Why does LGBTQ heritage matter?
The influence of ‘queer’ people upon Britain’s social, cultural, intellectual, and economic spheres resonates across time and space – LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) heritage is everywhere. Yet stories about Britain’s national and cultural heritage tend to reflect a ‘heterosexual past’; ‘queer’ history and heritage has been blighted by the long criminal persecution and moral condemnation of gender and sexual nonconformity.
Identifying LGBTQ heritage
‘Heritage’ has as much to do with place and history as it does with identity and culture. Broadly, it is about the preservation, commemoration and restoration of a nation’s cultural legacies.
‘LGBTQ’ heritage can therefore refer to the histories of individuals and communities who have been marginalised on the grounds of their ‘alternative’ sexual and/or gender identifications and practices. Equally, its definition can be expanded to include aspects of art, literature, and architecture whose cultural importance is, in various ways, significantly bound up with the social history of same-sex love and desire, and gender diversity.
Heritage and place
Place documents, stages, and creates history and identity. People shape place, and place shapes people. This intertwined relationship between space and the social allows a way of understanding how sexually nonconformist attachments were formed in certain places, and how those relationships, past and present, adapt and alter heterosexual understandings of intimacy, family life, friendship, and ways of loving and desiring.
Domestic spaces have long afforded privacy and sanctuary to those leading sexually unconventional lives. For example, in the early decades of the twentieth-century, Priest’s House, a Kentish country house in the grounds of Smallhythe Place, was home to theatre director and producer Edith Craig, who lived in a ménage-a-trois with writer Christopher St John (previously Christabel Marshall) and artist Clare ‘Tony’ Atwood. Here, they led productive lives as lovers and as colleagues.
In the city
‘Queer’ heritage finds wide and varied expression in the city. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, London’s Soho district in particular, for example, was home to a vivacious underground world of clubs and bars. Whilst very few, if any, of these bars were specifically established for LGBTQ people, they functioned as tolerant social spaces for London’s queer population.
Activism, community, resistance
Heritage can be about more than place – it can relate to other forms of cohesion that bring communities together and elementally shape social identities. Political activism and campaigning might therefore be considered a kind of heritage, one that is crucial to LGBTQ people and their ongoing struggle against legal oppression and social marginalisation.
The 1970s and 1980s saw a particular surge in this activity. Identity-based groups, such as the Gay Liberation Front (formed in October 1970), women’s liberation and black feminist organisations, fostered broad communities of resistance, turning houses, bars, pubs, and queer-based shops into political bases and headquarters.
The rapid rise in HIV/AIDS diagnoses during the latter decades of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries gave particular impetus to these political battles. A significant part of the preservation of LGBTQ heritage is concerned with the commemoration of lives lost and demystification of the ongoing stigma attached to homosexuality and HIV.
Recovering marginalised histories
‘Queer’ heritage is about remembering and, in a way, celebrating, a painful and complicated past, as well as repairing and restoring it. Some narratives of certain LGBTQ histories are overt and well-known, such as the life of the sexually adventurous writer, poet, and gardener Vita Sackville-West. Others are more obscure and speculative.
Understanding and foregrounding LGBTQ heritage opens up the possibility for recovering those histories and telling the stories of the people of Britain’s queer past on their own terms.