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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