Fifty Years of UK Pride
Every February, the LGBT+ History Month charity promotes equality and diversity for the benefit of the public. As an educational charity, it increases the visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, their history, lives and their experiences in the school curriculum and culture of educational and other institutions, and the wider community. It also tries to raise awareness and advance education on matters affecting the LGBT+ community, works to make educational and other institutions safe spaces for all LGBT+ communities and promotes the welfare of LGBT+ people by ensuring that the education system recognises and enables LGBT+ people to achieve their full potential, so they contribute fully to society and lead fulfilled lives, thus benefiting society as a whole.
These aims were impossible while Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 were in force (until 2000 in Scotland, and until 2003 in England and Wales). It made expenditure by local authorities for the purpose of ‘promoting’ homosexuality illegal, without defining what ‘promoting’ means. It would have been impossible for us to hold exhibitions and events celebrating either LGBT+ History Month or Pride Month while Section 28 remained in force, as the Museum Service is funded by a Local Authority. Although the Act applied only to Local Authorities and not to schools (‘Section 28 does not affect the activities of school governors, nor of teachers … It will not prevent the objective discussion of homosexuality in the classroom, nor the counselling of pupils concerned about their sexuality’), its greatest effect was on the education sector, which took an ultra-cautious approach.
By the late 1990s, Section 28 was becoming irrelevant. Social changes had led away from the view that homosexual behaviour was wrong (a view held by almost 70% of people at the time that Clause 28 was written) to a much more accepting attitude. LGBT+ people were becoming more visible in the media and different campaigning groups had begun to influence public opinion. In 2000, the government attempted to repeal Section 28, but it was defeated in the House of Lords, a defeat that Theresa May (later Prime Minister) called ‘a victory for common sense’. The Scottish government did repeal it. In 2003, the Local Government Act 2003 finally did away with Section 28 in England and Wales.
The Arc Is Long
This year is 50th anniversary of the very first UK Pride March in 1972. A popular slogan of the early Gay Rights Movement was ‘the personal is political’ and political action is necessary to bring the personal lives and experiences of LGBT+ people into equality with the rest of society. The journey is continuing and often winding; it has suffered many setbacks, such as the passing of Clause 28, while still moving forwards. The charity chose the tagline ‘the arc is long’ for this year’s event, from Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice’.
Art is probably the most individual of pastimes, so the charity chose Art as its National Curriculum link for this year. The organisers looked for five artists (one each to represent L, G, B, T and +) who had either used their art for political ends, or expressed their orientation through their work. Lesbian Doris Brabham Hatt and intersex (the + of the charity’s name) Fiore de Henriquez both fought against fascism in the 1930s. Keith Haring’s well-known dancing figures were used to draw attention to the growing AIDS crisis of the early 1980s. Jean-Michel Basquiat began as a graffiti artist and Mark Aguhar’s short life was spent ‘confronting white hegemony’.
The charity has produced poster-sized factsheets for each artist, which are on display at North Hertfordshire Museum. There is also a short quiz designed for young adults to encourage them to read the posters.
The museum has put up a small display in the Terrace Gallery. It includes the first Civil Partnership certificate issued in North Hertfordshire (21 December 2005), paintings by Margaret Thomas (who lived with her same-sex partner for sixty years) and Katie Wilson (a local transgender woman), and information about James Allen, a transgender man who was landlord of The Sun (now The Victoria) in Baldock about 1809.
The word transgender is obviously related to ideas about gender, yet too many people (including some who ought to know better) confuse the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sex’. Add ‘sexuality’ into the mix and there is then huge room for muddle. Matters are made all the worse by assuming that all three features are biological in origin.
A person’s sex certainly is biological. Most humans have twenty-three pairs of chromosomes in each cell of their bodies; one pair of these chromosomes (the so-called sex chromosome or allosome) contains X (which carries 1,846 genes) or Y types (with 454 genes). If a person has two X chromosomes in each pair, they are female; if they have and X and a Y, then they are male. Each baby inherits one of its mother’s X chromosomes and either an X or a Y from its father. In a few rare cases, a baby develops with three sex chromosomes (XXX, XXY or XYY); no matter how many sex chromosomes a person has, if they have a Y, they will be biologically male. Some people with XX chromosomes develop as males because one of the X chromosomes has a gene usually found on the Y chromosome, which is rare and is found only in about one in 20,000 males.Biological sex leads to specific body shapes, both in the soft tissues and in the skeleton. Some of these differences are very obvious: women have breasts, while men have penises. Women have a wider pelvis to allow babies to develop, whereas men tend to have a prominent hyoid bone, giving them an Adam’s apple (in technical language, the male laryngeal prominence).
Gender is not biological but social. In societies such as those of the modern west, there has long been a tendency to see gender as a parallel to sex: people of female sex have the social role of women, while those of male sex have the social role of men. When we look outside the west or back into the past, this rigid system breaks down. Some countries, such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, officially recognise a third gender (often known as hijra or Khawaja Sira), where a biological male exists in society as a woman. This identity has been known in south Asia for thousands of years and is celebrated in ancient religious texts. Although we in the west may think of hijras as transgender women, most do not think of themselves in that way.
In the Roman world, the priestesses of Cybele and Attis were called galli and were biological males who dressed in female clothes. Many castrated themselves as part of their religious rituals and some went so far as to remove their penises. Roman citizens were not allowed to be castrated, and although the Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54) removed the ban, it was brought back by Domitian (AD 81-96). The chief priestess, the Archigallus, had to be a citizen, so she must have been chosen from among the uncastrated galli. Classical historians debate whether galli were seen by other Romans as a third gender or as transgender women.
