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“Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty” at The British Library

By Rebecca Wilson
  • Where: The British Library
  • What: Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty  
  • Open until: 19 Sep 2017
  • Ticket price: Free
  • Why go: ‘’The exhibition educates on the political, historical and legal processes that have been at work to achieve LGBTQ+ equality.’’

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of homosexuality being decriminalised, the British Library is hosting its first exhibit in honour of LGBTQ+ history, politics and culture. Rainbow flags have erupted throughout London in celebration of Pride month. While the LGBTQ+ rainbow is universally recognisable, few know the origins of the annual parade. It was the June 1969 Stonewall riots that kickstarted a large part of LGBTQ+ movements, protests and magazines. A police raid at Stonewall Inn – a gay club in New York – triggered the first six days of protest, a turning point for LGBTQ+ rights. Every year, Pride commemorates this event, celebrating the impact LGBTQ+ people have in society and giving visibility to marginalised groups.

Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty sheds light on the LGBTQ+ journey in the UK. Although same-sex marriage and adoption are now legal, the UK has come a long way in 50 years to achieve these outcomes. The exhibition educates on the political, historical and legal processes that have been at work to achieve LGBTQ+ equality, while also spotlighting iconic literature and art.

Several writers’ stories are given special atention. Sarah Waters’ notes from Tipping the Velvet give voice to the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ communities in conservative Victorian England. The ownership of desire and passion represented in the work played a part in empowering marginalised sexualities. Oscar Wilde sparked outspread controversy with his novel A Picture of Dorian Grey, a metaphor for living an outwardly respectable life while ‘secretly transgressing society’s moral codes’. His unapologetic defence of homosexual allusions was, in part, what led him to be imprisoned for two years of hard labour. Iconic British writer Virginia Woolf is also commemorated in the exhibition. The eponymous character in Orlando (1928) was based on her own past lover, Vita Sackville-West. The novel celebrates fluidity of sexuality and gender but is discreet enough to have escaped public criticism at the time.

The exhibition also spotlights the role of queer coverage in the media. The 2016 edition of gay magazine Attitude featured Prince William on the cover – something that would have been scandalous for a British monarch to do just years ago. Alongside this are activist posters for equalising the age of consent; magazine articles featuring sports stars who have come out publicly; and queer socialist publications from the 1970s. Fundraising event posters by LGSM (Lesbians and Gays support the miners) are also displayed: their activism during the British miner’s strike in 1984 became the subject of the critically acclaimed film Pride (2014).

An array of intersections of literature, art, and political activism are given centre stage, forming a diverse and conscientious exhibition.