Olivia Hennessy (she/her) ‘Decolonising Queer History in Britain’
My name is Olivia Hennessy, and I recently completed my third year of BA (Hons) History. I am pursuing a Master’s degree at the University of Leicester in September, specifically Museum Studies. From this, I made the decision to involve myself in the Decolonising @ Lincoln Project to broaden my understanding of decolonisation in educational and curatorial practises.
The Decolonising@Lincoln Project (D@L) highlights how the colonial past has a negative impact on our present and unjustly excludes particular groups of people, ideas, and practices. In order to reintegrate them into our teaching, learning, research, and administrative practices, it aims to reclaim suppressed voices and excluded types of knowledge and practice.
I decided to specifically focus on establishing a university syllabus about decolonising Queer History in Britain as a new approach. This syllabus has been visually broken down through a zine alongside a reading list implemented on the University of Lincoln library, including readings and films produced by people of colour.
Additionally, I produced a Word document describing how the syllabus may use creative assessments rather than essays. Since essays are notoriously challenging, having more creative assessments will allow students, and students from disadvantaged backgrounds, to approach decolonising Queer History in new and innovative ways. Podcasts and interviewing activists are included as the proposed assessments, enabling students to develop their skills in public history and communication.
This project addresses the D@L agenda to challenge the White Euro-American dominance of knowledge production by uncovering marginalised knowledge that is missing from subject disciplines and practices.
The aim of the project is to understand Queer British History through a decolonised perspective, assessing Black and Asian British queer identities, desires, and lives through films, documentaries, literature, and photographs. Specifically, Queer People of Colour and Asians in Twentieth Century Britain are the chosen marginalised groups for the syllabus. Some of the academics incorporated into this proposed syllabus are Ronald Cummings, Kobena Mercer, Jason Okundaye, Ajamu X, Topher Campbell and more. These academics give a comprehensive understanding of how decolonising queer history can be associated in Britain.
I decided to work on the proposed project as decolonisation is an important topic that needs to be discussed between students and staff more in our university community, particularly how intersectionality should play a significant role in decolonising the curriculum. I would like to conduct more research on this type of syllabus, especially how it may be applied to subjects other than history. This notion was inspired by Sabah Choudrey’s book ‘Supporting Trans People of Colour’ where Choudrey argued that Black Queers had to fight twice as hard to be ‘seen, heard, and loved.’ (14) Choudrey is a black transgender individual who shares their own contemporary experiences of feeling alienated as black and transgender. The research, education and content for this syllabus is relevant since racial and ethnic Queer communities continue to face discrimination in the United Kingdom.
The outcome of the zine was incredible! I have had a lot of interest from students and staff for either a paper or online copy. This demonstrates how important it is to decolonise Queer History through the university curriculum!
What I found compelling was Dr Simon Obendorf’s feedback on the reading list. Obendorf leads the Decolonising@Lincoln project and also specialises in gender, sexuality and decoloniality. He mentioned that this is very distinctively British and mostly Black British approach but very impressive. Obendorf also commented that Asia is more than just South Asia and looking at global history more generally. He gave a fantastic suggestion to look at the colonial legacy of anti-gay laws worldwide. This feedback has made me consider how to produce a global approach to Decolonising Queer History, which will be undertaken when I pursue my Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester.
Overall, D@L has enabled me to think more broadly about approaching Queer History through a decolonised lens. This opportunity is part of a progression towards my future studies at Leicester, described by Obendorf as ‘an awesome trajectory – a great success story’ and that a ‘showcase of decolonial work would be a great idea’. Racial and ethnic queer lives and histories should be seen and heard all year round!
This post is the result of a talk I did for the School of Architecture and the Built Environment as an effort to process my own growing awareness of decolonising education. I wanted to share this process as a reflection and hope that somewhere something may resonate with readers.
February in the UK is LGBT+ History Month: a time for reflection, celebration, and activism by and for lesbian, gay, bisexual trans, and non-binary folk. Certainly, there is much to remember, and even more of which we should be rightfully proud. But there is also a growing need to be aware of the challenges facing our communities. The increased prevalence in public discourse of certain forms of intolerance – especially against trans and gender non-conforming people – is something we must be steadfast in resisting. We should not lose sight of the fact that LGBT+ History Month is held in February precisely to commemorate the successful campaign of activism that led to the repeal of the discriminatory Section 28 of the UK’s Local Government Act. Together we are stronger; together we can change our society for the better.
Recent controversies should also inspire us to remember the importance of solidarity. We must recognise that many people with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities or gender expressions are marginalised not only by mainstream society but too often within supposedly inclusive LGBT+ spaces as well. In the West, political activism has been reasonably successful in articulating rights claims and carving out spaces for social participation for particular groups of lesbians, gay men, bisexual folk and trans people (the LGBT of the acronym). But we have paid far less attention to intersectional experiences of oppression and the lives and needs of those represented by the supposed catch-all of the “+” in “LGBT+”. This LGBT+ History Month, I’d like us to spend a bit more time thinking about these issues – inside and beyond the plus. Here I am inspired by thinkers from queer of colour scholarship and those seeking to bring decolonial perspectives to bear on issues of gender and sexuality.
