Oral histories of love, identity and activism
- Article written by: David Govier
What was it like to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer during the course of the last century? The British Library’s oral history collections can offer a unique insight on this, with interviews from people recounting their personal experiences – many of which are not recorded in official records and cannot be heard in any other way.
The earliest lesbian experiences recorded in the collections include those of Mary Wilkins, a pacifist born in England in 1907 who worked as an ambulance driver during World War II.
Mary Wilkins on falling in love
Mary Wilkins, born in 1907, was interviewed for the Hall Carpenter Oral History Archive, a collection of 113 oral history interviews relating to lesbian and gay experience in Britain.
Early in her interview, Mary describes how her emotional feelings towards women developed during her Edwardian childhood. Later, Mary recalls her war experience when she was a thirty-something and reflects on how it informed her identity. She remembers making a promise to herself, while working as an ambulance driver during the World War II, to join a peace organisation.
She then describes listening to the pacifist and suffragist Sybil Morrison give a speech in Coventry and falling for her ‘hook, line and sinker’.
Meanwhile, many gay men found that their service in the armed forces during World War II allowed them to meet and support people just like themselves. John Alcock was in his late fifties in 1985 when he was interviewed for the Hall Carpenter Oral History Project.
John Alcock on camaraderie in the army
The decades following World War II saw massive changes in the social fabric of the nation. They were times of national and local political campaigning for gay rights. Oral history allows us to compare people’s experiences of campaigning at different levels of political debate, and to trace links between different strands of the campaign.
The Wolfenden Report, published in 1957, opened the ground for legal reform but was not implemented by the Conservative Government at the time. Allan Horsfall, a National Coal Board clerk based in Atherton, a coal-mining town in what was then Lancashire, decided to do something about it.
Allan Horsfall on local tolerance
Allan Horsfall (left; 1927–2012), here pictured with Ray Gosling (right), was recorded in 2009 for the Millthorpe Project which set out to interview LGBTQ trade unionists.
Allan co-founded the North Western Homosexual Law Reform Committee (NWHLRC), which became the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform in 2012.
The NWHLRC produced and distributed 10,000 copies of a leaflet entitled Something you should know about, using Allan’s home address for the committee.
Allan had found out that Labour MPs were unwilling to support homosexual law reform because of the potential for prejudice among their working-class voters. He used the lack of any negative reaction to his campaign (with the exception of the local press) to show that his northern mining community was more comfortable with homosexual law reform than its political representatives in London.
Meanwhile, in London, MP Leo Abse was also frustrated by the government’s lack of action following Wolfenden’s recommendations. He repeatedly presented private members bills to the House of Commons for five years before what became the Sexual Offences Act finally passed in 1967.
Former MP Leo Abse on parliamentary campaigning
After the social and legislative changes of the 1960s, the 1970s saw the rise of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the continued fight for social equality, as activist Mary McIntosh discusses in this extract.
Mary McIntosh on the Gay Liberation Front Manifesto
Gay Liberation Front Manifesto
The 1971 Gay Liberation Front Manifesto proclaimed that ‘Homosexuals, who have been oppressed by physical violence and by ideological and psychological attacks at every level of social interaction, are at last becoming angry.’View images from this item (1)
Transcriptions of the GLF manifesto can be read online but this oral history recording gives us access to the arguments behind the birth of the document, and the context within which its authors were working.
The GLF were radial in their demands, and marked a departure from previous battles for sexual equality which focused on law reform, to question the very nature of society and its structures. They would raise the consciousness of gay people and help them understand how and why they were oppressed. They saw the most powerful strategy to changing attitudes amongst LGBTQ peoples, and society at large, as ‘coming-out’, organising and being visible.
In 1972, the GLF organised the first Gay Pride march and many of its members would go on to create and bolster LGBTQ organisations that would fight to bring about massive social change over subsequent decades. However, when the GLF disbanded in late 1973, the legal and social situation had changed little, and wouldn’t for many years to come. 1988 for example, saw the passing of Section 28 (also known as Clause 28) of the Local Government Act, which represented a turn for the worse in sexual equality.
Photographer Sunil Gupta explains to interviewer Shirley Read how he understands Section 28 came about, and what it meant for him.
Sunil Gupta on Clause 28
Testimonies such as this highlight that the story of gay rights in the UK, is not one that builds on one success to another. Sometimes a backward step legislatively has the ability to mobilise a community and make their voice more coherent and louder. The LGBTQ rights organisation Stonewall was born out of the campaign against Clause 28.The Listening Project, a partnership between the BBC and the British Library, was established in 2012 to build up a picture of our lives today. These intimate conversations between friends or relatives are less structured than oral histories but they share the opportunity to hear how people feel about their lived experiences. In this extract Jesse Bartlett and Ollie Bradshaw discuss what it means to them to be non-binary in gender.
Jesse and Ollie on gender neutrality
In this discussion from two gender neutral teenagers Jesse and Ollie, they reflect on how they define themselves as well as where they get information and support.
The internet as a source for information and support may be a new development, and the gender identities the teenagers discuss may be unfamiliar to many, however the stigma and misunderstandings faced by people living as a minority are familiar and can be traced, interrogated and claimed, if desired, through the collections at the British Library Sound Archive. Sometimes being able to locate and find someone ‘like you’ in history can have an enormous galvanising effect for an individual.