To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, the London School of Economics (LSE henceforth), held a library exhibition designed to document the legal struggle for equality (http://www.lse.ac.uk/library/exhibitions/past-exhibitions#GladtobeGaythestruggleforlegalequality) and developments since this piece of legislation. This exhibition brought to light the absent past of LGBT movements (Burke, 2004, pp. 74-99 and Heidegger (2009) (1962) cited in Feindt et al., 2014 pp. 28), such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF henceforth). Yet on reflection, I felt that the palimpsest created by this exhibition needed to be critically engaged with, to understand not only how it represents such history but also subsequently how that then reflectively represents LSE as an institution.
Through this piece, I am going to argue that the curation of this exhibit constructs a more concise yet concrete palimpsest, of LSE’s entwined history with GLF, than can be determined from my own archival search and subsequent palimpsestic understanding of this entwined history (Groote, 2014, pp. 108). I will argue that this is because of the selective drawing on certain aspects of their entwined history, which best suits the intention of the exhibit, which is to highlight a wider history of the fight for legal equality of LGBT+ individuals.
I will continue by arguing that this has the added effect of portraying LSE as an ‘avatar of both freedom and modernity’ (Butler, 2008 cited in Mepschen et al, 2010, pp. 96), as by only reflecting on the founding of GLF on LSE’s campus, creates a centricity and concreteness to the palimpsest that portrays LSE as having a significant (and implied supportive) role in this movement. Finally, I will state that from the curation of this palimpsest, some of the raw radical nature of the GLF is lost, whereby the process of omitting layers of this entwined history for their aim to create a very succinct and concise library exhibition, reduces and sanitises it down. This leaves you with a slither of the history, left uncritical and represented as more contained, rather than my fragmented palimpsestic palimpsest (Groote, 2014, pp. 108), than I could ascertain from archival sources.
For this piece, I accessed two main sources of data, the information cards used in the Glad to be Gay exhibition and archival sources from the Hall Carpenter Archives. On both I conducted content and thematic analysis. For the first, I considered what was each piece was detailing, describing what was being stated. For the latter, of the two, I stated what concepts and ideas came from such content (Ryan and Bernard, 2003, pp.88), although some such as location, where predetermined, considering that I am critically engaging with a palimpsest of an entwined history at one site, which is the campus of LSE. On reflection, the next time I conduct such a project, to reduce bias in my analysis, I would have it reviewed by peers to provide inter-rater reliability on my coding system (Tinsley & Weiss, 2000, p. 98).
Regarding selecting archival sources to use, I searched through the Chesterman and GLF archives, reading the overview of the content to try to request those sources which I felt had data which were the most relevant to my project. However, on reflection, this was a difficult process, as a lot of the data in the sources I used did not highlight an entwined history between LSE and the GLF, although this may speak to the peripheral relationship GLF had with LSE after it’s founding.
Regarding selecting the archival data that I analysed, I did so in a way that was illustrative of my engagement with the archives and illustrative of examples of this entwined history, particularly parts which were not called upon in the exhibition. This does not include all instances of the entwined history, as I suspect more could be found in sources I didn’t use in my search. Therefore, whilst I can understand why this selection may seem to be ‘cherry picked’, I do not claim that my selection is fully representative, but rather a reflection of a variety of data sources, that will best allow me to critically engage with the constructed palimpsest of the exhibition and propose one of my own (Roberts and Priest, 2006, pp. 44).
Since the Glad to be Gay exhibition was no longer being held in the library, I gained access to the information cards wrote for each display from the curator of the exhibition. I have conducted the same content and thematic analysis on a selection of these cards, to keep the data analysis consistent over the data sources I have used.
Finally, to gauge the public reaction to the exhibition, I conducted a social media search on Twitter and Instagram, searching for posts that referred to the exhibit. Whilst the people who created these posts were not informed, they have made their posts on a public platform, thus arguably it is reasonable to suggest that they can expect such posts to be seen by strangers (BSA, 2002, p. 5). For ethical concerns regarding anonymity, I have transcribed their posts, giving each a respondent code that does not allow for identification of the person behind each one.
Having considered all of this, a final note I must make is that I need to be self-reflexive about my involvement in the reconstruction of memory of the entwined history of GLF and LSE (Feindt et al., 2014, pp. 27) and how this is influenced by my own engagement with archival sources. Thus, I have placed my analysis in the appendix and photographed sources, to allow for transparency regarding how I came to my understanding of this entwined history, particularly in relation to the one presented in the exhibition itself.
