With queer history beginning to fight off the historic invisibility of the closet, Christobel Hastings takes a closer look at the resources centring the voices of LGBTQ+ pioneers, and their heartwarming stories of hope, joy and love.
“I met Elaine, and she asked me what I wanted to do, if I’d like to go anywhere specifically that evening, and I said I’d like to go to Gateways. And she’d never been, and so she said ‘OK’. She thought she knew where it was, down the King’s Road, and so we got dressed up. In those days I think I had a fur jacket, and a large handbag! We got in the taxi and we didn’t want to ask for Gateways, so we said, ‘can you take us down the King’s Road?’”
I’m listening to the voices of Elaine and Lynn, a couple who first met nearly four decades ago through Switchboard, a national LGBTQ+ helpline for anyone wanting to talk about gender identity and sexuality. Their heartwarming story is part of The Log Books, a podcast which centres around handwritten log book entries made by the volunteers who staffed the phones, beginning from when it started life from a tiny office in the basement below a socialist bookshop in King’s Cross in 1974.
Over the course of the first series, the listener is transported back in time to discover untold stories of LGBTQ+ life in Britain during the 70s and early 80s. The stories are as fascinating as they are moving, as callers describe everything from police entrapping gay men in toilets and lesbians living together in communes, to isolated fishermen phoning for a chat, and a continual discussion of the best gay pubs and clubs (some things never change).
It seems fitting that the log books, which have sat in storage for some years at the Bishopsgate Institute, should now have their moment in the spotlight. In recent times, queer history has experienced something of a cultural awakening, thanks in large part to a new wave of LGBTQ+ museum tours, TV shows and Instagram accounts chronicling the lives and stories of queer people who came before us.
Stories like the ones recorded in The Log Books, for example, are proof that these narratives have always existed, even if they have been hidden in plain sight; somewhat understandable given so much of LGBTQ+ identity exists merely as allusion in mainstream culture, owing to a society which perpetuates the idea that being straight and cisgendered is the norm.
While there is immense power in seeing LGBTQ+ culture reflected in visual media, there is something immeasurably different about hearing it across the airwaves. Audio storytelling, for all it requires a decent concentration span, rewards you tenfold with imaginative riches.
Instead of merely digesting the facts and figures of a character’s experience, stories assume an extra layer of emotional appeal. Plugged into The Log Books, I am not simply listening to a story about two women falling in love. I am there on the dancefloor in Gateways, swaying to Audre Lorde’s Willow, having that homecoming.
While the act of listening makes for an immersive experience, studies have shown that it can also help to cultivate empathy. For anyone who believes in equality, listening to the stories in The Log Books might well be a way to transcend common prejudices and understand those who are different from ourselves.
“This isn’t just Britain’s LGBTQIA+ history, this is Britain’s history full stop,” explains Natasha Walker, a producer and co-chair of Switchboard. “If we cannot learn from our history, from the challenges all members of our LGBTQ communities have gone through and what we have achieved so far, then what hope do we have for a more equal future?
“A future based on the changes the LGBTQ+ communities have to start making now - listening and learning how to better champion anti-racism and continually standing up for all those in the transgender and gender non-conforming communities, to name but two.”
Amplifying the voices of marginalised groups has gained worldwide attention lately following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black American man who was murdered at the hands of a white police officer in police custody. As demonstrators around the world take to the streets to express solidarity with the US over police brutality and denounce systemic racism in their own countries, many LGBTQ+ organisations have been taking the opportunity to remind people that the first Pride wasn’t a celebration, but a radical uprising outside New York’s Stonewall Inn in June 1969 led by queer people of colour, including legendary activists Marsha P. Johnson, Stormé DeLarverie and Sylvia Rivera.
Every Pride, it is images of these Stonewall pioneers that prevail on our social media feeds; especially Marsha P. Johnson in her signature flower crown, smiling radiantly at the camera. But while modern retellings of Stonewall so often fixate on the question of who threw the first brick, the facts of the now-iconic stand against police brutality are less well known.
