Manchester Histories Festival

Never Going Underground: The fight for LGTB+ rights

Monday 8 May 2017

Guest blog for Manchester Histories by Never Going Underground Community Curator, Jenny White.

Never Going Underground Community Curators with Ian McKellen, credit People’s History Museum

Photo (above) Never Going Underground Community Curators with Ian McKellen. Photo courtesy: People’s History Museum

I’m one of nine volunteer Community Curators who put together the landmark Never Going Underground exhibition on show at People’s History Museum to September 3rd 2017. It’s been an amazing experience, not least getting to meet gay rights icon Ian McKellen at the official opening.

Until fairly recently exhibitions and events billed as exploring LGBT history have tended to focus on the criminalisation of male same sex acts, gay male sub cultures, and the fight to reduce the age of consent. There might be a token reference to lesbians thrown in, with trans and bisexual histories pretty much ignored. 

As Community Curators we aimed to showcase diverse queer histories, so that any LGBT+ young person on a school trip to the museum could find something to identify with. We wanted to inspire visitors to come away and act for change in some way, and to highlight the importance of community.

Aged from twentysomething to seventysomething - and representing the full spectrum of LGBT+ plus a straight ally - we each brought our own passions, experiences and voices to create a unique exhibition. Supported by staff from the museum, from May 2016 we met fortnightly for progress meetings and training sessions, and were ultimately responsible for all aspects of planning, from object selection, to choosing the designer and writing labels.

We explored archives and art collections around country, approached activists for memorabilia, and hosted community consultation workshops for input on what to include. We chose items representing a wide range of activism formats including social media, craftivism, direct action, and political lobbying.

Photo (left) Hayley Cropper's Anorak Hayley Cropper’s anorak

By September 2016 we’d bagged some ace items for display including Hayley from Corrie’s iconic red anorak; a video equipment case used by Fox Fisher to make the My Genderation film series; and an original 1928 banned copy of Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness novel. We’d interviewed a number of activists including the lesbians who abseiled into the House of Lords in 1988 to protest the anti gay law Section 28; and a founder of Movement for Justice group which campaigns for migrant rights.

We were a bit worried that with such a random assortment of items the exhibition could end up looking like a jumble sale. But designers Made by Memo transformed our ideas into a vibrant, bold display, with lots of fabulous interactive and family friendly elements.

African Rainbow FamilyPhoto (right) African Rainbow Family deliver a petition to the Nigerian High Commission calling for the repeal of Nigeria’s anti-LGBT laws, 2015. Photo courtesy: African Rainbow Family

The exhibition covers the UK wide fight for LGBT+ rights, but includes plenty of Manchester specific content, including items from the huge Never Going Underground demo and concert held in 1988.  We’ve spotlighted the work of a number of local LGBT+ support and activism organisations including Rainbow Noir, Action for Trans Health, Biphoria and African Rainbow Family.

Manchester was a centre of suffragist and suffragette activism and we’ve featured a number of queer votes for women campaigners including Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth; music hall star Vera ‘Jack’ Holme who worked as Emmeline Pankhurst’s chauffeur; and composer Ethyl Smyth who put her musical career on hold to devote energy to the cause.

The Never Going Underground exhibition is on until 3 September 2017, and is part of a year- long programme of exhibitions, events and learning programmes at People’s History Museum exploring the past, present and future of LGBT+ activism.

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