men on Their Lives and Lifestyles’ (Routledge, 1993) can be viewed along with the original papers of the NLGS at The Keep.

Our next blog post for LGBT history month will explore the archives and collections available at The Keep created by the LGBT community in Brighton.