London Exhibitions to Commemorate the Legalisation of Homosexuality
1967 was, and still is a significant year in the gay history of UK as the Sexual Offences Act was passed by the UK Parliament. This decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men, both of whom had to have attained the age of 21.To mark this there were a number of exhibitions focusing on the historical context, two of which I was able to visit on a recent trip to London.
The first one was a small scale-one at the British Library. The exhibition was small but it had a personal and powerful feel. The situation of gay men and women before the Act was passed was shown by a variety of objects and images, a number of which were relatively ephemeral but which had been lovingly preserved. Items like flyers from early Gay Pride Parades reminded me that they were much bolder and brave statements of defiance in the face of unreason and hostility as opposed the much more extravagant, celebratory, less political events they have become, particularly in major European and American cities.
There were too many items to list and comment on them all but it was particularly moving, and eye-opening, to see, for example, the hand of the Lord Chamberlain (who had to approve all plays performed in London) when commenting on what language and terms could be used when referring to characters who were gay. But of course this idea/concept did not really exist then in that context. The characters did not really exist as rounded gay characters and they would not (and could not) have their sexuality directly referred to. In plays like A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney or Sebastian in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, the usually implicitly, rarely explicitly gay characters could/would only be referred to as ‘theatrical’ or ‘sensitive’ or ‘flamboyant’ Each of these words was a coded term for a certain ‘type’ of gay person.
It took time for this to change in society as a whole and even in the 80’s Boy George was still often referenced as a very ‘flamboyant’ performer!
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