Happily, you don’t have to look far to hear the tale recounted from the horse’s mouth. In the podcast Making Gay History, journalist Eric Marcus revives extraordinary conversations from his personal audio archive, including first-person interviews with LGBTQ+ people who literally shaped modern society, such as Barbara Gittings, Vito Russo and Bayard Rustin. Perhaps the most thrilling, however, are rare recordings with Johnson, who discusses the creation of STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionary), an organisation providing safety and shelter for queer homeless youth, and her close friend Rivera, who describes the tumult of the uprising while cooking a pot of chilli at home.
In the interview, a husky-voiced Rivera relives that June 1969 night in vivid detail. We hear about her “revolutionary blood” and early beginnings in the Black liberation movement and the peace movement. We hear how the activist, dressed in a “fabulous suit” with her hair out, had been drinking with her lover at the Washington Square Bar before moving onto the Stonewall (“Actually it was the first time that I had been to friggin’ Stonewall,” she clarifies in a droll aside). She explains the police arriving for their “payoff”. Then, we hear how tensions reached boiling point: “Everybody like, ‘Why the fuck are we doing all this for?’” There, the listener is transported back to that night, with the “nickels, dimes, pennies and quarters” flying all around. And Rivera, whose voice has been low and steady throughout the whole story, is suddenly ecstatic. “To be there was so beautiful. It was so exciting. It was like, ‘Wow, we’re doing it! We’re doing it!’ We’re fucking their nerves.”
But Rivera doesn’t only reflect on her part in the uprising. We hear how she fought back against the white, middle-class LGBTQ+ establishment for the “liberation of our people”, a story no less poignant for the fact that mainstream queer activism continues to overlook the needs of trans people, especially Black trans women, despite paving the way for the contemporary gay rights movement. Or the fact that on the four-year anniversary of the deadly Pulse nightclub shooting, and in the middle of Pride month, the Trump administration has reversed Obama-era healthcare protections for patients who are transgender.
What’s also apparent, in these rare conversations, is the striking presence of joy. Glimmers of happiness in the face of an undeniably arduous life, riddled with discrimination, violence, police brutality, homelessness and incarceration. It is present in the passion with which these activists recount their legacies of organising, mobilising and empowering their communities to take action against oppressive systems. And it is there too in the details of normalcy frequently left out of their stories: homemade outfits, dancing in gay bars, drinking with friends, caring for the next generation, squabbling with a lover over the right kind of tinned tomatoes to use for dinner. For these activists, resisting a brutal police raid was undoubtedly a radical act. But so too was carving out time to live and love as they saw fit.
These days, stories of triumph are slowly finding their way to the light. The Black Lesbian Archives, an archival project dedicated to preserving forgotten Black lesbian culture, is one place where Black joy abounds. Founded by Krü Maekdo, the archive, which has recently announced plans to take a grassroots tour across the US to make its material physically accessible, is filled with gems such as Audre Lorde discussing being a Black lesbian in the 50s (“it was like the gay girls version of the beatniks!”) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a trailblazing Southern rock ’n’ roll legend singing “Up Above My Head”.
Other resources, such as The British Library’s oral history collections, catalogue a range of stories from LGBTQ people over the course of the last century, including an interview with Mary Wilkins, a pacifist born in England in 1907 who worked as an ambulance driver during World War II. In it, she describes listening to the pacifist and suffragist Sybil Morrison give a speech at Coventry. “I can see her now, standing up on an orange box in the middle of Broadgate… I fell for her hook, line and sinker,” she recalls, in a memory that has more than a touch of a Sarah Waters novel about it.
Finding stories in which LGBTQ+ people thrive might not sound like a hard ask, but for a community whose historical canon is still very much under construction, they’re few and far between. By that same token, their existence is absolutely vital for queer people today living in a society where trauma is so often the cultural default.
Pain is a powerful vehicle for change, of course. And it goes without saying that we need to acknowledge the harrowing discrimination LGBTQ+ people still face around the world for their identity. But is it joy that sustains us and ultimately, gives us the fuel to forge ahead and create a better life for future generations. These are the stories we need to hear.
Images courtesy of The Log Books and Switchboard photo archive