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Queering Black British Archives – #LGBTHM

I was invited to give a workshop looking into the possible LGBTQI content in the Autograph Collection The Missing Chapter. This project is an archive of Black presence in photographs from the 1800s. This is an amazing project showing that Black people ie people of African descent were in the UK way before the Windrush landed in Tilbury in 1948.  In fact Black people have always been in Great Britain from Roman times till now.

But what about Black LGBT presence in the history of the UK?

This post is part of the presentation I gave with Ama Josephine Budge of Hysterical Feminisms at Autograph ABP.

When looking at pictures of Black people in image archives we often assume heterosexuality and non-transgender presence because our education and culture is heterocentric and cis-centric. How can we decolonize our imaginations with such relentless dominant narratives?

From a young age LGBTQ people are hypervigilant. It is part of our survival mechanism to try to access who is “safe”. We monitor micro-gestures, tone of voice, who looks at who for longer than is culturally acceptable, body language, and just something we might refer to vaguely as “energy”. We become experts in what is jokingly called gaydar. However I think as LGBTQI people are becoming more accepted in mainstream heterosexual society, our gaydar has become distorted and weakened by normative and homogenised (white) queerness constantly fed to us by mainstream culture. This may cause us not to “see” people of African descent as LGBTQI, now or in history.

In order to “queer” archives we need to get in touch with an inner Queer Detective and develop a queer gaze which can decode secret signs and symbols of same-sex desire from history. For instance green carnations were worn to signal gay male desire in the 1800s. Violets and the colour lavender were used to signal lesbian desire. One of the images which comes from the Autograph ABP collection clearly shows a queer black man and his queer white friends all wearing carnations in their lapels. The photograph was taken in Stirling in the 1870s. They left us a message through history, that they were there.

Sadly because LGBTQI people have been pathologised by the medical profession we will be well documented as “ill” in historical medical archives and also included in mental health archives. Paul Downing was a transman who was sent to the City of London Asylum in September 1905 after he was arrested on Blackfriars Bridge where he had been searching for his wife. He died in the asylum in under a year. His image has come to light because of the research of Dr Caroline Bressey who is the Director of The Equiano Centre in UCL, set up to study Black History in the UK.

LGBT people can be found in court records and archives because it was illegal to be a gay man till 1967 in the UK. It was never illegal to be a lesbian in the UK, because well banning it might have made women aware of it as a choice or patriarchy never considered lesbianism “real”. That Queen Victoria couldn’t countenance lesbianism was a myth.

Many people who were assigned female at birth took on male personas to gain
employment and some we now understand may have been transgender. The British navy has often been associated with queerness – Sir William Churchill said that the only naval traditions were “rum, sodomy and the lash”.  The first transgender person in the British navy was a black transman called William Brown who joined and served on the HMS Queen Charlotte in 1804.

QPOC Kent couple 1918 courtesy James Gardiner Collection

QPOC Kent couple 1918 courtesy James Gardiner Collection

Some people have in their personal archives Black LGBTQI images found from discarded photographs or old family albums where people may look at images and assume obligatory heterosexuality without digging deep to investigate the possibility of bisexual or same-sex desiring people in the images.

I was delighted to be sent an image of a Black butch-femme lesbian couple by James Gardiner, co-founder of the VITO Project, from his collection of images. This couple is elegantly dressed and must have had some money to be able to pay for a photo in 1918. They took this photograph in Kent.

Queer Detectives can dig deep in family albums, house clearances, car boot sales, mainstream archives to seek out images of Black queer people who existed in the UK before it was legal.

We owe it to our queer PoC ancestors to seek them out, to remind us that our Black LGBT presence is part of the fabric of Great Britain.



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