England LGBT museum honors “pioneers who came before”

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An LGBT museum recently opened in the United Kingdom has developed into a major tourist attraction, say the campaigners behind it. The exhibition in the English city of Leicester showcases stories from the LGBT community over the past 70 years across several generations.

Having opened in January, ‘Untold Stories’ has proven to be popular with both the city’s residents and visitors alike. The Center received $78,000 of ‘Heritage Lottery’ funding to aid its establishment.

429Magazine discussed the museum’s theme with Center Project Officer Dennis Bradley, who also revealed the feedback that has been received, the difficulties around funding and his goal for a permanent exhibit.

429Magazine: What does your exhibition comprise of? Is there a central theme?

Dennis Bradley: Untold Stories is principally an oral history project recording the personal stories of lesbian, gay men, bisexuals and trans people living and/or working in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland. In 1967, Gay Male sex was (partially) decriminalized in England and Wales (it was not decriminalized in Scotland and Northern Ireland – the other countries that make up the United Kingdom – until the 1980’s). 

Those gay men and women who were 21 (the age of consent for gay men at the time) in 1967 are now retiring. As they come into their twilight years it has become evident that we need to record their memories of life prior to the change in the law, exploring gay life as it used to exist. 

The central theme of the project is part of the project’s title – Untold Stories. Too many gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and trans people are passing away before their very intriguing personal stories have been captured for future generations. It only takes a short discussion with younger members of our LGBT communities to realize that our collective memories of what life was like 40, 50 or 60 years ago has been clouded over or subsumed into history, lost forever.

429Mag: What sort of feedback/reaction have you received from both visitors and the people of Leicester in general?

Bradley: Leicester LGBT Centre hosted an open day on 23 February when over 200 people had an opportunity to visit our exhibition. The reactions from visitors, who are from both the local LGBT communities and the wider general communities, have been overwhelmingly positive. We have been able to attract a number of people with their stories that we will record over the next few months. 

Viewings have been on an ad hoc basis from local private organizations and city/county bodies as well as private individuals. The project has highlighted the importance of the continued existence of Leicester LGBT Centre and the lack of government funding for the Centre (many other minority organizations receive substantial block grants to run their bodies). 

Leicester LGBT Centre receives no direct funding. We have to raise all our income. At the moment it costs more than $170,000 per year to keep the doors open and continue with our valuable work on behalf of the LGBT communities.

429Mag: Has there been any particular difficulty the Center has faced, eg. discrimination/bigotry?

Bradley: Over the last 20 or 30 years discrimination and bigotry has become more discrete and indirect. Gone are the times when racism, homophobia, misogyny and ageism would be openly bantered about. Now individuals practice it in more subtle ways. The discrimination the Centre faces is through indifference, silence and complacency. It is when good people do and say nothing that the most damage is done. 

The Center works collaboratively with other local, voluntary organizations which promote diversity and equality in such areas as disability, race, religion, national origin, sexuality, gender identity, sex and others. It is only in partnership that equality will progress. 

We have been lucky that the Equality Act 2010 is now enshrined in law. Local authorities are required to demonstrate active promotion of diversity and equality. Relations between the police and other national organizations, eg, NHS are improving with each year. But much still needs to be done to break down the personal barriers that individuals hold in the local general community.

429Mag: What are your thoughts on why this is personally important to you?

Bradley: I have pushed for funding from the Heritage Lottery (part of the National Lottery) for this project for about 5 years. During the last 2 years that the project has been up and running I have taken part in a number of interviews. 

One particular older gay man shared his personal story to me. He used vivid descriptions of life as a gay man in the 1940’s and 50’s. His life was an incredible tale of life long friendships that seem missing from many lives today. For him the past was still alive in his memory. And the people he grew up with, fell in love with and grew old with were still very much a part of his world.  Unfortunately he passed away about 2 months ago. If we had not taken the opportunity to record his life story, those memories would have died with him. Now he has a chance to be listened to by countless people for many, many years to come. 

For me this project is that rare opportunity to leave a lasting mark on the work I do for the LGBT communities where I live. I know that future generations of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and trans people will have the chance to listen to the voices of those pioneers who came before them. Those people who have paved the way for an easier life.

429Mag: Will this likely emerge into a permanent museum?

Bradley: This is my personal goal. I am working with a number of members of our local LGBT communities to make this a reality. Museums are difficult to create and the money involved is hard to come by. In the current economic climate a permanent museum is an uphill task, but one that may be a possibility. 

There is at present no permanent LGBT museum in the UK. Leicester is well placed geographically to provide the right means to achieve just this.

429Magazine

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