So, what might unpacking some of these issues lead us to consider? Firstly, it would involve acknowledging that anyone’s experience of sexuality or gender is shaped by a range of other factors: age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture, migrant status, bodily capacity, class, education, location, profession, to name just a handful. For too long, much of our activism, commemoration, politics and practice in the West has centred the experience of white, Western, cis-gendered, non-disabled people. If we are truly to embrace and value diversity in our communities, we have to start by asking ourselves how diverse and inclusive they already are. There are heartening steps being taken here, from programmes combating sexual racism to the development of connections and resources regarding sexuality and gender in, by and for particular faith-based, ethnic or social groups. But more urgently needs to be done in order to make LGBT+ spaces and politics ones in which non-white, non-cis, non-Western and/or non-normative people and bodies see themselves recognised, valued and included. The Black lesbian scholar Audre Lorde famously wrote: “community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretence that these differences do not exist.”
Secondly, this should lead to us think about the stories we tell and the experiences we centre. Whether it be the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969, the election to the Board of Supervisors and subsequent assassination of Harvey Milk in San Francisco in 1977-78, the emergence of the Gay Liberation Front in the Britain of the 1970s or the rise, oppression and rebirth of queer society in Berlin during the 20th century, it can sometimes seem as if the LGBT history we celebrate and remember took place within a handful of postcodes in majority-White, Western cities, with White, cis-gendered gay men as its key actors. If we are truly to remember LGBT+ history, we must ensure that the contribution of women, drag practitioners, trans and non-binary folk and people of colour is never overlooked. To take just one example, when we consider the history of the Stonewall riots we do not celebrate and honour enough the central roles played by people like Marsha P Johnson (a Black gender-non conforming drag queen), Zazu Nova (a Black trans sex worker), Stormé DeLarverie (a butch lesbian drag king) and Sylvia Rivera (a Latinx trans person). The heroes who fought many of the early battles for LGBT+ freedom and inclusion are largely from the communities that are still, currently, under the most attack and experiencing the most oppression. We would better honour their memories by ensuring the inclusion they fought for is extended to everyone today.
Finally, I would like us to be more sensitive to terminology. Those who do not fit into the categories of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT), deserve to be spoken of more – and with more respect and recognition. These folk deserve much more than just a “plus”; they are not just an addendum after the main event. Inclusion matters. Here in the UK, we need much greater awareness and sensitivity towards those who live and identify as queer, asexual, aromantic, genderqueer, intersex, non-binary, pansexual, polyamorous, genderfluid or polysexual (and the list could continue!). There’s a wealth of rich, beautiful, fascinating history and experience that we should be celebrating and recognising.
This need for better awareness – and more sensitive language – becomes even more urgent when we widen our view. In their modern, globally circulating form, gay, lesbian, bisexual and even trans identities have emerged from very Western socio-historical experiences. Recently, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) recognised publicly that many of the terms used to describe our communities “are of Western origin, and that, in particular, the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer represent concepts of personal identity that are not universal.” They pointed to the fact that around the world people conceive of their gender and sexualities in different ways, use different terms to describe them and prioritise different things in their gender/sexuality activism. Whether it be gender liminal categories such as the kathoey of Thailand, the hijra of India, the fa’afafine of Samoa, or the two-spirit of indigenous North American cultures, or the new types of identity coalescing around same-gender attraction such as同志 (tongzhi) in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, the varieties of gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation – and the terms used to describe them – are as diverse and polyglot as our planet itself. Accordingly, many NGOs and international organisations are now shifting away from using language like LGBT+ to more accurate and inclusive acronyms like SOGIESC (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression and Sexual Characteristics). Groups like the IOM and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) SOGIE Caucus are at the vanguard of making us think more critically and inclusively about the terms we use and how we use them. Roberto Kulpa and Joseli Maria Silva capture some of this in their piece “Decolonizing Queer Epistemologies”: “we need not only to look for ‘non-Western’ examples of the world-wide diversity. Rather, and perhaps foremost, we must reconceptualise our own practices of ‘doing knowledge’”.
This LGBT+ History Month, I encourage you to take some time to consider how those of us in the LGBT community have “done knowledge”. Whose stories have we told? What language and terms have we used? Whose voices, histories, bodies and struggles have been seen to count? Whose identities, politics and futures have been made central. And what – and who – has been overlooked or left out? We have so much to celebrate. But we also have much still to do, so many battles still to fight. Recognising and celebrating the diversity and richness of our communities is a necessary first step towards standing in solidarity with those whose voices have for too long, especially in Western LGBT activism, been marginalised, silenced, or ignored. Celebrating our successes is important. But so too is recognising that new forms of oppression, discrimination and prejudice are emerging within the UK – and elsewhere – today. Similarly, we must acknowledge that, in 2023, the legacy of British colonialism continues to shape understandings, laws and values to do with sexuality and gender in damaging ways around the world. Recognising the depth and diversity of our histories and the plurality of our communities is key to building better futures. And this will require many of us to broaden our view, deepen our understanding and be more ambitious in our goals. As José Esteban Muñoz, challenged us in his book Cruising Utopia: “We must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds”.
