Revealing Stories of LGBT Voluntary Action

As you may know, each year February is LGBT History Month. What makes the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans community a ‘community’ has always had a lot to do with voluntary action. Robert Howes wrote for this blog one year ago explaining just how crucial campaigning and support groups have been in a story that stretches back over half a century.

One year on, I attended the launch of the Revealing Stories exhibition, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and put on by Robert’s colleagues at OutStories Bristol in the MShed museum. I had been hoping to be one of the oral history researchers on their project myself, until getting a job took me away from my home city. But it was great to see the team again and the exhibition they have put on.

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‘Focusing on living memory’, the exhibition was intended to ‘tell the story of how people in Bristol started to build LGBT communities and define our role in wider society’. An important part of this is that the exhibition has been integrated within the ‘Bristol Life’ section of the museum, rather than given a separate space. This means that LGBT campaigning is represented just the same as the abolitionists or women’s suffrage campaigners are elsewhere in the museum.

Indeed, voluntary action features prominently in this exhibition. Today’s internet-savvy generation can overlook just how important access to information has been in the form of ‘gay switchboards’. This is represented by the telephone and desk that was Bristol Lesbian and Gay Switchboard when it was started in 1975. Such initiatives also had a support role, with some callers knowingly speaking to another gay person for the first time in their lives.

Paraphernalia relating to numerous political  campaigns includes the ‘Scrap the Section’ protest against Section 28 and the Bristol Pride Parade in 2012, which took on an anti-racist aspect when the English Defence League decided to march on the same day. Fighting prejudice had long been a feature of LGBT campaigning, including the case of the Aled Richards Trust - a group that addressed the demonisation of gay men in the wake of the AIDS crisis, as well as providing care, education and preventive services, which was named after the first Bristol man known to die of AIDS in 1985.

Following the exhibition launch Neil Bartlett spoke, saying that gay history is fundamentally different for being written from a different perspective, one that recognises ‘the personal as a route to power’. This neatly expressed part of what makes voluntary action so crucial to LGBT history, something of which visitors to this exhibition will hopefully leave with a little more understanding.

So, VAHS Forum readers: Are you researching the history of LGBT social or support groups? Are you perhaps involved with them today and interested in their history? How do we acknowledge this as part of what is distinctly LGBT History at the same time as giving it recognition as part of the history of voluntary organisations and social action? There are some excellent things happening this LGBT History Month, but where should we go next?

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4 Responses to Revealing Stories of LGBT Voluntary Action

  1. Gareth Millward says:

    Timely, given the debate in the Commons due today!

    The switchboard idea is very interesting from my own work’s perspective, as this is similar to what disabled groups did at roughly the same time. With telephones becoming cheaper to install and maintain, the “helpline” became an important source of information for disabled people and other groups. I know nothing of their history, I must admit, but I would assume The Samaritans opened their services in the period around the late-70s to early-80s too?

    DIAL was created in 1981 (I think?) as an information line for disabled people. However, it is now under threat as Scope, who took over the organisation in 2008, has threatened it with closure. This has been politically sensitive, partly for nostalgic reasons, and partly for access reasons. Regardless of the rise of the internet, it is still easier for older people or certain people with sight impairments to use the phone (which they’re familiar with) than having to learn and adapt themselves to newer forms of technology (which they might not yet have access to).

  2. Dale Wakefield says:

    The Samaritans were founded twenty plus years earlier by Chad Varra in 1953. That and London Switchboard, were the inspiration for Bristol Gay Switchboard, added to personal reasons of course ….

    • Gareth Millward says:

      Wow, that’s quite a lot earlier. Interesting. Especially considering (one would assume) the costs of telephony were much higher for the average household in the 50s.

  3. Chris Leigh says:

    Thanks George for your article on our Revealing Stories exhibition – and your contribution to it prior to your move to pastures new. Bristol’s loss is Liverpool’s gain!

    Until the last half century LGBT people were social outcasts and sex between men totally illegal until 1967. Consequently the development of LGBT social and support groups and political activism is relatively undocumented.

    Interestingly here in Bristol most long-standing gay activists (myself included) were completely oblivious to the significance of a local man Michael Dillon as the first female-to-male transexual to undergo sexual reassignment surgery.

    There are a number of local LGBT community history groups around the country – notably Brighton, Bristol, Liverpool, Nottingham, Glasgow and Edinburgh. For anyone interested in this area of research there are some links on the OutStories Bristol links page.

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