I write this post to mark the start of a new long-term site-responsive project, Feeling Backwards. In late January I was pleased to be given some time at The Marlborough Theatre, as the first of a few Artist Residencies that Pink Fringe are offering to support. I had a week to focus my research on the politics of historical documentation: who and what gets remembered. I felt grateful to have space to not have to think about anything else.
I’ve been thinking and reading (and having feels) about queer history and its erasure since my research during the Acts of Self Love process in Winter 2014. It was a crucial period of time in which I was realising my own transness whilst simultaneously learning of the monumental history of violence against trans people. My discoveries were mainly centered on the elimination of trans folk from the Stonewall riots, and other US trans-led protests that pre-dated this.
Since then, remembering, mourning and bringing queer history to light has become vital for me/my practice. I call this, after Heather Love’s concept & book of the same title, feeling backwards. A particularly key moment in solidifying my understanding of this was watching this talk by Reina Gossett, and watching this video of Silvia Rivera, again both from a US-centric perspective.
I got to then practically explore feeling backwards, ideas around presence and engaging with sites of queer history (including some of the ones mentioned above), whilst out in San Francisco during Spring/Summer 2015. Whilst this felt like a valid period of knowledge gaining, I’ve since become critical of the fact US history was the easiest to research and the most visible. I also have critical awareness that it was only as I “became” a member of the trans ‘community’ that I actively found this history, which is in actuality only a tiny part of the bigger historic picture.
I realised I wasn’t done exploring. This project was born out of a belief that queer and trans history should a) be “general” knowledge b) should be easily accessible to LGBT people c) should be taught as part of educating people about feminism, patriarchy, and the gender binary, as well as trans awareness.
Having been so US focused, I wanted to use this week to start to delve into what it’s like to explore these - I want to say themes, but really they seem too important and longstanding to really be just themes – so, these things… in a city in the UK. Brighton, known for being the UK’s most “gay friendly” city due to the highest number of co-habiting gay couples in the UK, is a pretty great place to start.
I worked from these initial research questions:
How can my presence effect queer sites of history?
How are they being remembered? What is my response to this?
How can history be told outside of institutions and still given validity?
What ways is/was Brighton resisting assimilation?
In the weeks leading up to the residency, I began searching online for what the most accessible documentation of LGBT history in Brighton was. This was partly to start gaging how the city was already remembering, and to give me some key sites to visit and respond to once I was there.
The first thing I came across was Ourstory, a now extinct history project started in the 80s by what I assume is a group of gay and lesbian people. It gives a clear overview of Brighton from the 20s as a haven for gay soldiers and sailors during both world wars to its now world-famous Pride parade. Its use of the word ‘intersexual’ (hint: not a word) and its distinct lack of trans history show its datedness. I was glad it had been a thing, it was useful for my learning about now vanished queer haunts, but I’m also sort of glad it’s history (hah)…
Another notable find was Trans*formed, penned as the biggest trans project in the UK. Although it will work as a historical oral archive of trans experiences in the future, it’s very much about documenting trans lives now. I’m curious as to whether it was trans-led project, but judging by the focus on transition and phrasing of the questions, it's not - (“why do you think trans people have to take it one step further and act on their dissatisfaction with the body they’ve been given?” - one of the particularly judge-y questions).
It did how ever spark an interesting train of thought when I read some of the interviews during my residency. This caught my eye from one participant:
“I’m not here to erase history, I’m not that kind of person to want to forget my past, because I feel like that it’s such a rich background and such a rich history that’s got me to this point” - Fox
This articulation made me think about my body as a historic queer site, and how this might link to the sites I was visiting during my residency.
Aside from these two history projects, and one yearlong heritage project, what also exists are some walking tours. Piers for Queers seems like a gay old jaunt, and perhaps a bit of a tourist walk for gay visitors, of some the bars and clubs that were part of making Brighton so famed for its gay-friendly image.When I hopefully return for a longer stint, this is a tour I would be curious to go on.
I also found an app, Pink Triangles, where you can create your own tour of historic hotels, clubs, shops and cafes. I use this to guide me in visiting some of the ones that I find most interesting.
So, Brighton is remembering, but mainly the history of gay men. The only trans history is being created for future historians. What I hope to create is an experience that will hopefully encapsulate interconnectedness. Step away from emotionless, “objective” or retrospective-feeling history and connect the past to the systems of oppression we find ourselves in now.
Some key visits made during my residency, that felt important to trace physically and I wanted to mention:
Brighton and Hove Museum
I followed the impulse to visit as I’d seen online they had created an LGBT Trail, and wanted to put myself in the realm of the place that is perhaps the opposite of the way I hope my work will remember.
In the end, it wasn’t the trail that was the most interesting part… I look at the case with ‘vintage’ clothing, a ‘techno punk queer’ outfit from the 90s and wonder if behind a case I will always be Othered..
