23rd Nov 2017
It has been said that history is written by the victors. But we also know that history is predominantly written by the rich, the powerful, and mainly, by men. This is borne out by the ongoing Wikipedia controversy where the vast majority of its writers, or editors, are ‘young, college-educated males’ and only 8.5-16% of women are editors, with a paltry 17% of articles about women. If 50% of human beings are not being adequately represented in the world’s biggest encyclopedia what hope is there for smaller more diverse groups of people?
History is plagued by such absences, none more so than that of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals. For most of history being LGBT was either illegal (up to and including the death penalty for men), or socially unacceptable. The letters, diaries, biographies or social documents so frequently used to construct histories are for the most part absent, either never kept or destroyed by their authors or their families. It is worth bearing in mind that only children under fourteen have lived in the UK free of legal persecution on the grounds of their sexual orientation. The iniquitous Section 28 passed in 1988, which banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, was not repealed until 2003. This act decreed that any public body receiving tax payer’s money could not ‘promote’ LGBT people, despite the fact that LGBT people paid taxes. The consequence was that heritage organisations did not for the most part, or would not, include LGBT in their galleries or displays. And whilst some do so now, many still do not, despite the passing of the Equality Act (2010) which states that all nine protected characteristics should be fairly represented.
This was a problem I came up against whilst putting together the first book on Welsh LGBT history, Forbidden Lives: LGBT Stories from Wales. Approaching some gatekeepers, who hold historic information on LGBT people, I was firmly told that their stories were nothing more than ‘innuendoes and rumours’. So I deliberately included those individuals in the book, to clearly show their lives could not, and should not, be reduced to such belittling terms.
Forbidden Lives evolved from years of promoting a greater pride in my own people of Wales. It began in 2011 when I applied for, and received, a grant to host the first exhibition exclusively on Welsh LGBT people, Welsh Pride. Since then I have continued to research and record these lives and events and am continually surprised and amazed at the influence and involvement our people have had, not just on LGBT history but societal history also. And it is not just me: every February we celebrate LGBT History Month and I am so pleased to see that each year more and more organisations are choosing to host events that either include, or are exclusively about, Welsh content, both historic and modern.
Jeffrey Weeks, in the introduction to Forbidden Lives, describes these people’s stories as ‘riveting’ and indeed they are. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to highlight these fascinating people from Welsh history.
But let me end on a note of appeal. Groups like WikiWomen’s Collab and Women in Red are actively trying to engage more women to become, not just Wikipedia editors, but to write more about women. And I would ask the same – for you to write about the diversities that matter to you. For if we do not safeguard and promote our own histories who will?
Norena Shopland has extensively researched the heritage of LGBT people and issues in Wales for 15 years. Her work has appeared in the Welsh press, radio and TV and she regularly provides advice and support on the history of LGBT people in Wales. She lectures to staff networks from the Welsh Government, to numerous museums, archives, charities and other events such as BiFest, Sparkle, Aberration.
Norena’s book Forbidden Lives: LGBT Histories from Wales is out now, published by Seren Books. WEN members are invited to the launch party on 30th November at Cardiff Story Museum. To RSVP, email firstname.lastname@example.org