This blog originally appeared on the Huffington Post UK site (www.huffingtonpost.co.uk)
This year we have marked the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. Exhibitions such as Queer British Art at the Tate, and Love, Law and Liberty at the British Library, have provided a platform for LGBT voices to tell their own stories of repression, resistance, and reform. This bottom-up approach is to be welcomed. It recognises the contributions made by LGBT people from all walks of life.
However, this approach to LGBT history tends to emphasise the victim’s experience of homophobia. It takes for granted that homophobia is still a collective experience which, increasingly, it is not.
Consider Love, Law and Liberty, which charts the gay rights struggle from the Wilde trial to same-sex marriage. The exhibition strikes a defiant pose. To young(ish) gay people like me, growing up at a time when the LGBT community enjoys greater visibility and acceptance than ever before, artefacts such as the poster for the 1984 ‘Pits and Perverts’ concert, and the Gay Liberation Front manifesto (signed off: ‘Gay is Good!’) still hold immense power.
Yet the exhibition contained only a limited material record of homophobia. One of the few examples of this was a vile homophobic cartoon, printed in the Sun after Justin Fashanu became the first openly gay British footballer. That was 1990 – in my lifetime.
Homophobia is of course implicit in any gay history. How could it not be? But failing to showcase it alongside the paraphernalia of progress does present and future generations a disservice.
I believe the time is right for an exhibition of homophobia in British culture. Such an exhibition would need to be handled with care. It should not leave LGBT visitors feeling vulnerable. It should be a reminder of what we all had to deal with in the not-too-distant past and what many of us, sadly, still confront today. It should promote solidarity in an era of identity politics and proliferating subcultures. Since the struggle for equality has moved on from tackling discriminatory laws to social and cultural discrimination, an exhibition of homophobia should build community across the LGBT spectrum.
Peter Tatchell has spent over a decade pressing for London to have a museum of gay history, believing the LGBT community to be ‘handicapped by an almost total lack of knowledge of our own past.’ Given the huge diversity of museums in London, such a project is surely warranted.
A future gay museum could dedicate a room to ‘Homophobia in the British Press.’ I would like to see a giant plaque above the entrance, engraved with the following:
‘Readers of The Sun know and speak and write words like poof and poofter. What is good enough for them is good enough for us.’ – The Sun, 1990.
‘The perverts have got the heterosexual majority with their backs against the wall (the safest place actually)’ – The Star, 1986.
‘Permissive Hosts Must Pay the Bill’ – The Times, mid-1980s.
More recent specimens of homophobia in the press could be placed nearer the exit. Dr. Donna Smith, author of Sex, Lies and Politics, notes that as recently as 2006 headlines such as: ‘LIB DEMS IN CRISIS OVER GAY SEX SHAME’ (Daily Express) and ‘A SECOND LIMP-DEM CONFESSES: I’M GAY TOO’ (The Sun) were deemed acceptable.
Rachel Foss, lead curator of the British Library exhibition, told the Guardian that it represents ‘a living history that is fragmented, punctuated by gaps and still evolving.’
A gay museum for London with a dedicated exhibition of cultural homophobia would help to fill the gaps. Unlike recent curations, this would track expressions of homophobia in the mass media – the media that are most relevant to ordinary LGBT people’s daily lives. Most importantly, I hope that it would educate today’s LGBT youth about how recently social attitudes towards sexuality have evolved and why, therefore, they still need to be defended.