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Gay UK: Love and Liberty at the British Library

August 22, 2017

ArtsGroup Exhibition | by Harry Seymour


This summer, to mark the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, the British Library is staging an exhibition that explores what it was like to live as a gay person throughout the last century of legislative change. Focusing on personal testimony, from Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trial to the shockingly-recent posthumous pardoning of historical offences in 2017, this small but tightly curated show tells personal stories through video, music and of course, the written word.

A caricature of Oscar Wilde holding onto a sunflower illustrated by Chas. Kendrick, dated 1882 (c) British Library Board.

The show examines how men and woman have both been represented, and chosen (or often denied the choice) to represent themselves. Whether it was through brave pop stars donning fluorescent make up and outfits, civil rights campaigners outside parliament or authors writing homosexual literature, gay people have fought for the right to be treated with equality both before and after the legislation – proving that changing a law doesn’t always change the public’s mind-set.

Outrage! poster (c) Peter Tatchell.

The exhibition includes items such as a first edition of seminal works by E.M. Forster that cover issues of homosexuality and a copy of Hello Magazine featuring Elton John and David Furnish with their children on the front cover, along side campaign literature, album covers, scripts and other collected ephemera. Highlights include the diary of British comic actor Kenneth Williams, opened at the entry which covers the murder of his close friend, the gay playwright Joe Orton in 1967, as well as a poster for Gays Supporting the Miners and a commissioned film by the multimedia artist Dickie Beau exploring the decriminalisation of homosexuality act through personal stories.

Poster designed for Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (c) Kevin Franklin.

Rachel Foss, the lead curator of the show said: “Since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act fifty years ago, there has been a transformation in society’s attitudes towards gay love and expression.  Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty tells this story through objects and documents that are iconic, public, personal or seemingly ephemeral.  These objects and documents are the tangible evidence of a living history that is fragmented, punctuated by gaps and still evolving.  I hope that the exhibition will prompt visitors to consider not only how far we as a society have come but also, crucially, what still needs to be done to combat prejudice and realise true equality.”

The British Library is hosting a series of accompany events between now and the 14 of September that provoke past and present debates surrounding homosexual identity and reflecting on how far we have come as a society.

Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty, at the British Library, London until 19 September 2017.