I remember the first time I went to the Leslie-Lohman Museum, a gallery of gay and lesbian art in New York. I was 21, lonely in the city, and part of the reason I wanted to visit was to find people to talk to in a place that wasn’t a bar or club. I think I was lonely in a bigger sense too, and my interest in queer art and history was a way to connect with people, alive or dead, who inspired me with the unconventional paths they had carved through life.
There’s a surprising array of niche museums in the UK; a pencil museum in Cumberland, a dog collar museum in Leeds, and a mustard museum in Norwich, but as it stands, there is no museum dedicated to LGBTQI+ history, arts and culture. No one-stop-shop for kids to learn about the rich history of gay rights (which still isn’t taught about in schools), or for queer people to go and reflect on their political and personal identities. Which is why protestors took to the streets of London today to demand one.
The group of activists and queer historians started at 9am this morning, leaving a pink filing cabinet outside the former site of a Victorian Molly House in Camden, before moving on to nine other historic locations to do the same, including Regent’s Park, the home of London’s first Black Pride, and King Street in Covent Garden, which was the Gay Liberation Front’s meeting place.
Granted, the pink filing cabinet is a bit of an obvious metaphor, but it’s there to ask an obvious question: why is the history of gay rights still made invisible, still made to gather dust?
For me, a permanent gay and trans rights museum in the UK is a no brainer. It would be an acknowledgement that this history exists – that people had to fight for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, which has its 50th birthday next year. It would be a place for queer people to convene, which is especially important given that so many other gay spaces are closing their doors in London. It would support queer artists. And it would educate people, straight, LGBTQI+ or otherwise, about an important part of the UK’s history.
Dan Glass is one of the activists involved in running today’s campaign. For him, there are two main arguments in favour of the museum. “I think it would be nourishing,” he says, “It would bring a sense of belonging, identity, depth to who we are and where we’re from.” There are also, he believes, more practical benefits: “On an economic level, it will provide huge amounts of tourism to London, putting us on the map as a pioneering city that cherishes what its LGBTQI+ population brings to society.”
On a personal level, Dan believes that a space like this is not just wanted but vitally needed. “Like so many other LGBTQI+ people, I haven’t had the easiest ride in understanding who I am and who paved the way for me before. When I was depressed and experiencing homophobia, an LGBTQI+ history museum would have done me a world of good. Luckily I survived through that time but a huge number of less fortunate kids don’t. I know we have Pride, but that’s mostly lead by cis, white, able bodied gay men. This museum would need to celebrate every section of the community.”
When I went to the Leslie Lohman, the show that was on was at the time was the work of photographer Del LaGrace Volcano, who bulldozes binary ideas of gender, race and sexuality. In that exhibition, I saw bodies I’d never seen before, some naked, some up close and personal; androgynous bodies, transitioning bodies, intersexed bodies. It was an education, and one I wished would have been available to me a little closer to home.
When I think how New York has that space, and Berlin has the Schwules Museum, which has been dedicated to exhibitions about gay culture since 1985, I feel even more puzzled about why London doesn’t have a space like the one Dan describes. It’s not like the demand is not there; mainstream museums and art institutions in the UK regularly dedicate their walls to LGBTQI exhibitions; portraits of LGBT Jewish people recently went on display at the Jewish Museum and there’s the upcoming “Queer British Art” show at the Tate.
Could it be something to do with funding? “Of course. In the age of austerity, the government would say ‘we can’t afford that’,” says Dan, when I put this question to him, “But I really think it’s up to the Greater London Authorities to provide it. The GLA are spending money on things like the Garden Bridge across the River Thames. I mean, the mind boggles. It’s like, ‘really? Is that celebrating the beauty and breadth of London communities?’”
Amelia Abraham is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to Refinery29