Queer History

20th Century Queer History in the Archives and the Curriculum

Just over a year ago, I sat down with my department to discuss changing how we do A-Level coursework. When the history of the 20th century is taught in English schools, it is usually as a story of high politics, warfare and economic change. This tendency is especially marked at GCSE and A-Level.

In addition to the examined courses we teach, our exam board requires our students to produce an extended essay. However, there are no specifications about what topic students should explore and this gives us some welcome space to expand their historical horizons. Therefore, as we began the process of reforming our coursework, I sensed an opportunity to explore a different story of the 20th century with our students. This story would revolve around social history and foreground the experiences of groups who are ordinarily underrepresented in GCSE and A-Level courses: women, the Black British community and LGBTQ+ people. The question we settled on was: ‘How far were the positions of women, the LGBTQ+ community and Black people in Britain transformed during the late 19th and 20th centuries?’

As part of the coursework, students are required to analyse a set of primary sources. The process of looking for material they could use led me to the Hall-Carpenter archive, which is currently held by the LSE and contains key documents relevant to the movement for LGBTQ+ rights. There are innumerable stories that the documents held in this archive can tell but, when thinking about my classroom, three of the most interesting themes I identified related to ideology and its evolution, the campaign for legal reform and the emphasis on sociability and equal access to public space.

The Gay Liberation Front Manifesto (1970) and poem produced by John Chesterman (1970) Held by LSE Library.

Some of the richest documents in the archive related to ideology are those produced by the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). The archive contains various manifestos produced by the group between 1970 and 1974. Looking at these sources side-by-side could offer students a fascinating insight into how the ideas of GLF members developed. In the manifesto produced shortly after the first meeting of the GLF in November 1970, key demands included equality of treatment with heterosexual people both in the law and in public spaces, as well as specific demands such as the equalisation of the age of consent. Of equal importance are the key phrases that end the manifesto, ‘GAY IS GOOD’ and ‘ALL POWER TO THE OPPRESSED PEOPLE’. This first statement, expressing the desire to go beyond toleration, is expanded upon a manifesto-poem written by John Chesterman in 1970. Here, the group’s argument against homophobia is developed in more detail, as Chesterman describes the ability to form relationships as a ‘right’, all relationships as ‘valid’ and addresses the heterosexual public, describing homophobia as ‘the prejudice that warps your life and ours’. Throughout this document, prevailing norms of sexuality are described as socially constructed and the ‘naturalness’ of homosexual relationships are asserted.

Both of these documents focus primarily on individual rights, but the theme latent in the statement of solidarity with all ‘oppressed people’ in the initial manifesto comes to the fore much more strongly again in a document produced in 1974. Here, the GLF comment on the progress achieved by legal reforms and give the scathing verdict that ‘seven years of bitter experience’ had seen legal persecution increase and social discrimination continue ‘unabated’. Furthermore, they fear resurgent social conservatism, citing Keith Joseph’s Edgbaston speech as a warning sign.

What’s especially interesting is the emphasis in 1974 placed on the disparity of experience within the LGBTQ+ community. It notes how the barriers of gender and class have limited how far people have benefited from previous reforms and puts forward a more wide-ranging social critique than the documents produced in 1970. This document locates the origin of the oppression LGBTQ+ people experience in the family, and specifically the family as it is constituted in ‘present capitalist society’. When my students study upheaval in their other courses, it is mainly presented as being driven by ‘big’ themes like religion or economics. It will be fascinating to use these documents to help them understand how themes like family have also been seen as ‘political’.

GLF Document on Law Reform (1974) held by LSE Library.

Beyond the GLF manifestos, other documents from this archive will also have the power to get my students thinking about how the details of people’s ordinary social lives and experiences of community have been the focus of political debate and have generated activism. One particularly interesting photograph held by the archive records the delegation from the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) during a march taking place in 1974. Prominent among the banners is one reading ‘we demand the right to show affection in public’. This picture contains an indication of why this might be seen as an issue of particular importance as a line of uniformed policemen marches alongside the demonstrators in such numbers as to render them almost invisible. The demand for equal access to public space seen here and in the first GLF manifesto also appears in a flyer advertising one of the first GLF dances. This document, tied together by the three invocations for the reader to ‘come together,’ ‘come out’ and ‘come along now’, is divided into two halves. The first includes the details of the event, such as the date, location and price of tickets. The second half, however, links these ordinary details of sociability to a wider ideological point. Readers are encouraged to come to the dance as an act against ‘discrimination and oppression’ by the oppressive forces identified in the first GLF manifesto, law, society, employers and psychiatrists. An interesting addition to this story is a later flyer produced in 1987 to advertise protests against Clause 28. In addition to the continuity represented by the statement that ‘lesbians and gay men are out and proud and not going underground’, there is also a discernible shift that can be seen in the reference made to the support of the Greater London Council. Here is a reference to organs of the state as positive forces, an element that is completely absent from the earlier documents produced by the GLF.

Photograph of CHE at march (1974)
Photograph of CHE at march (1974). LSE library.
Flyer against Clause 28 (1987). LSE library.
GLF dance flyer (1987). LSE library.

So how could these be used in the classroom? Initially, they represent a rich resource detailing the attitudes and beliefs held by the LGBTQ+ activists of this period and a record of how these developed over time. I will continually draw upon them in my teaching when setting up the coursework and students can then use them when they come to complete their own extended essay. Beyond this, there are two main ways in which I think the use of these documents may serve to expand our students’ historical education. The first is by allowing them access to types of sources with which they may be less familiar. A quick survey of the sources they look at in the rest of the A-Level course reveals a familiar parade of political speeches, legislation and letters. The documents in the Hall-Carpenter archive, created and used within a marginalised community, offer a different kind of resource. Exploring what protest flyers, handwritten manifestos and photographs of protests can tell us will widen their understanding of what historical evidence looks like. Likewise, the story of the archive itself represents a rich resource. The Hall-Carpenter archive was founded as part of the activities of CHE, and its early life was spent within the community. As such, its existence was often insecure, even after it was given funding and a permanent home by the Greater London Council, it came under threat once again after the Conservative government cut funding to the GLC in 1986. Fortunately, it was given a new home at the LSE, but this story might help students grapple with questions about how and why ‘silences’ persist in the archive, why marginalised histories often struggle to be preserved and allow them to consider the effect this has on the work of historians.

The documents discussed here represent only a fraction of what is available in this archive, not to mention all the other repositories of queer history. My current priorities are to integrate these resources into our lessons and to widen the story further by finding documents that allow students to engage with the histories of a wider cross-section of the community, including its Black, Asian and other ethnic minority members, trans histories, and activism outside of London. Overall, I hope these documents will not only help our students put together a different story of 20th century Britain but will also expand their understanding of what this subject is for and what it can do.

One Comment

  1. Your students may be interested in my study of the early gay and lesbian youth groups 1967-1990. This is published in my book ‘Courage to Be’ (2021) by Dr Clifford Williams (Book Guild Ltd., Leicestershire). I made extensive use of the Hall Carpenter Archives in my research. I also tracked down several former members of the London Gay Teenage Group (the first officially registered gay youth group in Britain).

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