Since the removal of Section 28 from the statute book in 2003, Britain’s queer communities have come together each February to celebrate a history which was for so long hidden in plain sight. Each year, LGBT+ History Month has a theme: in 2021 it is ‘Body, Mind, Spirit’. Anyone who has watched Russell T. Davies’s masterpiece, It’s A Sin, will know just how much each of those elements can be affected by absorbing oneself in aspects of the queer past and present. The books I have chosen for this short article penned as a contribution to LGBT+ History Month, each represent a different side of life.
Let’s start with the master historian, Jeffrey Weeks, who was born in the Rhondda in 1945, and his landmark book, Coming Out. First published by Quartet in 1977, and released in a new edition in 2016, Coming Out brings Britain’s queer history to life. It is radical. It is rooted in the ideas of gay liberation – about which more in a moment – and in the left-wing politics of the 1970s. But it is not an artifact of an earlier time, so much as an endlessly absorbing and fascinating excavation of a past richly experienced but all-too-easily cloaked in the horror of criminal codes and lavender scares. Weeks’s great triumph is to bring queer history back down to street level. In his long career, Weeks went on to write about Edward Carpenter, theories of sexuality, and the triumph of the queer civil rights movement through signature legislation such as same-sex marriage. This spring he turns his attention to his Welsh roots in a masterful memoir, Between Worlds.
To understand the Gay Liberation Front itself, there is no better work than Lisa Power’s No Bath But Plenty Of Bubbles, an oral history of the movement in London, which was originally published in 1995 by Cassell. Long out of print and difficult to get hold of, it has recently been re-released as an e-book to mark GLF’s fiftieth anniversary. By the time the book appeared in the mid-1990s, the world had changed completely from that envisaged by the GLF activists twenty years before – but rarely for the better. The age of consent, set at 21 since 1967, fell to eighteen in 1994 but the opportunity to bring about equality at 16 was narrowly missed. Section 28 was on the statute book and ruining the lives of a generation of queer children (me included). HIV/AIDS wreaked havoc all over the world, amongst queer and non-queer communities alike. Lisa Power wrote a book of history, then, but one designed as a kick into gear, a serious attempt to recover something of the spirit and purpose of the Gay Liberation Front and to make the world better for everyone. Twenty five years later, we know it succeeded.
After a year living with the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are feeling an enormous strain and frustration. We have come to think of the virus as a once in a century event – it is not. But that tells us something about how societies remember and how we as individuals remember, too. Studies have shown that the descendants of those most directly impacted by traumatic events carry with them a genetic memory – an imprint of that harm which cannot be got rid of. It is especially apparent amongst Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren. For queer people, especially, it is also true of HIV/AIDS, the other great global pandemic of the past fifty years. To understand the interplay between trauma and memory, there is no better novel than Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers. Published in 2018, it focuses on Chicago and brings to life a community which was forced to adapt and compelled to live with death and danger, day after day. But it is a universal story, one which can – and in its comparison with COVID-19 does – affect us all.
But what of Wales? When I wrote A Little Gay History of Wales a few years ago, I had a delightful afternoon reading Sion Eirian’s 1979 novel, Bob yn y Ddinas. It’s not really a queer novel except for a passage where the title character, Bob, goes into the Duke Of Wellington pub in central Cardiff and encounters a neighbourhood drag queen who buys a drink for everyone in the snug, but not him. He was outside the community. This was truth, not fiction. For a period in the late-1970s, the Duke of Wellington joined its neighbour the King’s Cross and the nearby Golden Cross and Bristol Hotel as part of the small gay scene of those years. This was Real Cardiff, as Peter Finch would describe it, tough and grimy and poor; the place as it was before the corporate towers arrived and the rents shot up.
My last choice takes me back to the Rhondda and to another queer emigré who made his way to London: the novelist Rhys Davies. In his lifetime, Rhys Davies never openly acknowledged his homosexuality. Privately, and to his friends, and partners, it was a different story. He cruised guardsmen on the streets of interwar London; he cruised men in the various European cities in which he lived; he was in Germany like Christopher Isherwood and saw the rise of the Nazis; he wrote very queer novels which take little decoding for modern readers; and became close friends and a beneficiary of the noted American lesbians Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. Alas, much of the writer’s work is now out of print but his memoir, Print of a Hare’s Foot, first published in 1969, appears as a Seren Classic. More so than Mike Stephens’s prize-winning biography, which doesn’t really get to the heart of its subject’s sexuality, I’m afraid, Print of a Hare’s Foot is the best place to start with a writer who is to Wales what Oscar Wilde is to Ireland.
Daryl Leeworthy is the Rhys Davies Research Fellow at Swansea University. He is the author of A Little Gay History of Wales (2019) and of Elaine Morgan: A Life Behind the Screen, which is out now with Seren.
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