Throughout history, the queer community has been marginalised, persecuted and overlooked. Queer figures are regularly omitted from the history books. However, Historic England has recently announced that six “historic LGBT venues” are being recognised for reflecting Britain’s “queer history”. This recognition, in the form of the iconic blue plaques, will include landmarks such as Oscar Wilde’s London home and the residence of Anne Lister, described as “the first modern lesbian”.
This comes as a result of a research project by Historic England called Pride of Place, which encourages members of the public to contribute their own stories of LGBT+ events and people from British history. This project ties into the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England in 1967, as the Tate Britain’s Queer Art will also take place next year. Thus the question of how to commemorate queer icons from history is even more pertinent.
In 2013 the famous codebreaker Alan Turing was granted a posthumous royal pardon for his conviction in 1952 of gross indecency, and subsequent chemical castration, which was arguably the cause of his death by suicide. Although this is obviously a wonderful thing to have happened, it begs the question: why have all the other thousands of victims of persecution not received a royal pardon? Where is the justice for them?
This is symptomatic of a wider issue in the commemoration of LGBT+ people and events. Certain people do, it is true, stand out in history for ‘contributing to society’, which Alan Turing most certainly did through his Enigma machine and work at Bletchley Park, but the struggles that these famous LGBT+ figures faced were just the same as those faced by every queer person at that time. It is for this reason that Pride of Place is such an important and beneficial project, as it promotes the sharing of real stories of ordinary people who deserve to be remembered and commemorated.
However, another major issue with respect to the commemoration of queer history is the tendency to whitewash and ciswash historical events. The film Stonewall, released last year, epitomises this unpleasant phenomenon. It aims to portray the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York which sparked the beginnings of the mainstream gay rights movement, but was widely criticised for under-representing trans and non-white minorities, who in fact played a significant role in the riots. Indeed, the transgender black woman Marsha P Johnson was central to the unfurling of events, but is reduced in the film to a minor role, whilst the lead character is a cis white man. Although the intentions of the film were to commemorate this pivotal historical event in LGBT+ history, it succeeds only in highlighting one of the most significant problems in the queer community: for trans people and people of colour, commemoration and representation is even more scarce. Indeed, the houses to be recognised by Historic England all belonged to wealthy white people, and the Tate exhibition similarly features no non-white artists.
It is very easy, in commemorating an event, to think that simply saying how sad it all was and being thankful that it is over is enough. Yes, we should commemorate these queer icons from history, but not to the exclusion of others. It is important to remember that the struggle is not over for LGBT+ people, especially for the trans community and for queer people of colour. Their history is still relevant today, and we cannot simply bury that in gestures of remembrance which, though important, are ultimately passive. We should commemorate these LGBT+ figures, and recognise what they did. Let us not simply remember the events of the past, but rather let us be inspired by them to continue fighting for equality.
Image: Nancy Dowd