In the past, I have been invited to speak on behalf of the charity Mermaids [link: www.mermaidsuk.org.uk] at Trans Day of Remembrance (TDoR) events at the University of Lincoln. So, it was especially meaningful to be asked to speak in my own right at the most recent, student organised TDoR event and vigil, on Sunday 20th November 2022. On Monday 20th February I have been invited to speak by the University of Lincoln’s student Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, Humanities and Heritage School. Please join me!
The social impact of the COVID pandemic had emphasised the importance of connection, community and solidarity to many of us in the trans including non-binary community, where the isolating effects of prejudice and discrimination are already significant challenges. This has been compounded over recent years in the UK by a growing trend of hostile rhetoric in politics and the media, creating an environment where reported hate crimes and incidents break shameful new records year on year.
This past December, I was given the opportunity to create my own zine (available here on the Library website: Queer Love: An Invisible History) with the workshop that the lovely University of Lincoln staff hosted in the Library. Knowing little about zines, this event allowed me to unravel a rich queer history of self-expression. Much more than a booklet, the zine was a movement, an outlet, and a message to society. One in which allowed LGBTQ+ people to become fiercely visible in the face of oppression. Let me guide you through this rich cultural history as I take you back in time.
Tell’d is an independently published, queer led zine which curates local queer art, accounts and writing. Our aim is to aid in the communication of local queer people, especially those from isolated areas, something common in Lincolnshire – as well as to provide a source for marginalised local creatives to safely display their work. Our zine celebrates positive representation and visibility for the LGBTQ+ community in a place with few queer spaces and outlets.
We are currently working on our 3rd edition. We are so proud or our zine; editions 1 and 2 are full of such wonderful work. People are submitting written accounts, reflections, poems, art and photography – highlighting the wealth of talent from Lincolnshire’s LGBTQ+ community. Furthermore, people are making positive connections with other local creatives, discovering and championing their work. People have also expressed that they have found solace, reassurance and inspiration through engaging with the zine’s content. Tell’d is an outlet for celebrating people’s lived experiences and with this in mind, we are currently applying for funding to produce a book; we want to expand the scope of Tell’d zine, harnessing and exploring the positive response we have had so far.
The book will incorporate all forms of creative expression – as we have seen in the zine so far, but will have more focus on the stories, accounts and experiences of Lincolnshire’s LGBTQ+ community, past and present. This will be a powerful way of documenting queer histories, histories and lived experiences that are very difficult to access in Lincolnshire. To generate a book of these stories would provide a rich resource for LGBTQ+ heritage. It will help people to realise the richness of our county’s social and cultural fabric which will in turn help younger generations and people struggling with their identity/sexuality to feel connected with their peers. This project will help us to understand the social and cultural context of the LGBTQ+ community within different times and spaces.
We have had a great response to the initial stages of the book so far. We are calling out for anybody who would like their stories (or artwork) to be a part of this book. We would greatly appreciate this! We are happy to gather these stories by any means – for example, you could email them, send a word doc or we could gather them orally, recording them in an environment which suits you best. If you would like to find out more or have any questions at all, please email us at: email@example.com or on Instagram/FB @telldzine
And please remember – we are always looking for submissions for our zine – this is an ongoing call out!
Lindsay has been in discussions with Subject Librarian, Oonagh Monaghan about further collaborations including the planning of a Tell’d book, and has featured the current LGBTQ+ History Month display and zines promotion in the next issue of Tell’d which will be available soon!
By Jemima Sims
Library Assistant in the Main University Library
Founded in 2004, LGBTQIA+ History month is upon us, and the theme is “Behind the Lens”. In February 2023, the UK will celebrate the people behind the scenes of stage and screen, such as costume designers, composers, playwrights, screenwriters, make-up artists and many more. Queer actors and actresses are gaining more visibility than ever, however the people off-screen are often unknown, and their contributions are huge.
The University Library have put together some social media posts to celebrate these talented and creative people, beginning with some of the most exciting costume designers in history; Adrian, Orry-Kelly and Patricia Field.
During LGBTQI+ History Month, the Library is blogging and sharing resources on social media to further shed light on the content we have which may be of use in research or for general interest purposes. In preparation for this, we conducted a brief survey of our databases and, in particular, I wanted to see if some of our less obvious databases also contained pertinent content on LGBTQI+ subjects and issues.
Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Change takes a long time, but it does happen and that fight for change also needs people behind it to fight for what is right and fair and to end discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. What we need to avoid, is for the change to be a negative and regressive pulling back of hard fought-for rights.
For 2022, the Library has a great new reading list which includes many new titles that have just arrived in the Library. In addition to new titles, there are also examples of other books and resources which link to the theme ‘Politics in Art: ‘The Arc Is Long’
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.