The British Library gets the erasers out

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At the moment, the British Library have a small exhibition called Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty. I see that looking at that page would have prepared me for the reality: "gay men .. gay men and women .. homosexuality .. gay people .. Gay .. homosexuality .. gay".

The first thing you see at the actual exhibition is the intro:

Since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967 there has been a transformation in society's perceptions of and attitudes towards gay love and expression.

So, it's one of those 'it's about love, really' with the bits like sexual activity that the law actually criminalised contained within the nicely ambiguous words 'expression'. And it thinks 'gay' covers the whole spectrum of non-heterosexual people…

Spanning over a century of social and legislative change in Britain, this exhibition explores gay lives and loves from the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895 to the government's posthumous pardoning of historical homosexual offences in 2017.

So I was right about the gay thing.

It considers how gay men and women have been represented and how they have sought to describe and define themselves

.. and then call them 'gay' anyway! If only there were other words for gay women, for example…

We have chosen to respect current debates that define transgender identities as distinct from those of the gay, lesbian and bi-sexual (sic) communities.


What is this, "It's 2017, and we still can't fucking spell 'bisexual'" time? ("Despite having literally tens of thousands of dictionaries on our shelves" too.)

And what debates are those? The TERF-based ones?

Calming down to go inside, there is some fascinating material. The issue of Lippincott's monthly magazine that had the original – queerer – version of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray which WH Smiths refused to sell or distribute. Kenneth Williams’ handwritten diary, open at the 8/9th August 1967, the latter including the murder and suicide of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell. Sarah Waters’ notebook used while writing Tipping the Velvet. A contemporary law book on the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, which criminalised all male homosexual activity, arguing that it also criminalised any "male who is a party .. to the commission of any act of gross indecency by a female with another male" rather than just being about sexual activity between males.

At such things I get out the ticksheet. I make it…

[ ] Gay – 92 uses
[ ] Gay women – 4 uses
[ ] Gay men & women (or vice versa) – 14 uses
[ ] Homosexual – 90 uses
[ ] Homosexual women – 2 uses
[ ] Lesbian – 23 uses
[ ] Queer – 7 uses
[ ] Same-sex – 1 use
[ ] Invert etc – 4 uses
[ ] Sodomite – 2 uses
[ ] Homophobic – 3 uses
[ ] Heterosexual – 2 uses
[ ] Transvestites – 1 use

We've already seen..

[ ] Bi-sexual – 1 use
[ ] Transgender – 1 use

.. both from that intro (and only counted once, although the identical text is at two places). Is that it? Not quite..

[ ] 'lesbian, bisexual and queer women' – 1 use

.. that's who Diva is quoted as being for. The actual item, the cover of the first issue, has 'lesbian' four times and none of the other two though.

Oh, there is also..

[ ] LGBT+ – 1 use, unexpanded I think.

Now yes, if you have material from 'The Campaign for Homosexual Equality', the 'Gay Liberation Front', a copy of 'Gay News' etc, then there is going to be an imbalance. But I haven't included the uses of 'CHE' or 'GLF' in those figures. This isn't an imbalance, it's erasure.

It's not as if they don't have the material. The British Library is supposed to have a copy of every single book, magazine etc published in this country since about 1710. There are gaps, thanks more to publishers breaking the law and not sending copies than fire or mice destroying their collection, but as an example of the volume of material they have, it's got an almost complete run of the Bi-Monthly newsletter (they're missing the first one – at some point I'll do a copy for them), a complete run of Bifrost, and a probably complete run of Bi Community News. If that's not the best single collection of the main UK bi community newsletters anywhere, it's only one issue short. They even have archived copies of some of the websites of what's currently the longest continuous annual LGBT event in the UK, BiCon.*

The erasure is undeniable, even without the debates as to how you label Wilde (who had attraction to and enthusiastic sexual behaviour with more than one gender over his life, even if he doesn't have a clear bisexual identity).

Tellingly, one panel talks about Ottoline Morrell and the Bloomsbury Group. It mentions Virgina Woolf (bisexual attractions and behaviour), John Maynard Keynes (bisexual attractions and behaviour), and Lytton Strachey (predominately homosexual, but with bisexual attractions and behaviour), before going on to say..

Throughout her adult life Morrell enjoyed affairs with men and women

.. if only there was a word for that. Oh, wait…

And for all the 'trans has nothing to do with this' attitude, the main bit about Virginia Woolf is about her novel Orlando: A Biography with its sex-changing lead character, written for one of her lovers, Vita Sackville-West (bisexual attractions and behaviour), so some of the exhibition's subjects don't agree with that idea. Or, I suspect the bi erasure.

Amongst other examples that, there's a poster from Stonewall on the campaign for an equal age of consent. There were few more bisexual issues than an unequal age of consent, at least for men. Yet Stonewall talks about 'the age of consent for gay men' and pictures three cute young men rather than, for example, a bisexual man who's allowed to be sexual with women when both are 16 but not with men until both are (at that point) 21.

You could use the BL's collection of things like this to do an exhibition on bi erasure. I'd be happy to co-curate one. Instead, they've gone for a bi erasing exhibition, because this is what erasure looks like.

The final paragraph of that intro starts

This anniversary year is an occasion to celebrate how far we have come and to consider what challenges remain.

Well, I can think of one…

* Even the Pride in London has missed a year since BiCon's been going.

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