Daily Mail vs National Trust (AGAIN)

These are obviously my own views about the recent Felbrigg debacle, NOT those of the National Trust.

As everyone knows, the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales is being marked by many huge heritage institutions, including the British Museum, Tate Modern/Britain, Historic Royal Palaces, V&A etc. It seems though that the only institution to be consistently ruffling the feathers of homophobic right wing rag commentariat is the National Trust.

When the 2017 Prejudice and Pride programme was announced at the end of last year, Breitbart fascist Delingpole claimed the ‘once great’ institution had been sullied by the inclusion of LGBTQ histories, and name dropped my beloved Sutton House as being his former favourite property, now hosting the ‘nonsensical’ Sutton House Queered programme.

I’m currently at my family home, and I’m ashamed to say my dad buys and reads the Daily Mail. Today, amidst the political chaos in our country, the Daily Mail deemed the National Trust front page material. He made a joke about hiding it from me. He mistakenly thinks that my distaste for the Daily Mail in contrast to his reverence for it is amusing.

I know very well that the Daily Mail is reactionary, and barely based on truth. We all do. But earlier in the year when the rag bemoaned with outrage that the National Trust had CANCELLED EASTER, I could only roll my eyes, as the day before I had helped to hang a huge canvas banner emblazoned with the word Easter in front of a National Trust property. It was amusing because it was laughably reactionary, and also, very easily demonstrably not true. It also created the largest number of visits for the Easter weekend that Sutton House had ever seen.

Today’s headline reads MUTINY IN THE NATIONAL TRUST, and is in response to volunteers from Felbrigg in Norfolk who refused to wear Prejudice and Pride badges. In response to their refusal, the Trust asked them to move away from public-facing duties for the duration of the programme. Firstly, let’s just unpick the headline. 10 ‘furious’ volunteers out of a body of over 70,000 volunteers across the National Trust (ie 0.01%) is emphatically not a mutiny. It’s a mere drop in the ocean.

When the Prejudice and Pride programme began, the Trust approached it very carefully, working with and consulting many experts (including myself), such as Stonewall, curator of Queering the Museum and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Matt Smith and Leader of the Leicester University School of Museum Studies, Richard Sandell. We worked together on a series of training days to discuss how various inevitable challenges could be met. Volunteers were always a great consideration. The Trust is so privileged that so many people devote their time, skills and energy to volunteering there, but sometimes volunteers can be difficult- anyone working in museums and heritage can tell you that much. I visited Seaton Deleval in Northumberland once and I had to walk away from an elderly volunteer who was using sexist language to refer to a Mary Eleanor Bowes portrait, when he noticed her portrait had caught my eye. Not everyone thinks LGBTQ history should be uncovered, they prefer that it should continue to be hidden, like a shameful dirty secret, and unfortunately, out of 70,000 volunteers, it’s inevitable that some of those would share that view.

The news that the National Trust had stood firm on this ruling that volunteers must wear lanyards or badges reflecting the programme at the house was like music to my ears. Like a lot of large charities and organisations, the Trust has a set of values and behaviours that all staff and volunteers must abide by. These range from being respectful to people, to being willing to try new things, but also that we be advocates and ambassadors for the National Trust.

So often, as with many of my own visits to National Trust properties, the only people you will encounter as a visitor is a volunteer. It makes perfect sense then, that they be ‘on message’, for whatever is going on in the property at that time.

Pam Meecham, my PhD supervisor, has written about the Hello Sailor exhibition at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, and noted how some of the museum staff wanted nothing to do with the exhibition, and were vocal in their disapproval of it. It shouldn’t be behaviour that is tolerated from staff, and therefore should not be tolerated by volunteers. The difference is, volunteers are not contractually bound to sharing the values of the Trust, so the alternative, if they are not prepared to do so, is to take their skills elsewhere, and use their time where their values are in line with the organisation (the daily mail perhaps?). I think it’s very generous for the Trust’s stance to be to allow them to move their duties away from front of house rather than just showing them the door.

I obviously feel very strongly about criticisms about the Trust’s LGBTQ engagement, and take a lot of it very personally given my role in laying the foundations for it, and in building the programme this year (especially since I know that people like my parents are consuming the sort venom that is being written about it). It hasn’t always been easy, both from inside and outside the Trust, but reading that they were taking such a bold stance made me feel really valued, and genuinely moved by the Trust’s devotion to these important histories, and to making their properties more inviting and welcoming to LGBTQ communities.

