In the halls of the British Museum is a plaque entitled Queen of the Night. It depicts a naked woman, an aspect of the goddess Ishtar, and dates from 1800-1750 BC. The Kugarus were cross-dressing guards of Ishtar (also called Inanna) and were said to have been changed from male to female by the goddess. “The guards used to process after her in the street,” Kate Smith of Write Queer London explains, “with one side dressed as a man and the other side as a woman.” In the surviving texts from a lamentation, Ishtar says:
I go at the front. I am lofty.
I proceed from the rear. I am wise.
I make right into left.
I make left into right.
I turn a man into a woman.
I turn a woman into a man.
I am the one who causes a man to adorn himself as a woman.
I am the one who causes the woman to adorn herself as a man.
“It’s so different from the way that we do religion now,” Kate continues. “Perhaps it was a place where someone who was gay or transgender would say, ok, this is my place, this is my niche in society. At that point in history you can’t really know.” One of the aims of the festival Write Queer London, which is running until late February, is to reimagine the past, to uncover hidden histories, and to reclaim such stories.
I talked to Festival Director Kate Smith and Marketing & Communications Manager Babs Guthrie about the Write Queer London project beside St James’ Church in Piccadilly, where on February 8 Robert Mills will be giving a talk about queer monks, ‘Discipline and Desire in the Medieval Cloister’. This is only one class of event in a festival that is marvellously diverse. “Eclectic” is the word that Kate uses to describe it. From tours of the LGBT objects in the British Museum to play-writing workshops in the style of Joe Orton, it is an engaging exploration of LGBT history that brings it alive. “There’s something for everyone in Write Queer London,” as Babs rightly points out.
This is the fourth year that Write Queer London festival has run, and the programme is its most ambitious to date. It features curator talks, gallery tours, poetry commissions, a writing competition and creative writing workshops.
How did Write Queer London get started?
Kate: It started as a very worthy museum project, and has gradually morphed into a far more eclectic beast. It started out with the Museum of London, which has probably been the bravest museum in the UK when it comes to gay history. When Section 28 was in place, most museums were too scared to touch the subject. In 1999 the Museum of London put on ‘Pride and Prejudice’, a big exhibition about gay histories. And they didn’t get prosecuted. As we now know no-one got prosecuted under Section 28.
In 2006 they asked us to do research on various minority histories within London, and Write Queer London is a spin-off from that.
Babs: Write Queer London brought together all of the gay histories in the museums. It’s much easier to bring together things that are Jewish, or Black, and this was the first real community group that was across everything.
Kate: The other thing to say about gay history is that every museum has got a bit, there’s stuff they’ve collected 100 years back and is difficult to label. But every one’s got about 6 things knocking about if you look. It’s like a treasure hunt. Write Queer London is a poking about process to find out how much or how little a museum has got. When we approach a museum we often don’t know what they’ve got and we fish around in their database and find amazing stuff.
How does this tie in with the Untold London project?
Kate: Untold London is a platform, it’s a website of all the histories that haven’t naturally surfaced in museums – all the stuff you get if you’re not a straight white empire builder from the 19th century.
It’s about how the museums are changing, and how they’re not the places we were dragged along to in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They’re realising they can’t just tell that story any more, you know, “here’s great granddad’s pit helmet from when he was in British India …”
Babs: The site’s a go-to place for people who are interested in their history but don’t feel they’re being served by regular museums. Write Queer London gives the museums the chance to interface with Untold London and get their stories into the archives.
And how does the creative writing element of the festival fit into this?
Kate: With Write Queer London you either get people who are turned on by the history and are terrified of the idea of being lured into a room and forced to write poetry, or you get the people who are creative-writing-workshop types who think “history that’s not my bag, I don’t go back any further than 1970”. The reason we bring those two groups together is that with gay history in particular you get material that’s suggestive and not set in stone.
What the creative writing component allows you to do is to be brave enough to think yourself back into that bit of the past. When Neil MacGregor did his history of the world he did exactly the same thing. He said that history will take you so far and then you have to start making educated guesses that are powered by your imagination. And that’s a perfectly respectable thing to do, as long as you know where the line is, and know what’s cast in stone and what’s a bit fuzzy.
I think gay people are also a bit scared to own history when looking back beyond a certain time, there’s a feeling that we don’t know anything at all, which isn’t true. There’s a feeling that it was all so dreadful and painful, but actually it’s a lot more nuanced than that.
At this point we pause to talk about two of the people discussed on the tour of the Museum of London, Princess Serafina and Samuel Drybutter.