“Glad to be Gay: the struggle for legal equality”, was the title of an exhibition held between 9 January to 7 April 2017 at LSE’s Library (http://www.lse.ac.uk/library/exhibitions/past-exhibitions#GladtobeGaythestruggleforlegalequality, 2018). Marking the upcoming 50th Anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 (http://www.lse.ac.uk/library/exhibitions/past-exhibitions#GladtobeGaythestruggleforlegalequality, 2018), which was in July 2017, which was legislation that brought about the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality (www.parliament.uk, 2018), the exhibition sought to trace a history of fights of legal equality for those in the LGBT+ community, both before and after the act itself, drawing on the archival sources at the curator’s disposal (http://www.lse.ac.uk/library/exhibitions/past-exhibitions#GladtobeGaythestruggleforlegalequality, 2018).
In this exhibition, reference was made to the Gay Liberation Front, a social movement which whilst originated over in America, was founded on British soil by an LSE Sociology Undergraduate, Bob Mellors (Donnelly, 2017). The founding meeting was held on LSE’s campus on the 13th October 1970, with estimates of attendance ranging from nine to twenty members (Donnelly, 2017 and Murphy, 2017). This is therefore invoking the concept of the palimpsest. Whilst in a literal fashion, palimpsest refers to a parchment where layers of writing exist on top of one another, with a trace of each piece remaining (De Quincey 2003, pp. 171–175 and Dillon, 2005, pp. 244), I will be referring to a metaphoric understanding (Powell, 2008, pp. 6) that sees palimpsest as how the traces of an absent past (Heidegger (2009) (1962) cited in Feindt, et al., 2014 pp. 28), in this case the entwined history of GLF with LSE, re-emerge in the present in the structured form of a palimpsest (Dillon, 2005, pp. 245). Given the lack of multiple layers drawn upon in this palimpsest, I will argue allows for a more concrete and sanitized link to be made between the movement and the institution of LSE.
Given the new temporal context, these ‘phantoms of the past’ come to view in (Dillon, 2005, pp. 244-251), palimpsests such as this exhibition retain aspects of the past, whilst allowing flexibility for new meanings to be ascribed to them (Çelik, 1999, pp. 63 and (Feindt, et al., 2014, pp. 34 and 36). This is particularly significant given the particular context of this palimpsest (Feindt, et al., 2014, pp. 36), as holding the exhibition for a period that coincided with LGBT history month and more specifically was to commemorate the year of the 50th Anniversary of Sexual Offences Act (www.parliament.uk, 2018), as many other similar exhibits were held (Saunders Law website, 2017), adds an significance to the meaning ascribed to this palimpsest compared to other times this layer of history has re-emerged (Deeley, Urquhart and Murphy, 2015).
Memory and selective commemoration
The exhibition makes explicit reference to how the GLF founding meeting was held “in a basement classroom at LSE on 13 October 1970” (Information card- Coming Out, Murphy 2017). Although think-ins are mentioned, this is the only layer of the entwined history of LSE and GLF explicitly drawn upon in the exhibition (Information card- Coming Out, Murphy 2017). Whilst this at first may seem admittedly weak, I will argue that this selective drawing of history, where they focus only on the founding of GLF in the exhibit, creates a more concrete, contained palimpsest than can be determined from my palimpsestic understanding of the archival sources (Groote, 2014, pp. 108). I will further add that this selective use of history in the exhibit’s palimpsest can result in portraying LSE in a positive and progressive light, again in comparison to what can be determined from archival sources.
When I searched the archival sources to consider what layers of history may have been lost in the selection process for the exhibition, I was able to gather that LSE was only the site of the main branch of GLF’s meetings for less than a year (HCA/Chesterman 17), with the reference being made as to the reason behind this being less than flattering. In an Friendz article dated in November of 1971, GLF members state that “The establishment hassled us out of the LSE and the 43 King Street” (HCA/Chesterman 17). Semantic choices in this quote, such as ‘hassled’, hint at the discrimination their members faced in their right to assemble. Whilst this kind of discrimination that LGBT individuals faced was not novel at the time of this article, as they were living in a society that only recently partially decriminalised same-sex relations, this layer that remerged from my own palimpsestic search (Groote, 2014, pp. 108) can be seen to already bring into question the, albeit implied, supportive role that LSE appears to have in the palimpsest created by the exhibition. However, I must state that this is the only reference I could find to why GLF no longer held their main meetings on LSE’s campus and thus it provides an incomplete picture of the reasons behind their subsequent move to 43 King Street and then other premises. This highlights the issue I faced with this project of discovering many gaps in archival material, leading to my own fragmented understanding of the layered entwined history between the GLF and LSE (Groote, 2014, pp. 108). Yet even whilst the evidence is comparatively weak and incomplete, the language in this article I feel still adds a less than complimentary layer of history that was not selected for the exhibition.
