50 years ago today, the Sexual Offences Act became law. It partially decriminalised homosexual acts between men. The ‘partial’ is important here as inequality still existed. There was still inequality in terms of the age of consent (that was rectified only as recently as 2001). Inequality still existed in terms of the circumstances in which gay men could have sex. Extraordinarily, the law stated that it was illegal for two men to have sex if there was anyone else in the same house.
Of course the Act still represents a huge turning point in the fight for LGBTQ rights and it is worth marking its anniversary. But that fight has not yet been won. Legal progress has been made, perhaps most notably with the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in 2013, but legal equality has not been secured. Let’s consider a couple of examples that have hit the news recently:
Firstly, for example, pension rights for same-sex couples in marriages or civil partnerships are not the same as for opposite-sex married couples – an inequity that should have been, but wasn’t, corrected with passing of ‘equal marriage’. Only this month did a court rule that same-sex spouses and civil partners should have the same rights to survivor’s pensions as opposite-sex married couples in the event of the death of one partner.
There is also the ban on gay men giving blood. Once banned altogether, this week the government announced that the time period for which gay men would have to abstain from sex in order to be permitted to give blood would be reduced from twelve to three months. Many have lauded this as progress. I don’t see it that way. For me, that such a ban even exists still suggests that there is an automatic link between homosexuality and disease, ill-health and uncleanliness, which of course there is not.
While the legal progress that has been made is positive, until we have absolute equality, some of these things feel like titbits being thrown at us to keep us happy, to keep us quiet – to keep us in our place.
But we shouldn’t keep quiet. We shouldn’t keep quiet because LGBTQ people do not yet have equality and the lived-experience of LGBTQ people still tells us of stories of abuse, discrimination, suffering and worse.
Museums have a huge role to play here. My colleague Richard Sandell wrote a blog post for the Heritage Lottery Fund this week that explores how museums can engage with LGBTQ issues and asserts that museums can take a stand on LGBTQ rights and other human rights issues, and that by doing so they can be powerful forces for social change.
What concerns me, however, is that we, the museum sector, have all too often been guilty of throwing titbits to marginalised and discriminated communities too. Often in the form of a temporary exhibition that comes and goes. That’s not to say that temporary exhibitions don’t have a role to play in highlighting particular anniversaries or events, but discriminated communities don’t come and go with an event or an anniversary. Much work was done in 2007 to make the bicentenary of the Parliamentary Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, for example. There were lots of events and temporary exhibitions, but ten years on, with a few notable exceptions, I see little legacy of that work in many museums, and, all-too-often, an ongoing interpretation of collections from colonial perspectives.
Introducing gallery trails is another strategy that many museums seem to use. These can, of course, be an excellent way of interpreting LGBTQ lives within the context of a museum’s permanent collection (see the recent work at the British Museum, for example). However, often (but by no means always) these seem to be additional extras separate from the core interpretive work of a museum. I’ve seen a couple of examples of great trails that have clearly been well researched, but are presented on photocopied bits of paper alongside the museum’s other glossy, highly-designed brochures and other literature. And while it’s heartening to see the effort put in, it does little to reduce the sense of ‘othering’ of LGBTQ people.
I don’t mean to knock these attempts at inclusion and representation (many museums don’t bother at all). They are often undertaken by very committed members of staff and volunteers, dedicated to greater inclusion and representation of marginalised communities in the museum. And I’m sure they make a real difference. We should be inspired by such work and by the people that undertake it. We must understand the hugely positive impact that museums can have on people, communities and society. This type of work must be regarded not as a nice extra, a titbit, but as the core business of the museum.
There are, of course, some fantastic examples of this type of work where it is fully embedded into the museum. The National Trust’s Prejudice and Pride project (which is supported by our Research Centre for Museums and Galleries) is a great example (which this week, incidentally, garnered celebrity support from Stephen Fry and Clare Balding). The British Museum runs brilliant object-based sex and relationship education sessions as part of its core learning offer that include an exploration of different sexualities and gender and transgender identities. The V&A includes an LGBTQ tour of the museum as part of its regular programme of events. The Rainbow Flag flies proudly in the People’s Republic Gallery at the Museum of Liverpool.
There are many other examples, but there is the potential for so much more. As Richard wrote in his post, museums really can help in the fight for full rights, representation and equality for LGBTQ people and other marginalised groups. And that matters, especially in a world where gay men are still rounded up, imprisoned and killed; in a world in which the most powerful man on the Globe can make horrifyingly transphobic public statements; in a world where young LGBTQ people are so much more likely to commit suicide than their cis hetero brothers and sisters.
So, on the anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts, let’s agree: no more titbits, let’s take a stand, let’s make a difference, let’s understand it as part of our core business, and, most importantly, let’s do it with great pride.