This year marks half a century since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, the law that partially decriminalised male homosexuality in England and Wales. There’s been a slew of exhibitions honouring that 50 year point, including the superb Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain, Manchester’s People’s History Museum’s Never Going Underground, and now Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty over at The British Library.
The show examines personal and political representations of LGBTQ lives through manuscripts, printed materials and oral history recordings, tracing social and legislative changes in Britain from the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde to the controversial “Alan Turing law” posthumous pardoning of historical homosexual “offences” this year.
It feels like a prescient time for such an exhibition, half-century or not: while there’s been undoubtedly giant strides forward in society’s attitudes towards gay expression (in the UK at least), persecution and prejudice continues, and the links between the gorgeous DIY graphics and those we’re still seeing today make that plain. The wry humour that sits alongside serious political messaging is superb: highlights include Peter Tatchell’s smart approach to copywriting and collage in his Outrage! posters, and the playfully punk Pits and Perverts poster that advertises a fundraiser for Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.
Alongside these printed materials, the exhibition also presents items such as Hanif Kureishi’s annotated script for 1985’s My Beautiful Laundrette and continuity polaroids from the set, and author Sarah Waters’ notebooks from the creation of her novel Tipping the Velvet. You’ll also see the first edition of Virginia Woolf’s gender-play storyOrlando, alongside a sound recording of Vita Sackville-West from 1954 talking about the inspiration for the book; and Kenneth Williams’ diary entry from 9 August 1967, which covers the murder of his friend, playwright and author Joe Orton.
Rachel Foss, lead curator of Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty at the British Library, says: “These objects and documents are the tangible evidence of a living history that is fragmented, punctuated by gaps and still evolving. I hope that the exhibition will prompt visitors to consider not only how far we as a society have come but also, crucially, what still needs to be done to combat prejudice and realise true equality.”
Gay UK runs until 19 September 2017.