Grown men strolling hand-in-hand around Greek sculptures, shaved-head butches kissing beside Byzantine dulcimers – queer takeovers of museums do an invaluable job of patching up LGBT+ histories otherwise missing from our museums. But spaces dedicated entirely to sexuality and gender identity are few and far between, which is why plans are in motion to develop Queer Britain: The National LGBTQ+ Museum – the first LGBTQ+ museum in the UK.
Launched by CEO and co-founder Joseph Galliano, fundraising for Queer Britain began last week, with a view to opening in a central London location as early as 2021. But funds aren't the only hurdle: the museum's advisory board also has to collate the collection. How to find a history that’s been deliberately sidelined? With buggery outlawed in 1533 and homosexuality decriminalised in 1967, many gay men's stories have played out in the closet. Within the narrow confines of historical patriarchies, did lesbians ever have the space to act on same-sex desire, or the language to dare to record it? And can those who lived in pre-medical times fit today's interpretations of trans identity?
Young people should watch carefully. Though hard-won victories such as anti-discrimination acts and same-sex marriage appear to show increased tolerance, homophobic crime in the UK is rising, transphobia is notably vicious and everyone aged 20 to 35 grew up under the shadow of Section 28 – the Thatcher-era requirement that local authorities, especially schools, should not "intentionally promote homosexuality". The law was repealed in 2003, but it's not without consequences, and current Sex and Relationships Education is patchy enough for young queer people to grow up without context. Role models might not seem important to those surrounded by them, but when you need them, you know how essential they are.
To find out more, I caught up with Joseph Galliano to talk about his plans for the museum and the importance of a resource like this for young people today.
VICE: Hi, Joseph. Do you think today’s young people know too little about LGBTQ+ history?
Joseph Galliano: Things like LGBT History Month, Diversity Role Models and People Like Us are doing fantastic work, but we lack a consistent approach. For example, I’ve been shocked to hear from some younger gay men in particular that they didn’t know gay sex had ever been criminalised.
What are the impacts of that, do you think?
I think they’re around self-esteem. In order to shoot for the stars, it really helps people to see the people who’ve come before, who’ve also shot for the stars. There’s also plenty of evidence showing that understanding our own heritage improves mental health and social outcomes. And changes like same-sex marriage have happened so quickly that they need to be safeguarded, because they can be taken away so quickly.
How will Queer Britain be different to other LGBTQ+ museums and exhibits across the world?
There’s a different selection of facilities around the world – museums, community, LGBT resource centres with exhibition space or archives. But there’s nothing that I can identify as being quite like what we’re trying to do – which is the mixture of digital [exhibits], broadening into a resource for everyone, and starting with the idea of an educational remit.
A recent op-ed in Attitude suggested young queer people don’t need to care about history. What did you think about that approach?
I think it misses the point. History is not about being queer, it’s about being human, and humans tell stories about themselves and their past. If we can’t tell be storytelling creatures, we’re missing that huge richness.
Lack of physical space is an issue for young queer people. They’re living in smaller places, or priced out of LGBT-friendly areas, increasingly forced into the closet to live with parents, and gay bars are closing down. What happens to queer histories when queer spaces get smaller?
It is a problem that there are less queer spaces, and [London night czar] Amy Lamé's been doing great work on the night time economy, but history happens in spite of space. I think we have a responsibility to create interesting, rich spaces in which people can interact in all sorts of ways.
Compulsory sex education has been brought in in the UK by Justine Greening, who’s no longer in the cabinet. Are you hoping it’s going to change LGBT lives for the better?
SRE needs to talk to the lives that people live, and it needs to give people the skills to be able to navigate the adult world. It has to be appropriate for people.
There are a lot of unfiltered and un-curated representations of queer people these days; all I need to do is go onto Instagram and I’ll find lots of different people through searching #gay and #lesbian hashtags. They try to crack down on stuff like that better than other sites, but the lack of filter and curation of LGBT heroes can lead to strange places. When I was younger I ended up idolising people who weren’t great, just because they seemed to be queer…
Isn’t that the wonderful thing that the queer eye has always done? You’ve been told that you shouldn’t exist, but you know you do, so you go looking for clues. The problem is that our histories have been so often written in the margins, and when you’re marginalised you go looking for evidence of your existence. This is something the museum can do very powerfully: it can validate and show people of their own existence.
Looking back on my own adolescence, I would watch all the subtext between Buffy and Faith, spotting all the clues. This museum does the hunting work for the visitor.
I remember watching the film about David Hockney's "A Bigger Splash" with my finger on the off button, simply because – growing up in the 80s – there weren’t overtly gay representations. That was a very powerful film for me. And the first time I saw The Rocky Horror Show it blew the back of my head off! I understood why he was wearing a pink triangle. Suddenly that clicked and there was a bit more substance behind it.
Right now, what are the parameters in place to make sure people share diverse stories?
It’s about people coming and sharing with us, and about making sure we’re going to the right places and talking to the right people, and making sure we’re open and welcoming and we’re asking everyone to help us fill that, regardless of their background.
Sexuality is integral to LGBT+ people's lives – is there a line to straddle between sexualising the museum and not sexualising it?
The thing is, at what point would we be talking about sexualising heterosexual culture? The impact and the parts LGBTQ people have played in society cut across business, engineering, film, social history and culture. We can look at anything we want through this lens. So it’s not to shy away, but [sexualisation is] certainly not where we’d start.
How much history are you looking to collate?
The first important thing to do is to rescue stories of firsthand accounts from people while we still have them – but how far back does history go? There are so many amazing stories to tell that have been obscured or written out. It’s an easy example, but: how long did it take Alan Turing to be recognised in his fullness?
There’s so much science we’ve missed out on because of his premature death.
And that’s a very interesting point. When we think about a museum, that can be quite loaded as dusty – something that doesn’t necessarily relate to young people. But the truth of it is that history isn’t just about people back then – whether you’re a student in Aberdeen or a trans person in Brighton, history is how people live now. If we look back in order to understand where we have come from and how we have been created, then we can take that and we can understand ourselves better. We can imagine the future we would like to be moving towards, and I think this is particularly true for a queer view. We can use this as an opportunity to imagine the future we want, if that doesn’t sound too grand.
How would you approach someone with a chequered history, like Boy George, for example?
I think what we’re looking at is how lives have been lived, and I don’t want to sit here at this point judging what can and can’t be talked about. I’m not in charge of history. I’m not the arbiter of who’s a good queer and who’s a bad queer. We’ll have our advisory group, and that will come along a bit later down the line, but I want to take my passion and commitment to making sure we have an institution that everybody feels they belong to, and everybody feels they have a voice in. A community, in the broadest sense. If we want to be inclusive, it has to be for everybody. The stories that we tell involve everybody. The experience of LGBTQ+ people does not exist in isolation.