After learning he had impregnated Anne Boleyn in January 1533, Henry VIII wed her in secret and annulled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon — an act that caused England to leave the Catholic Church. The same year the king broke sacred covenants in the name of patriarchy, the British Parliament passed the Buggery Act, outlawing sodomy throughout the nation and by extension what would later become the British Empire.
For over 300 years, homosexuality was criminalized, convictions under the law punishable by death. It wasn’t until 1861 that the British government passed Offences Against Person Act, replacing the death penalty with a minimum 10-year prison sentence. Progress, such as it was, was short. Under the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, any male homosexual act was deemed illegal, whether a witness was present or not. All the court needed to pursue an indictment was a mere scrap of evidence, like a letter expressing affection between two men.
A decade later, celebrated writer Oscar Wilde was arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to two years hard labor under this very Act. He died destitute three years after his release at the age of 46. Wilde’s tragic fate bespeaks that of so many others who had neither the fame nor ability to publicize their case. Yet the British persecution of homosexuality did not abate. It wasn’t until 1967 that the government decriminalized private homosexual acts between men over age 21 — a step taken as a result of the 1957 Wolfenden Report that determined homosexuality was not a disease — decades ahead of it’s U.S. counterparts.
Speak Its Name
Sure enough, progress proved short lived as the British government quickly found new ways to target the LGBTQ community. They used the Street Offences Act of 1959, an anti-prostitution ordinance, to go after men meeting on the street. Then, while the AIDS epidemic raged on, Conservative politicians legalized Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which prohibited local authorities, councils, and schools from “promoting” and funding LGBTQ initiatives, further marginalizing vulnerable populations.
It wasn’t until February 2003 that Section 28 was finally repealed — an act that kicked off the start of LGBTQ History Month. The following year, the tides finally began to turn with the Civil Partnership Act and the Gender Recognition Act, which gave trans people full legal recognition. The Equality Act 2010 extended legal protection to LGBTQ employees at work and the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013, allowed them to finally wed.
While LGBTQ visibility as a result of the actions, it’s all too easy to forget or overlook the groundbreaking forces that demanded equal rights. The new exhibition, “Out and About!: Archiving LGBTQ+ history at Bishopsgate Institute”, honors the people who have paved the way for true progress with a look back at the individuals, collectives, and organizations that fought for change.
Spotlighting the work of photographers Robert Workman and Gordon Rainsford, actor Ivan Cartwright, as well as groups including OutRage!, Transfabulous, and Switchboard, the exhibition includes never-before-seen photographs, personal diaries, and ephemera documenting London’s queer community on the streets and at the clubs, speaking truth to power simply by refusing to cower and hide.
Whether marching at Gay and Lesbian Pride, demonstrating outside of Parliament, organizing a national conference to address the issues faced by gay Black men, celebrating Trans Pride, or simply dancing the night away, “Out & About!” centers the stories and perspectives that have long been marginalized. By recovering these histories, “Out & About!” makes it clear that the love that once dared not to speak its name is free to shout it from the highest rooftops.
“Out and About!: Archiving LGBTQ+ history at Bishopsgate Institute” is on view at The Curve, Barbican Centre in London through March 21, 2022.