It is well known that history is written by the victors. The individuals in power are sculptors, who mould events and entire periods to reflect beneficially upon themselves. Despite facts being concrete, sometimes textbooks and the literary canon shatter these, acting like rose tinted glasses, constructed to distort the reality of the past. The triumph of those in power is carved into time, while the stories of minorities are left to decay and swept under the carpet when their accounts are deemed unacceptable for future generations. This is so often the case for the LGBTQ+ community.
I studied both English literature and History right up until my final year at school. So, I covered a wide spectrum of events and texts, ranging from the Tudor monarchy and Shakespeare to the fall of the Berlin Wall and postmodern novels. Painstakingly, most of my time was spent memorising the lives and work of predominantly older, wealthy, white men. What’s worse, my education was dominated by the conflicts they conducted against one another, and the prejudice they inflicted upon others. That is not to say the voices of selected downtrodden groups did not slither through small cracks created for them, but this is not enough.
When it comes to studying the history or work of minority groups, the same handful of approved examples are churned out to pupils: the slave trade, the suffragette movement, Jane Austen, The Colour Purple. All of which are valuable in their own right, but worn thin. Their presence ticks a box and acts as a decoy, employed to give the impression that students are provided with a well-rounded curriculum. While there have been opportunities for the voices of women and ethnic minorities to be heard, albeit pathetically few, the queer community remains silenced. Remarkably, this under-representation was actively encouraged until 2003. Introduced under Margaret Thatcher, Section 28 dictated that schools should not promote or provide information on homosexuality and the queer lifestyle. Born from fear surrounding the AIDS crisis and historically entrenched homophobia, not only was queer history not taught, it was hidden from pupils.
My first year at secondary school collided with the tenth anniversary of Section 28’s repeal. Along the school hallways posters encouraging the acceptance of queer students and staff alike plastered the walls, but still there was no mention of Harvey Milk or Audre Lorde in the classroom. While the media has broadened its characters and soundtracks to not only include, but showcase stories from the LGBTQ+ community, still the queer experience was briefly brushed over by my teachers. Thankfully, this is changing.
In 2018, Scotland announced that they would be embedding LGBTQ+ history into the national curriculum. Choosing to educate pupils about the community’s past struggles and key figures not only encourages empathy amongst allies but provides queer students with role models. What the recent lockdown has demonstrated is that humans are not suited to isolation; we crave community and take comfort when we are accepted by a group. Nothing makes us feel more understood or seen than when we find others like us. Representation is therefore not just about opening the past. The presence of Queer voices should not be a special feature. Instead, like that of the white men who have dominated history, it should be considered an essential foundation.
Having said this, the LGBTQ+ community still has a long way to go, and until we reach a time where their voices are no longer obstructed or protested, positive discrimination is an advantage. In Exeter, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum is set to uncover a new project in line with its promises to diversify. A team has been assembled of local LGBTQ+ artists who, under the guidance of Dr Jana Funka, are tasked with exposing a new perspective – that of the queer community. Essentially, the group will be re-shaping history. Out and About: Queering the Museum aims to empower the LGBTQ+ community and is on track to achieve this. Not only is this project providing queer artists with a platform to showcase their work, the re-examination of history from a queer viewpoint will uncover a fresh outlook upon events and individuals who have, in effect, been censored. It is all too easy for establishments to simply fly the rainbow flag in June. What the RAMM museum is demonstrating is the necessity for an open dialogue with the LGBTQ+ community. While allyship is essential to ensure members feel recognised, to be granted the ability themselves to re-mould history and create work is even more important. Only then will the LGBTQ+ community be able communicate the concealed queer experience, which provides a sense of both ownership, and ironically, pride.
– Katie Dunbar
Find out more about the Royal Albert Memorial Museum’s campaign ‘Out and About: Queering the Museum’ here.
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