I’m disheartened to see they have reneged this bold stance in the face of criticism from the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. They haven’t yielded to the ‘fury’ of volunteers, they’ve yielded to homophobia/transphobia. And if you change your course in response to hatred and ignorance, you give weight and merit to that hatred and ignorance, and say that those who voiced it are in the right. This is really disappointing, it feels like one step forward and too steps back and it’s exhausting.

The Daily Mail is the enemy of many people and many things and carries a lot of power given its colossal readership. But if you continue to worry about what the Daily Mail is going to say about every thing you do, and if you cave in to bullying from thick right wingers, you’ll never get anything done. The future members and visitors of the National Trust are not old white Daily Mail readers, so we really, really need to stop bending to the every wishes of old, white Daily Mail readers.

I feature on episode three of the National Trust’s Prejudice and Pride podcast, speaking with Dr Gus Casely-Hayford and Clare Balding about hidden queer histories. The whole series is great, written by Museum of Transology’s E-J Scott, check them out here.

‘Unspeakable’ LMA LGBTQ History and Archives Conference

Saturday was the London Metropolitan’s annual LGBTQ History and Archives conference, and, dare I say, I think it was even better than the 10th anniversary conference in February.

I’m not going to report on the whole day, as I have a mountain of work to do before the end of the year (my upgrade interview from mphil to phd takes place tomorrow- eeshk), but I’ll highlight some of the speakers I found particularly engaging.

  • Veronica McKenzie presented part of her film Under Your Nose which looks at the intersections between race and sexuality, and focuses particularly on the involvement of black lesbians in the 70s and 80s and the establishment of the Black Lesbian Group and the Black Feminist Network. You can view a clip from the film here.
  • Catherine O’Donnell and Harriet Richardson from the People’s History Museum in Manchester, I’ve mentioned the PHM on here in the past. You can find more about the Pride in Progress? project on the blog. I look forward to being involved in the project in February.
  • Surat Knan from Rainbow Jews was, as always, extremely engaging, and introduced us to Esther who shared her very moving story about being ostracised from an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Stamford Hill. You can hear from her here. It was particularly moving to hear an oral history, which I’m sure all of us there were familiar with, in person, the workshop session allowed Esther to go into more detail, and I applaud her bravery for sharing her story with us.
  • Dr Clare Barlow from the National Portrait Gallery spoke about the dilema of choosing appropriate pronouns in the text panels for the recent acquisition of a portrait of Chevalier D’Eon, who endured a very public change of gender in the 18th century. Ultimately, I think they made the wrong decision (they went for ‘he’), but the talk was an extremely engaging one and highlighted the complexities of framing non gender conforming people in the context of an art gallery.
  • The day ended with Stella Duffy and our fabulous chair for the day Louise Chambers discussing some of the issues raised throughout the conference, and a brilliant performance by the Pink Singers.

Here’s to the next one!

Hall-Carpenter Archives visit

On Wednesday 6th November, the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) LGBT History Club took its monthly meeting to the London School of Economics (LSE) to look at the Hall-Carpenter collection.

The Hall-Carpenter Archives was founded in the 1980s to document the history of LGBT activism in Britain. It consists of over 2000 boxes of material, and most of the archives are post-Wolfenden Report.

Rather than give a run down of the collections (which you can find here, as well as information how to access materials), I thought I would just highlight three things I found interesting from the sample of the collection that were laid out for us to have a look at.

