The legal and social pressures exerted on LGBTQ+ people to suppress their desire and loves may have had success in the eyes of their oppressors. But the subcultures it created are rich and varied and recorded in ways that don’t take much to research and share.
And an engaging cross-section of these revelations, from small adds through to police, criminal, policy and legislation records have been mined for some truly engaging Being Human LBGTQ+ events that give tantalising insights into what it might have been like to have been gay in the past. They include ‘Classified: a performance of queer dating ads inspired by archives’, a collaboration between The National Archives (TNA) and Bishopsgate Institute.
Victoria Iglikowski-Broad, TNA’s principal records specialist, provides some insights into the untapped archival material that reveal how government interacted with and viewed LGBTQ+ communities in the past.
The National Archives hold a wealth of exciting and often untapped material. With 1,000 years of history and more than 11 million paper records there are constantly new research angles to explore – the area of LGBTQ+ history is no exception. And these records give a valuable insight into how government interacted with and viewed LGBTQ+ communities in the past.
The state’s attempts to suppress and regulate sexuality and gender has paradoxically left us with many potential sources for the experiences of LGBTQ+ people. Our collection reflects many of the significant moments and milestones in LGBTQ+ history through police, criminal, policy and legislation records.
Queer and the state
Back in 2016, The National Archives used some of this extraordinary material to inform our Being Human ‘Queer and the state’ events. This series, in collaboration with the London Metropolitan Archives, invited participants to delve into previously closed secret police and government files to discover how queer spaces were targeted and spied on, and the resilience of the community’s response. The events led to a recreation of a lost queer space, the Caravan Club – which has subsequently found a new lease of life in Soho in a post-festival project with the National Trust.
Interior of The Caravan Club, Endell Street, London 1934. The National Archives, catalogue reference: DPP 2/224.
Our aim was to target a new, young and diverse audience, aged 16-25. To achieve this we recruited and worked with a small but impactful group of young people. This group met regularly and had a key role in shaping and influencing the events. Over the two events we succeeded in attracting approximately 80 people, the majority of whom were under 25 and first time visitors to the archives. Both events were sold out and full to capacity.
Classified: queer dating ads
The Link, April 1921. The National Archives, catalogue reference: MEPO 3/283.
In November 2018, I was enjoying some random archive digging, when I came across a fantastic publication called ‘The Link’. Immediately it made me think of modern dating apps and how little and how much has changed in the last 100 years.
The Link was a ‘lonely-hearts’ style publication from the early 20th century, which strove to provide connections – for love, lust and companionship. Alfred Barrett had founded it in 1915, in response to what he perceived as a crisis of loneliness. People had to describe themselves and what they were seeking using no more than 25 words.
Young Gent (Bristol), 26, good-looking, would like correspondence with own sex, 18–26. Must be well-educated, of good appearance. Photos appreciated. All letters answered. (940.)
However, the publication wasn’t used entirely as Barrett had planned. In 1920s Britain, homosexual acts between men were criminalised. While it was never illegal to be gay, many of the associated practices were criminalised. Through this publication, men used the coded and suggestive language of classified adverts to meet other men. This can be inferred from some of the coded language of this publication; “artistic”, “bohemian” and “unconventional”.
Jimmie (Bath), 25, artistic, affectionate, lonely, desires correspondence, own sex, under 35. Same district preferred, but all answered. Photos appreciated. (941.)
This attracted the attention of the Metropolitan Police, who investigated the publication and men who had met through The Link.
Ted (London, W.), 26, jolly, affectionate, musical, athletic, would like male chum, same temperament. Cycling, swimming, and week-ends occasionally. Please state age. (951.)
Performing the archive
Clearly, despite criminalisation of their love, queer people continued to strive to find ways to meet and defy the law; the Link provided them one means of doing that.
This year’s Being Human event, between The National Archives and Bishopsgate Institute, seeks to celebrate and reclaim these voices 100 years on. To take these underground, coded classified adverts and make them out, loud and proud in a current prominent queer venue, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Timberlina and Auntie Maureen will bring to life some of these coded, intriguing and sometimes naughty personal ads found in our collections.
Two archival research events have taken place to crowdsource the research which will feed into the final performance on Saturday 23 November, Classified: A performance of queer dating ads inspired by archives.
One hundred years on people still instinctively crave ways to meet other people, whether it is through online dating aps or classified advertisements. The stories of people in The Link reflect themes that are still current and topical among the LGBTQ+ community.
Victoria Iglikowski-Broad is principal records specialist (diverse histories) at The National Archives. Her research interests include the history of British society and culture, gender and sexuality, and 20th-century social change and protest. She also works on The National Archives collections on the black British civil rights movement including the UK Black Power Movement and the trial of the Mangrove Nine, as well as the development of LGBTQ rights and queer spaces.
Classified: a Performance of Queer Dating Ads takes place at The Royal Vauxhall Tavern in Lambeth on 23 November, 4–5.30 pm. Booking is required, and tickets are available here.
London, SE11 5HY
Being Human (14-23 November) is an annual event led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy. It is the UK’s only national festival of the humanities, which brings together hundreds of academics and researchers to share their research and ideas with the public. Find out more about the festival at www.beinghumanfestival.org and on social media, Twitter @BeingHumanFest and Instagram @BeingHumanFest.