Princess Serafina was the alter-ego of John Cooper, who lived in Georgian London. In a 1732 court case, in which Cooper accused a man of theft, there were testaments to the dignity of Princess Serafina as her friends and neighbours spoke for her. It is a fascinating story, which you can read all about on the website Georgian London.
Samuel Drybutter, on the other hand, was a much-disliked man who, although convicted of sodomy, escaped the death penalty. He was eventually stoned to death in a separate incident. There is an illustration in the Museum of London, which is also on the museum’s website, of Ganymede & Jack Catch, in which the hangman is saying to Drybutter, ‘Damme Sammy you’re a sweet pretty creature & I long to have you at the end of my string’.
Babs: It was risky for anyone who was at all different then, and I don’t think it was the fact that she was cross-dressing that got Princess Serafina in court. Anything you were doing could get you in court then. It sounds like Samuel Drybutter wasn’t necessarily stoned to death for being gay; he was stoned to death for being a bad man. But that was probably a good excuse.
Kate: It seems as if he was amazingly unpopular. It’s hard to judge what a Georgian person would feel if they knew their neighbour had his shop looted and then subsequently got the person who’d stolen from him hanged, leaving his wife and four children helpless in the world.
Babs: What we have with Princess Serafina is the court case. It’s very straight forward, unlike the case of Samuel Drybutter.
What have you learned from the events?
Babs: At the last event we did there was a story from a man whose partner had been cottaging in the same place that Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell used to go to on the Holloway Road. He thinks he had sex with either Orton or Halliwell.
Kate: But the cottage was so dark. It was seriously grim backroom stuff: you’d walk into this dark place and someone does you. So he was saying he didn’t know he’d had sex with them it was just considerably likely seeing as they were both groping around in dark spaces.
It sounds like the approach you have to take to LGBT histories.
Babs: Yep, groping around in a dark room, it’s not unlike …
What have you learned that’ll affect what you cover in the future?
Babs: The event has grown year on year. We’ve learned that there are a lot of people out there that want this. And the creative writing element helps to bring people together. It makes it personal, you’re not separated from the history by a glass case.
Kate: Two of the venues we’re using, The Geffrye Museum and the National Maritime Museum, have never knowingly put on an LGBT event. It’s not that they weren’t up for it. It’s just not been obvious to them where they’d start with their own productions.
Last year we were at the British Library with a talk on Victorian pornography. This year we’ve got gay pirates, being gay on the domestic front – what was it like living with your same sex lover in the 1950s in Daily Express land. We’re also talking about this right next to a church, where we have an event about gay sexuality. This is the bit that’s got a raging fever, it’s the troubled end of LGBT histories.
There’s a huge number of religious gay people, and they get done in on both sides. The gay community says “why are you hanging around with these homophobes?”, and the conservative Christian end reject them. Its one of the hardest places to occupy in the gay world.
It’s an interesting area that only gets talked about when it’s a political scandal and everyone is kicking off. It’s funny that an absolutely beautiful 17th century church is at the edgy end of Write Queer London, but you can wander into the British Library and say you’re doing a talk on Victorian pornography and everyone is ok with that.
February Events at Write Queer London
Write Queer London at the National Maritime Museum
2nd February 2012, 14:00 – 16:30
Poet and artist Nancy Campbell leads a writing workshop looking at aspects of the history of gay seafarers and pirates.
Gay Domesticity: a Write Queer London workshop
4th February 2012
The Geffrye Museum
Historian Alison Oram talks about gay history on the domestic scene, followed by a poetry workshop with Cherry Smyth.
Write Queer London at St James Piccadilly
Robert Mills, ‘Discipline and Desire in the Medieval Cloister’.
Weds 8th February 7 – 9pm
Free with a collection at the end to cover the evening opening of the building.
Pleasure Garden Ball
14 February 2012, 18:45 – 21:45
£6 (concs £5), advanced booking available now on the Museum of London’s booking line: 020 7001 9844
Make a date for this night of dancing, drinking and decadence as we recreate Georgian London’s quintessential pastime – strutting your stuff in the pleasure garden – with a flirty Valentine’s twist. Learn to dance with an 18th-century girl band, hear saucy poetry by Write Queer London, discover fashion dandy-style, and design and wear your own alluring masquerade mask.
Objects of Love and Desire: Exploring the things we carry
16 February 2012, 19:00
£10 includes admission to the galleries, book through email@example.com
Listen to famous writers telling stories about the objects that changed their lives and have a chance to tell your own story.
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