LGBT History Project North East: Making History

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of attending, and speaking at, the LGBT History Project North East conference. It was a whirlwind of a day, where academics and lay people were given equal prominence in seminars, lectures and workshops.

Before I get into the review of the day proper, I feel the need to address the controversy which has dogged the national organisation. LGBT history month is marked every February, beginning as a schools project, and expanding, to become part of the annual calendar of events which make up the queer year. It’s built on the idea that education is of itself a way to tackle bullying, isolation and exclusion. It has, however, grown into more than an educational project, and as such, is not immune to the tumults of the outside world. Anyone is free to put on an LGBT history month event, which is how, an event has been organised which promoted a famous biphobic and transphobic campaigner. I mention this because it has caused some people to feel that LGBT history month events might not be inclusive or welcoming to certain identities. The LGBT History Project North East is not only separate from the organisers of the Salford event, but have worked to make the project genuinely diverse and inclusive. It feels sad that I need to make this clear, but, it also feels important to address people’s concerns.

It did strike me on the day that we (as in LGBTQ people of the North East) have come so far. While elsewhere arguments which should have been left behind rage, we are hosting events which lead the way in showing what the community should look like. This message was brilliantly explored by Lisa Power, one of the founders of Stonewall in her keynote speech which opened the conference. In looking at the history of the opposition to Section 28 she reminded us that learning from the mistakes of the past, especially in opposing prejudice, is vital.

It seemed to be a recurring theme of the day, perhaps understandably given the seismic political events of 2016. A feeling that hard fought for rights were not as safe as people assumed was expressed by many speakers. The idea that in unity, in recognising LGBTQ people are stronger together, and more unites than divides us was said many times, in different ways.

My own workshop, on “Adding the B” looked at how attitudes towards bi people from those within the lesbian and gay community often led to silencing, and erasure of bi people. It was incredibly moving to hear peoples stories of dismissal of their identities, but it was also a very positive discussion. I felt that everyone in the room wanted to move forward, to be more inclusive, less policing of identities, and to embrace the growing fluidity we are seeing around both gender and sexuality.

There were so many great speakers and ideas throughout the day that it almost seems unfair to name favourites. Professionally, listening to the writer of The Cloud Still Hangs was an unforgettable moment. Outside of the therapy room it is rare to hear someone speak so honestly of the impact of repression, abuse, and the effects of sex offender status. Mental Mapping, as explained by Lois Stone, made me not only want to spend more time looking at our mental mapping of Newcastle, but wonder how it might be used therapeutically. Personal timelines can be a powerful tool for self reflection, and spotting patterns and recursions in our lives. Might not mental maps, which look at the spaces we have inhabited, their power, their proximity and  fluctuations, be also a tool we might use?

Every speaker on the day however brought their own interpretation of what history is, and in doing so added to the sum of knowledge, of understanding, and diversity. This last, the diversity of history, is so often missing from the official history books. It was therefore great to hear about Bisexuality in Ancient Cultures, and the intriguing life story of Jennie Grey, possibly a trans woman living in South Shields in 1913. The tag line of the day was: No longer edited, covered up or erased. Each contributor made that reality closer.

Despite it being a vile February day, with the worst of North East weather, it was wonderful to see the conference was full. It was also great that it was at the Civic Centre, right in the heart of Newcastle. Part of no longer being covered up means LGBTQ events no longer relegated to the shadows, and in visibility we show that we belong. There were a couple of minor accessibility issues. The organisers themselves expressed regret that they could not have signers for the talks, due to cost. The design of the Civic Centre sadly means there are no non gendered toilets available. However these were very minor hitches in another excellently organised day. You can find out more about the LGBT History Project here and keep up to date on forthcoming events. If you are a teacher they are having a free CPD day on February the 18th at the Glass Centre, Sunderland.

Picture credit By Tagishsimon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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