Claire Hayward is a History PhD candidate at Kingston University. Her thesis explores representations of same-sex love in public history, including museums, historic houses, archives and monuments. She writes her own blog at https://exploringpublichistories.wordpress.com/ and tweets from @HaywardCL
Queer Objects of Affection
In an interview in 1981, Michel Foucault said that it was not sexual acts between men that troubled people, but love:
To imagine a sexual act that doesn’t conform to law or nature is not what disturbs people. But that individuals begin to love one another – there’s the problem.[i]
When considering the way in which same-sex love is represented in museums today, love between people of the same sex is equally problematic. Part of the research for my PhD thesis focuses on the way same-sex love is represented in museums, and it has become clear that while there are historic objects relating to the history of same-sex love, romantic love itself is woefully underrepresented in these.[ii]
One of the first questions I sat down to answer when I started looking at museums and their displays, was what makes an object part of the history of same-sex love, what makes it ‘queer’? Something that represents love or sex between people of the same sex, such as a love letter or token of affection? Something that belonged to or was created by someone who might now identify as queer or LGBT? An object relating to the LGBT equality movement?
Each of these categories of objects tell a completely different story, which together, create a bigger picture of the history of same-sex love. A history that is marginalised, symbolised by the fight for visibility and equality, but which is also about loving relationships, as well as individuals who might now self-identify as gay or queer. Considering that all of these objects represent the history of same-sex love in some way, it is surprising that there is so little that relates to love and the shared affection between people of the same sex.
Typical narratives of exhibitions related to the history of same-sex love instead focus on the period post-1967, when the Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised sexual acts between men (same sex acts between women had never been illegal). As such, they have an inherently political aspect: they tell the history of the gay rights movement, from 1967 through to the 1980s, covering the AIDS crisis and introduction of Section 28, then on to campaigning for equal marriage. The objects that appear the most in museum collections relate to political protests, including the annual Pride march, and take the form of slogan T-shirts, pamphlets, badges and banners.
For example, in the Museum of London’s permanent exhibition, World City: 1950s-Today, the history of the gay rights movement is placed with the history of the late-twentieth century as part of a wider social revolution. Next to a display on ‘Race and Rights’, pamphlets and badges relating to the gay rights movement are shown alongside ephemera from the women’s liberation movement. Similar displays in other museums such as the People’s History Museum (Manchester) succeed in integrating the history of same-sex love in a wider narrative, but they tell a history of queer politics, not of romantic love between two people of the same sex.
The lack of a romantic element in the majority of exhibitions is partially because of practical reasons. While we may have evidence of same-sex love before it was partially decriminalised, those who had same-sex partners or simply did not conform to social expectations of acceptable relationships would have been unlikely to keep evidence of their romantic or sexual relationships with members of the same sex for fear of prosecution. Moreover, when relationships were carried out in secret how can curators and historians now find and correctly classify objects that showed love through coded meaning?
While curators and historians cannot conjure up objects from the past to tell a historical narrative, progressive equality movements in the past few decades have allowed different narratives to be displayed and discussed. For example, a current temporary exhibition at the GLBT Museum in San Francisco displays two wedding dresses side by side. They belong to Emily Drennen and Lindasusan Ulrich, bisexual activists who married in 2003. The dresses are included in an exhibition called ‘BiConic’, which focuses on the political history of the bisexual community, a group who are marginalised within the LGBT community itself.
These dresses, then, are objects relating to both romantic love and politics. The history of same-sex love, even when political, is about a range of emotions. Although the gay rights movement fought (and continues to fight) for equality and freedom to express love between people of the same sex, exhibition displays seem to have forgotten that the movement is about emotional and sexual love as much as it is a political movement. Perhaps now the UK has achieved equal marriage, objects designed specifically for recognising same-sex love, such as cake toppers and wedding invitations, will provide a better opportunity for museums to display and discuss a more emotionally in-depth history of same-sex love.[iii]
[i] Michel Foucault, ‘Friendship as a Way of Life’, in Paul Rainbow (Ed), Michel Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, (London: Penguin, 1997), pp. 136-137.
[ii] I use the phrase ‘same-sex love’ in an attempt to avoid anachronisms. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and LGBT are modern terms we use to describe an identity. LGBT stands for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans* community, and my research does not cover trans* histories specifically.
[iii] I have listed some resources and links to objects, exhibitions and public history projects on the history of same-sex love on my own blog here (http://exploringpublichistories.wordpress.com/resources-links/). While this is not an exhaustive list of all collections relating to the history of same-sex love, it gives an overview of what is accessible in the UK today.