Furthermore, the archival sources provide evidence of continued, occasional GLF engagements being held on LSE’s premises, such as Think-ins and their Action Theatre Workshop (HCA/GLF/3). I interpret this to create the effect of a less contained and thus arguably weaker palimpsest, as the centrality of LSE in the history of GLF is diluted across the time of their entwined history. Thus, the decision to focus primarily on the founding meeting of GLF in the exhibition creates relative centrality to their palimpsest. This is reflected in some of the social media responses, such as “Just popped in to the Glad to be Gay exhibition at @LibraryLSE- had no idea LSE had been so instrumental in the fight for equality #LSELGBT” (Twitter Response 3), indicating that the exhibition creates the impression of LSE having a having a significant (and implied supportive) role in this social movement.
The reason behind such a selective use of history, where through the curation of the exhibit, the founding was touched upon, but some of my archival findings were not do so, seems to be because the intention behind the exhibition itself was not purely to reflect upon the entwined history of the GLF with LSE, but rather on the notable illustrative figures and social movements in the (continued) fight for the legal equality of LGBT individuals in the UK (http://www.lse.ac.uk/library/exhibitions/past-exhibitions#GladtobeGaythestruggleforlegalequality). Yet this arguably seems to have the unintended effect therefore of creating this contained, uncritical palimpsest that positively reflects upon the institution, by not highlighting the traces of their shared history that is less flattering or messier than by placing the focus on the founding meeting of the GLF itself.
Increasing LSE’s competitive edge
This follows on from my previous line of argument, as urban sociologists have highlighted how “sexual difference is increasingly marshalled as a symbol of progress and modernity for the purposes of fostering national and urban competitiveness in various contexts” (Oswin, 2015, pp. 557- 558). Thus I am going to argue that the curation of the palimpsest of LSE and GLF’s entwined history in the Glad to be Gay exhibition, has the added effect of not only painting LSE in a progressive light, as I have previously stated, but fosters competitiveness between universities by giving LSE a competitive edge over other universities by portraying the institution as an “avatar of both freedom and modernity” (Butler, 2008 cited in Mepschen et al, 2010, pp. 96).
For example, whilst the exhibition only makes explicit references to one university, the London School of Economics, in its information card regarding the GLF. From my archival search, I was able to find not only how the movement expanded across London over the years with branches such as the West London GLF and Camden GLF holding their own meetings (HCA/GLF/3), but other universities across the UK started to become involved in the GLF, their campuses providing housing for their events. This can be seen in archival data that highlights that universities such as Warwick have their own role to play in the history of the GLF (HCA/GLF/15). Furthermore, a lot of social events were held on the University of London Union building (HCA/GLF/15), which whilst LSE is a part of, is a body of various London universities, this is thus a layer of the entwined history that LSE must share with some of its fellow London academic institutions. This would allow others to lay claim to a shared history with the Gay Liberation Front as well, providing them the means of posing themselves as in line with modern cosmopolitan society through promoting their campus as LGBT friendly spaces both historical and to this day (Rush brook cited in Oswin, 2015, pp. 558).
(all sourced from HCA/GLF/15)
Yet by the exhibition only explicitly focusing on LSE’s entwined history with GLF, rather than highlighting the shared role that other higher education institutions played in the history of the Gay Liberation Front, can create an impression that LSE had arguably a much more significant role in this history. Furthermore, by referring to the founding meeting being explicitly held on LSE’s campus in the opening paragraph of the information card (Information card- Coming Out, Murphy 2017), something no other university can lay claim to, provides a competitive edge to the university through the selective calling of this history. This is because it provides the means for LSE being able to promote itself as highly progressive (Butler, 2008 cited in Mepschen et al, 2010, pp. 96) and LGBT friendly (Florida cited in Oswin, 2015, pp. 558) and thus stake their claim to a cosmopolitan identity (Rushbrook cited in Oswin, 2015, pp. 558) in an ever more competitive market for students (Oswin, 2015, pp. 557-558).
Reducing and sanitising a radical history
By having the primary focus of the exhibition be a reflection and celebration of the history of the continual fight for LGBT rights, other layers of the entwined history of the Gay Liberation Front at LSE were omitted, including archival data that may seem to highlight their radical political activism and stances. Thus, I am going to argue that from the selective curation of this palimpsest, some of the raw radical nature of the GLF is lost. This is because in the process of creating a very succinct, concise, and one-dimensional palimpsest for the library exhibition, it reduces and sanitises the entwined history of LSE with the Gay Liberation Front down, leaving you with just a slither of their history.
Firstly, to clarify, by radical politics I refer to a form of political stance which is often based on collectivism, with those holding this belief aligning themselves with the disenfranchised and powerless and who seek permanent societal change (Becker and Horowitz, 1972, pp. 52). Whilst I admit that this is a very broad definition, I see radical politics is rather a vehicle for a revolutionary version of a political stance rather than being tied to a side of the political spectrum, as previously argued (Giddens, 1994, pp. 8 and 9). Thus, given that GLF was a liberation movement that took a revolutionary and intersectional approach, believing that the oppression they faced in a homophobic society could not become accepting of LGBT+ individuals until all oppressed social groups, such as people of colour and women, were liberated too (Tatchell, 2013), I believe it fits how I am conceptualising radical politics.