There was a section on Brighton, obviously for tourists, which had clearly been static for years. It tried to capture the seaside feel, the “dirty weekend”, and Brighton’s history of sex work. To give you an idea of how successfully it ‘felt backwards’, I’d say my critique of the museum’s depictions of sex work alone is a whole other blog post (or twelve).
Another section read “Lesbian and Gay”. Alongside the videos of Pride and voice recordings of gay people in the city, a large empty space with a small text told me the museum was updating this bit and “working with LGBTQ community groups”. Presumably because so much has shifted just in terms of language since the 1990s, just the lack of the full acronym made clear it was in dire need of an update. I’d be interested to go back and see what it is they update it with, and the nature of the community project. But why has it taken 20 years before needing an update?
During this visit I felt rising anger at the way history is boxed into neat areas, and often-outdated present culture is displayed in museums. What are museums for if they always capture inaccurate snapshots of the past and mainstream representations of the present?
Museums are like the opposite of performance. Stale, stuck and always from the same slightly removed and sanitized perspective. They’re not for anyone to mourn, grieve, feel or actually remember – and yet all they do is look back.
The first Pride March
Brighton Pride is the UK’s biggest Pride, but it wasn’t always the corporate, capitalist, enforced party that it is today. The march of the first Pride was in 1973, and went from Norfolk Sqaure to the Ship Hotel (now under a different name). Marches continued from Hove Town Hall to Brighton Town Hall during the 80s in resistance to section 28. On that first march, Pride was a protest, not a party (although there was a Gay Picnic later that day).
I marched alone and tried to imagine what that first tentative step into visibility must have felt like. I walked in the middle of the road as much as I could. I ended with my own picnic on the beach, my fingers felt frozen (there’s a reason people don’t picnic in January) but somehow honouring this felt right.
Pride made a distinct shift in 1991 to prioritise celebration over fight. These words from its organiser seemed sad to me, and like they had got remembering all wrong:
“We wanted to move forward and claim our rightful place in the city, not continue to look back and identify ourselves with an attack on us”. - From this article
It seems Brighton’s shiny gay culture is alive, but queer seems a little quieter. As I stand and look at the sites of extinct bars, I think that these spaces existed because they had to, that was the only space there was. Now being gay in a club in Birghton is more than acceptable. ‘The shock of the new’ is not in music or clubs, it’s online. And that’s where all the unboxed queers go. What’s left seems to be cis gay men taking up a lot of space.
I read about how gay men pushed the women out of Pigott’s Bar (now St James Tavern). I wandered St James street, looking into the cheesy karaoke bars, thinking our liberation is lost – is this it? This was sexual and gender liberation?
St Peter’s Church
The only remnants of any kind of trans history was in the story of Colonel Sir Victor Ivor Gauntlett Blyth Baker, I imagine incorrectly listed as a “lesbian masquerading” on the Ourstory site. They were somewhat famed in the 1920s, as they married a woman at St Peter’s Church, and was then “found out” for being a “woman”. Obviously because of the lack of awareness and language for trans people in this country at the time, most accounts misgender them, we can say that Baker would most likely be a trans man now. They were actually caught for tax evasion, but then thrown in Holloway prison for 9 months as of course same-sex marriage (which this would’ve been deemed as) was illegal.
I go to the church, but find that restoration work is being done and it’s not open. The church feels looming. There’s a big sign saying “everyone welcome”. There’s a smaller sign on the railings of one of the companies re-building the place, it says
“so the past can have a future”
I wonder which past they mean.
I again felt the anger rising. Why is the story of Baker so hard to find details on? I began wondering more about their life.
If I return, I’d want to talk to the church. What did the church say about the marriage? Did they go to the trial? Do they have a record of the marriage? Do they know? Do they do equal marriage ceremonies?
I read online that Brighton and Hove Museum honoured their life - How did they do this?
End of residency thoughts:
I know I need to speak to people in the city. Historians, activist communities, and artists – I can’t just parachute. Working with queer producers and venues, I feel very lucky and that there will be a real sensitivity around this.
I’m left with these questions:
If I was giving someone a queer history tour of my body, what would that look like?
What’s the relationship between my body, my history and the history I discover?
Who is doing the remembering? Who for?
Why is a queer past important to a queer future/present?
How do I make sure I’m not glamourizing the past?
History is subjective.
History is something that is in us, that effects the present, not knowledge to just be acquired or facts to learn. It’s violent and its consequences can be felt NOW. We just have to tune in to that feeling. We should be able to connect cultural, social, political histories with our own emotional, political and physical ones.
History is not a fixed thing, but it’s shown as that by institutions. In fact our histories/stories change as our perception of ourselves shifts. My becoming shifted my story, and as I grow continues to change.
I was happy to have these feelings and thoughts and creative beginnings held by The Marlborough, steeped in its own queer history. What is most amazing about this residency, and luckily for me, is that its managed to hang on, remember and be a refuge for the queer community.