Sexuality is the most straightforward of these three concepts to explain but the most complicated in practice. It describes who people are attracted to. For most, it is an attraction to the opposite biological sex (heterosexuality) and for a significant minority it is an attraction to the same sex (homosexuality). But it is made more complex by being a spectrum, with many people experiencing attraction in varying degrees to both sexes (bisexuality) or, rarest of all, no sexual attraction at all (asexuality).
The quick version: sex is all about the shape of your soft parts, gender is in the clothing you use to hide them and sexuality is how you use them for fun.
Contrary to a lot of the more negative views, transgenderism is not a mental illness: scientists have reported that it is a medical condition in which the brain develops as the opposite sex to the rest of the body. Although many social scientists deny that there are differences between female and male brains, physical anthropology shows that they do exist. What is unclear is if they develop in separate ways as a result of biological sex or as a result of gender roles learned during infancy and childhood.
Either way, many trans people report feeling ‘trapped’ inside a body of the wrong sex. Some people begin to understand this when they reach puberty, while others don’t recognise it until much later in life. Our society is coming increasingly to accept that there are more people who experience these feelings than we used to believe and there are now therapies to help people cope for what is termed gender dysphoria.
If we look back into history, there are people whose identities we might now describe as transgender. The Roman Emperor Elagabalus (AD 204-222) was born a male but by their teenage years, identified as a woman and tried unsuccessfully to find a doctor who could carry out sex reassignment surgery. Elagabalus was high priest(ess) of a religion very similar to that of Cybele that they promoted above the official state religion focused on Capitoline Jupiter. This was the main reason for their murder, not their unconventional gender.Earlier still, the Pharaoh Hatshepsut (about 1507–1458 BC) was a woman who reigned as a king. In the Ancient Egyptian language, there was no word for a female ruler: a queen married to a pharaoh was called ‘king’s wife’, whereas one who ruled was called ‘king’. Because Hatshepsut’s reign is very well documented, we can see that she was an energetic and very successful ruler who, despite being called ‘king’ and depicted as a man, was always referred to as ‘she’. In this case, we are not looking at a transgender man but at a woman taking on a male role in a society that had no words to describe what she was doing.
The lack of a word in Ancient Egyptian to describe a female pharaoh shows the power of language: the way we think is to a large extent controlled by the words we use when speaking or writing. We can see this in the early modern term ‘female husband’, which excited the popular imagination in Georgian and Regency England. There are some well-known cases, such as James Allen, who along with his wife Abigail, ran The Sun inn (now the Victoria) in Baldock from about 1809 to 1810. It was only after James was killed in an industrial accident in the London docks in 1829 that the doctor carrying out the autopsy discovered that he was female. Although the doctors who dealt with his body and arranged his burial were careful to respect his gender identity, the press of the day was no better than the tabloids of the twenty-first century. Journalists went looking for scandal and were, perhaps, disappointed not to find any.
GenderWe can see that throughout history, gender has been highly complex. Too many people today think wrongly that gender and sex are synonyms: they are not. Although sex is (more-or-less) binary and fixed by our genes, gender is neither. Our gender depends entirely on how we think of ourselves and how society will allow us to express it. In some societies, there are three or more genders, which allows people to show their identities in more subtle ways. What is called gender non-conformity (in other words wearing clothes and makeup that are thought more appropriate to the opposite sex) has always been a feature of human societies. From Little Richard with his eyeliner in the 1950s through David Bowie wearing a dress in 1970, Annie Lennox with her masculine clothing in the 1980s, Brian Molko with his makeup in the 1990s, P!nk with her boyish clothing in the 2000s to Olly Alexander with his sexually ambiguous persona in the 2010s, popular music has long been associated with what in the 1980s was called ‘gender bending’. If we fail to recognise this as a common human behaviour, we cannot tell the full story of our present and past communities.
Come to North Hertfordshire Museum during November 2021 to see Katie Wilson’s exhibition The Woman Inside and challenge some of your preconceptions about what it is to be human in the present day.
Guest post by Greer Parker
My name is Greer Parker and I have recently completed a Fashion Curation master’s degree at London College of Fashion. My placement at North Hertfordshire Museum was initially due to take place a year ago but had to be postponed due to Covid restrictions. The placement was funded by the Costume Society, allowing me to gain valuable hands-on experience of working with a museum collection, in this case shoes! My background is in historic dress research and production, so I have been able to bring my knowledge of historic dress to the project, whilst also getting the opportunity to work hands on with an historic shoe collection.
The North Hertfordshire Museum shoe collection is made up of men’s, women’s and children’s shoes from the 18th century to the present day. The aim of the project was to update and upload the historic shoe collection to the online collection system, meaning objects that are rarely seen in person are now easily accessible to a much wider audience. To do this, I have spent the last six weeks condition checking objects, measuring, photographing and updating digital files. I completed the project by curating a temporary display cabinet inside North Hertfordshire Museum, to show my findings. Here visitors can see a selection of the more unusual and aesthetically pleasing items form the collection. These range from the diamante studded shoes of the 1920s, shoes made in miniature for infants, to 18th century dance slippers with ‘gauche’ (left) and ‘droite’ (right) written inside, to ensure they were worn on the correct feet. The oldest shoes in the display are small red infants shoes from the 1790s, it is always intriguing to see something made so long ago, not to mention something made so precisely in a miniature size.
I have really enjoyed my time with the museum, gaining incredible experience of working with curators and a digital archiving system, along with the modern practice of blended working, both on site and from home.
In the future I would love to continue working with historic dress collections, clothing is such an emotive link with the past. Knowing an object had a life before entering the museum, that it was worn and used centuries ago, this provides a tangible link with the past and a visual representation of our social history.
You can start your search of the museum’s online database on the link below.