Thus, considering one of my approaches to critically engaging with the exhibition’s palimpsest was to see what was omitted, via an archival search of my own, I came across pieces of archival data that highlighted the GLF’s radical politics. One such illustrative example was when I came across an article written by an LSE student, who was a member of the GLF, in the student newspaper, The Beaver. Entitled “Who’s a wanker”, the article is not just a manual in how to have anal intercourse, but rather making political statements against what they deem to be the “oppression of bourgeois sexual ideology”, not only on behalf of gay couples, but heterosexuals too (HCA/GLF/15). They make explicit reference to the collectivist nature of their radical liberation politics, with sentences such as “We can never be fully liberated until the heterosexual (and all oppressed majorities and minorities) are also” (HCA/GLF/15). They also refer to the legal inequality gay people face and what they see as draconian laws regarding such sexual acts, encouraging others to ignore such laws (HCA/GLF/15), highlighting their revolutionary rather and reformist political inclination.
When I consider why and the ramifications for the omission of such data, I am drawn to argue that through the intention of the exhibition to create a wider palimpsest of the fight for legal equality across the decades, it has what I deemed to be the unintentional effect of partially de-radicalising and sanitizing the entwined history of the Gay Liberation Front with LSE. This is because omitting layers of the history, such as student articles like “Who’s a wanker”, aspects of their political ideology and activism, such as their stance on sexual liberation remain as part of the absent past (Heidegger (2009) (1962) cited in Feindt, et al., 2014 pp. 28), to be forgotten until their traces are raised again, such as in this essay. Considering how I interpret my piecing together of a palimpsest from my own archival search, being conscious of the need to be reflexive of my own creation of alternative palimpsest (Feindt et al., 2014. pp. 27), I regard such an omission, whilst intentional, given the historical scope the exhibition was trying to cover (http://www.lse.ac.uk/library/exhibitions/past-exhibitions#GladtobeGaythestruggleforlegalequality), as unfortunate because of the dimming of GLF’s radical edge.
In summary, my engagement with the palimpsest of the entwined history of LSE with the Gay Liberation Front found a concise, one dimensional or singularly layered palimpsest. This concise palimpsest, although seemingly innocuous on its own, has unintended effects, when critically engaged with my own archival search.
By conducting my archival search and subsequent critical engagement, I uncovered omitted layers of this shared history that gave me my own fractured, material, palimpsestic palimpsest (Groote, 2014, pp. 108) of this entwined history. What I found was complex, occasionally strained yet continued, arguably peripheral relationship between the GLF and LSE past its founding meeting, the single layer which the exhibition referred to (Information card- Coming Out, Murphy 2017). It also gave me a flavour for the radical politics of the GLF, which itself bled into this entwined history (Who’s a wanker in HCA/GLF/15).
I have argued, from the position of my own palimpsestic understanding of this entwined history (Groote, 2014, pp. 108), how I feel the selective use of explicit reference to a single layer of the relationship between LSE and the GLF, can lead to effects that are politically beneficial for the institution of LSE (Jowett, 2017, pp. 308). For example, that it can promote the institution of LSE as playing an important, supportive role in the fight for LGBT rights, thus giving it a competitive edge over other universities, by thus allowing them to stake claim to a cosmopolitan identity. However, I feel it is important to go beyond restating my thesis but rather to highlight what I consider to be any implications that have arisen from my palimpsest project.
For instance, through conducting my archival search and subsequent critical engagement, I created my own palimpsest of the entwined history of the GLF and LSE (Feindt et al., 2014. pp. 27). Whilst I needed to create a distinction between the two to be able to critically engage with the exhibition’s palimpsest, they are not mutually exclusive but rather different recollections of the same history (Martin-Jones, 2006, pp. 24). Therefore, I would align myself with theorists such as Çelik, who highlights that memory can resurrect old meanings and generate new ones (Çelik, 1999, pp. 63), as I have done myself with the creation of my own palimpsest (Feindt et al., 2014. pp. 27). Thus I would highlight that from this, the implication with palimpsests, as often reformulated to present temporal contexts (Feindt, et al., 2014 pp. 32), is that none are superior to the other, but rather we must consider the intention and how the selection of layer(s) of history reflect such an intention (Nora, 1989, pp. 8). Thus, as I have been reflexive in the intention and selection behind the creation of my own palimpsest, others should also, so it can be considered also.
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For data referenced, please refer to my appendix.
Archival data photos