Event review: Queering the British Library

Louise Morgan PhD Candidate in History (University of Warwick)


Queer History Warwick, in collaboration with the Library and the Oral History Network, was delighted to welcome Steven Dryden for a presentation and discussion of the British Library’s collections relating to queer history. As Broadcast Recordings Curator at the British Library, Steven co-curated the 2017 exhibition Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty, as well as writing a number of articles on queer history. Split into two sessions – one on queer history and one on oral history – Steven’s presentation took us on a whirlwind tour of the history of queer identities throughout Britain. Beginning with early modern depictions of queerness, leading through the HIV/AIDS crisis, and concluding with the ongoing battle for full equality, the complexity of being and studying ‘queer’ was introduced.

Of particular interest to the audience were the wide range of sources that Steven used to illustrate these histories. In looking at the criminalisation of homosexuality, sources such as a pamphlet of the last dying words of D. T. Myers, who was executed for crime the of having sex with another man, provided stark insight to the lived experience of those prosecuted. Visual sources such as photos of Maud Allan as Salomé brought in another dimension of late nineteenth century queerness, allowing us to think about the experiences of women considered sexually deviant in society, and how this linked to queerness. Furthermore, nineteenth century photos of the Hinjra led us to consider experiences of queerness beyond the West, as well as the ways in which Westerners interacted with – or attempted to shape – these ideas.

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As our tour through queer history reached the mid-twentieth century, Steven introduced us to audio sources. Beginning with excerpts from radio shows and songs, we were able to build a picture of ‘everyday life’. Whether it was in sly jokes (such as the extract below) made about queerness – showing the national awareness of the subject – or through oral histories recalling the fight for gay liberation, these sources showed just how rich and detailed studies of queer history can be. These sources focused not only on the cisgender male homosexual experience, but also included discussions of lesbianism and trans identities. Audience questions focused not only on the content of the vast oral history collections, but also the practicalities and continuation of the collection.

HORNE: Can you help me? I’ve erred.
SANDY: Well, we’ve all erred, ducky. I mean, it’s common knowledge, ennit, Jule?
HORNE: Will you take my case?
JULIAN: Well, it depends on what it is. We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time.
HORNE: Yes, but apart from that – I need legal advice.
SANDY: Ooh – isn’t he bold? Time has not withered nor custom staled his infinite variety […]
Extract from Julian and Sandy, ‘Bona Law‘,
one of the sources discussed by Steven during his talk.

Unfortunately the discussion did have to come to an end, but Steven has kindly provided us with his slides and audio recordings. These are available on the Queer History Warwick webpage, allowing anyone to revisit these fascinating sources.

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