This time last year the Library of Birmingham was showing its support not only for LGBT History Month, but also for our own City Council LGBT Allies Network by proudly wearing our rainbow lanyards. This year, to mark the 10th anniversary of LGBT History Month, we have been looking back through our archives to see how members of the LGBT community have been represented in our collections.
Between 2005 and 2007, the Connecting Histories project was making great strides into revealing the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in Birmingham. A wealth of resources were made available online showing the prejudice many faced and included oral history interviews recorded as part of the Millenibrum Project in 2000, such as the following which was testament to how difficult it was to find any information in the City….
“I was a lesbian in Birmingham and nationally there was a ban on the sale, the selling of gay and lesbian papers, so the only information you could get, as far as I can remember, was from the Pink Paper which was free and it was only free at selected outlets…you had to know where the outlets were to be able to get the Pink Paper to find out what was going on which was quite difficult and confusing because you needed the Pink Paper to be able to find the outlets, so you had to know somebody who knew something before you could find out where to go”. [MS 2255/2/67]
The interviews given show how difficult it was to socialise and meet other lesbian and gay people in the City. You can understand why, given the overwhelming sense from any press overage that popular opinion at the time saw homosexuality as seedy and unnatural, not something to be celebrated.
Going further back, in the 19th century, for some, homosexuality was treated as if it were a disease. Connecting Histories tells the story of Charles Record who was committed to All Saints Hospital on 18 May 1861 “the reason for his committal was that he was talking incoherently and that he was “affected with unnatural desires” and had been seen “in the act of sodomy”.It was also categorised as a felony. Since the 16th century, the act of ‘buggerie’ (often interchangeable with the term ‘sodomy’ meaning any form of sexual intercourse considered to be unnatural) had carried the death penalty, but was repealed by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 to a sentence of ‘Penal Servitude for Life or for any Term not less than Ten Years’.
Section 11 of the Criminal Amendment Act 1885, made “gross indecency” between males a crime but did not go as far as to define the term.
Cases of gross indecency were brought before the Assize Courts in Birmingham, now the Crown Court, which shows how serious the crime was taken. For instance, on 21 March 1889, Arthur Cornelius Ridding, aged 42, pleaded guilty to committing an act of gross indecency with another male person and was sentenced to 2 calendar months of hard labour at Birmingham Prison. On 3rd August 1891 Edward Verner received a sentence of 12 calendar months hard labour for the same crime.
For the next 80 years, we see very few references to LGBT people in the archives. In 2006, Birmingham Libraries celebrated LGBT History Month by putting on a display which featured presentations on LGBT history and experiences in Birmingham. More importantly, it promoted the importance of actively gathering and preserving records relating to the community. The project Gay Birmingham Remembered worked with, amongst others, the Birmingham Pride Community Trust. The records of Gay Birmingham Remembered were deposited with Archives, Heritage and Photography in 2009 and 2010 as MS 2788.
Another important collection is the records of the Lesbian and Gay Switchboard West Midlands (MS 2659). Based in Birmingham’s Gay Village, it was established in 1975 offering a telephone information and support service for people attracted to members of the same sex. Run by volunteers for more than 30 years they have taken over 100,000 calls.
The collection also includes newspaper cuttings which paint a very clear picture of the prejudice the gay community faced. In 1981 the decision was taken for the Gay Tower Ballroom in Edgbaston to be known from then on simply as the Tower Ballroom. The following year there was outrage at a £5000 grant taken from rate payers’ money to help the Birmingham Gay Community Centre. As one campaigner stated “Birmingham Gay and Lesbian Communities pay rates too.”
MS 2659 also contains copies of the newsletter of the Birmingham Gay Community Centre as they shared premises with the Switchboard in the late 1970s. Central Library received an unexpected mention in the newsletter for February 1980:
The Birmingham Public Library at Paradise Circus has a good selection of literature – two books in particular give a view from the Catholic and Evangelical wings of the churches: The Church & The Homosexual by Fr J J McNeil, and Is the Homosexual my Neighbour by V R Malenkoff & Letha Scanzoni – and the staff of the Library are always helpful. The Lending Library is on the first floor and has both fiction and non-fiction; the Social Sciences Dept of the Reference Library is on the third floor where Gay News is available at the counter. If anyone is hesitant about using the library, your Editor would be glad to show you round as he regularly uses it.
Records of the Community Centre itself can be found in our archives as MS 1836. The Library of Birmingham still carries a good selection of literature.
Equality in the Council was not forthcoming, with the City reluctant to include homosexuals as a minority group against whom discrimination should not be tolerated. Thankfully the hard work of campaigners in Birmingham seem to be paying dividend, as 30 years on and Birmingham is celebrating a leap forward in the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index from no. 91 in 2014, to 59 in 2015.Before looking back through the archives, I had not realised the extent of the discrimination or how recent it was. It was startling to discover that section 28 of the Local Government Act was only passed in 1988, banning any promotion of homosexuality in schools. As Birmingham City Council stated in its guidance to education practitioners in June 2003 “The effect of Section 28 has been to create an environment of unquestioned normative heterosexuality”. Fortunately the guidance from the Council showed a more sensible approach – although they could not ‘promote’ the issues in schools, they were not prevented from tackling homophobic bullying. A few months later, Section 28 was repealed.
I was at school at the time, and had finished University before the Act was repealed. To think I grew up during a time when, to put it bluntly, homosexuality was still considered offensive enough to not be taught in schools, was extraordinary. I am glad that I was not aware of this Act at the time as it allowed me to grow up without prejudices.
There is still work to be done to achieve true equality, and one of the ways to contribute to this is through recording the voices of the communities and the struggles – as evidence in the hope that the wider public will understand prejudice should not be tolerated. Put simply, discrimination makes no sense at all.