  • I spotted a copy of Gay Times that had an interview with Sinead O’Connor in it from 1988 (August, Issue 119), I’m a huge Sinead fan, so was keen to read the interview. In it, she was talking about performing at a Pride event, and said that while she was wary of benefit gigs (because she felt artists often only attended to massage their own ego), she wanted to do Pride because it felt like something that people only engage with if they really care about the cause. The interviewer, Rose Collis, said ‘in the true spirit of the day, Sinead’s expense claim for her performance was her young son’s babysitter’s fee’ (p38)- which made me love her even more. In the same issue I stumbled upon a quote that I found really striking in a letter about gay bereavement, which said ‘Those who love in secret must mourn alone’ (p27).
  • A second thing that struck me was an article in Diva magazine from 1994 (June, Issue 2) called ‘Girls with Gun Glamour: can lesbians be camp?’ by Paula Graham. I found this particularly interesting because my supervisor and I often discuss how camp seems to be considered the realm of gay men, when we both consider it to be a trait more easily identified in women (think Hattie Jacques). In the article, Graham suggests that ‘”camp” has become a kind of glam-talisman against the spectre of “frumpy” feminism’ (p21) and she argues that ‘cross-dressing allows gay men to flirt with sexualised loss of control. Lesbians generally want more control, not less.’ Not sure I agree with either of those statements, but an interesting read nonetheless, which made me think of the book ‘Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna’ by Pamela Robertson, which was published just two years after this article was written, and is definitely worth a read.
  • I thought I’d save the best til last. I looked at a report on a pilot study on attitudes towards homosexuality from September 1963, which was part of the Albany Trust (HCA/ALBANY TRUST/12/7), which was founded in May 1958 as a complimentary organisation to the Homosexual Law Reform Society with a remit to promote psychological health in men. The sample for the pilot was very small, around 24 I believe, and while many of the attitudes reported were negative, as might be expected for the time, most offensive was the way in which the report itself framed the negative attitudes. Apparently the study showed that there is ‘a tendency to think of homosexuals as amusing, or rather funny or ridiculous, rather in the same way as people might be inclined to think of dwarfs or small dogs, with a strong admixture of complacent and scornful superiority, although with surface sympathetic pity.’ (p12). I would be very interested to know if any of the interviewees had made the comparison with “dwarfs” or small (why ‘small’ specifically?) dogs, otherwise if it came from the people who compiled the report, perhaps they need to be interviewed in a pilot for attitudes towards short people… a good reminder that wording and language when analysing data from research needs to be considered and troubled!

I highly recommend taking a look at the collections, we barely scratched the surface during the visit. I also highly recommend the LMA LGBT History Club, which I often mention on this blog, it provides a varied space for contesting, discussing and scrutinising LGBT History and archive collections. You can find more information here.

Also, I have some exciting news, so keep your eyes on the blog for some LGBT History Month based excitement!

Call for presentations / performances

Unspeakable!

The Eleventh LGBTQ History and Archives Conference
7 December 2013, 9.30am-4.30pm
London Metropolitan Archives, 40, Northampton Road, London, EC1R 0HB

Call for Presentations / Performances

Due to much of LGBT History being shaped around legal and political landmarks relating mainly to the experiences of gay men, other queer voices often go unheard. The eleventh LGBT History and Archives Conference explores the histories and experiences of Trans, Lesbian and Bisexual people. These stories are rarely told and, if presented, often not listened to. Come and make some history.


Contributors are invited to submit proposals for performances, presentations and talks lasting ten-twenty minutes,  which explore marginalised experience within an apparently liberated community. Suggested themes: the creation, control and breaking of boundaries; self-asserted and imposed identities; labelling – the liberation and constraint of language; activism – meeting challenges

Deadline for submissions: 6 September 2013     email: ask.lma@cityoflondon.gov.uk

LGBT History app ‘Quist’

I was alerted to a new app called Quist from this Huffington Post article, and thought (since it’s free) I’d download it and give it a go.

I realise it is new, so I presume it will continue to develop and improve, but at a first glance I thought it was a nice idea, but a bit confusingly structured.

It starts by showing you a number (well, two- but presumably this will increase as content is added) of “on this day in history” events, which you can click for further information. Each is accompanied by an image, a location and a year, and a few cursory sentences explaining what happened:

The ‘explore’ menu allows you to browse the content by location or by date. Obviously there is not a great deal to explore so far, but I suppose the joy of apps like this is that they can constantly be added to, although hopefully this will extend to more of a wiki approach, to make the addition of material more democratic, wide ranging and fast.

So it’s not groundbreaking in terms of technology, it’s fairly pedestrian, but hopefully could be the start of something quite exciting that allows people to create content, discuss, respond and explore a varied and less political/legal milestone driven approach to queer history.

(ps: attempting to do an image heavy blog has led me to believe that blogspot is not really built for this…)