23 February 2012

Exploring LGBT Archives at the London Metropolitan Archives

6pm, 22nd February 2012

As part of LGBT history month, the LMA hosted an evening designed as a taster session to introduce the rich and varied LGBT-related material held there. The evening also served as an opportunity to gauge interest in a regular LGBT History month event beginning in May. The evening was hosted by Jan Pimblett, the Principal Development Officer.

LMA is the largest Local Authority Archives in the country, and is the second largest Archives in London (after the National Archives). The LGBT material (that they have identified) dates back to the 17th Century.I just thought I would highlight some of the issues in collecting and identifying material of LGBT interest that cropped up, that I thought were of particular interest:

  • Before the Wolfenden report in 1957, the majority of LGBT related materials are voiceless, in that it does not necessarily reflect the more human side of LGBT people, and rather focuses on the legal (criminality), the medical and the moral (religion, you’re all evil etc.).

  • The LMA hold an annual LGBT conference, the starting point for which was a book from the LMA library Homosexuality in Renaissance England by Alan Bray (1982) which relied heavily on the LMA archives and helped to humanise the material held about the gay community.

  • Contemporary material is disappearing. Because homosexuality was illegal until 1967, many gay men and women who lived through that time are secretive of the material they themselves own, often material has already been destroyed. Because of the secretive and “shameful” nature of the material, it is often difficult to find, people have letters hidden away in their attics, not realising the worth of them in terms of social history. If there were magazine runs, for example, they were often crudely home-made publications with very limited and finite runs.

  • Contemporary alternative voices are still being lost, stories that have never been written down need to be captured as they are disappearing, the use of oral histories and hidden diaries for example.

  • Searching for material of LGBT interest in archive catalogues is often tricky, as the word ‘gay’ would not bring up material from the 17th century, whereas words such as ‘sodomy’, ‘buggery’ or, as Oscar Wilde’s criminal record said ‘misdemeanour’ might. It’s important to take a more lateral approach to catalogue searching.

  • On the same note, it’s important not to appropriate the past with inappropriate terminology, you can’t use the word “homosexual” to describe a classical Greek pederastic relationship between a man and a boy, as the word simply didn’t exist then. “Gay” is a very contemporary term, as are the LGBT initials (which evolves every year, last time I checked, it was LGBTQQI Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex- quite the mouthful).

  • It’s also important to collect material outside of the typical, ie: queer collections often focus on either sex, or as a document of suffering. While these are important parts of the collective queer story, there are everyday people living normal lives with families, jobs and hobbies that aren’t necessarily ruled by their sex lives, or AIDs or oppression.

  • Jan recommended we take a look at A narrative of the life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke, which is available as a free Google book. She lived between 13 January 1713 – 6 April 1760 and was a renowned transvestite and lesbian who was disowned by her father. The LMA holds a letter written from her father denying her money and explaining how ashamed of her the whole family is. Very depressing, but fascinating, stuff.

  • The History Club events will be held 6pm-7.30pm on the following dates: 9 May, 6 June, 4 July, 8 August, 5 September, 10 October, 7 November and 5 December. Email ask.lma@cityoflondon.gov.uk for more information.

    No comments: