I’m reading Prejudice and Pride: LGBT Activist Stories from Manchester and Beyond at the moment. It’s kinda structured around the main themes and recollections from the This Is How We Got Here oral history project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. But it’s also an accessible collection of essays, exercises and potted histories of LGBT activism which challenges perspectives and empowers agency. It’s thrilling to read something so unlike any other book I’ve ever come across.
The book describes how young people at what is now The Proud Trust were first trained in oral history techniques and then interviewed LGBT activists at the Joyce Layland LGBT Centre, Schools OUT UK and people who have been involved with the long history of LGBT youth work in Manchester.
Niamh Moore borrows the ‘wibbly wobbly’ concept of time from Steven Moffat the Dr Who writer (via one of the young people involved in the project) to explain how intergenerational projects like this which focus on marginal stories are naturally non-linear in practice. People involved in creating history become part of transmitting it to the next generation. Their lives weave in and out of centres of political activity. It’s a theory of history that fits perfectly the strength and adaptability inherent in community spaces like the LGBT Centre. Of course nothing ever goes smoothly in oral history. People don’t think or talk in a linear way. And things can go backwards in history – progress is not a one-way street.
Here’s Myrtle remembering what the inclusivity and safety of the LGBT Centre meant to her as a young bisexual woman: “Some of the issues for me was coming into LGBT spaces and them not being very understanding of bisexuality, whereas LGYM the staff here and the young people are really supportive of that and actually challenged a lot of the biphobia that is experienced within LGBT settings as well and that kind of reinforced for me that it was a really safe space, that it was inclusive of different identities and that’s really important. And I think that’s sadly quite rare, because people talk about LGBT but actually a lot of the time they think lesbian and gay, they don’t think of the kind of inclusive spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Jenny reflects on the importance of safe spaces in which to drink tea has been central to the life of trans* and queer people for since Victorian times: “tea has been very important in the life of trans* in Manchester city because back in Victorian times a lot of people who were gender diverse or gender queer could not be out except in either the theatre where it was acceptable, or they found also the Victorian tea dances they could go to, that’s where the tea comes in.”
Peter reminds us how difficult life without role models could be in the 1980s: “There was nobody out in school like there is now… Because when the kids knew even what it meant, homophobic remarks were in constant use at school, oh you queer. Even whether they knew what it meant or not is irrelevant, but if it was true of course that would make it worse, so you kept hearing these words being used as something negative, and something you can’t be, so that’s why you thought there was something wrong with you. Because if you’re constantly told that you’re abnormal, you start believing it.”
Lena agrees that there was a lot to fight against in the 1980s: “There was a whole lot there to be active against. There were the miners, the pit closures, you know, closing our mines in the ‘80s. So again there was a whole load of activism to be done around that, around LGBT, around anti-apartheid movement. And many women, including myself, were involved in all of those.”
Amelia describes her journey into ‘activisty stuff’ by pointing out how much there was still to fight against at the turn of the century: “Well I came to Manchester to go to university in 2001 and joined the LGBT Society, which actually then didn’t have a T on the end, it was just LGB. There was a big discussion at the time about whether it should become LGBT or not and I became chair of the LGBT Society because we did decide to adopt the T. And I was quite interested in stuff like campaigning for equal marriage and fostering and adoption and goods and services legislation, ‘cause none of that was in at that point so you could still be turned away from a bed and breakfast if you were a same sex couple. You didn’t have the right to adopt and you couldn’t get civil partnered.”
Peter’s memory of coming to the LGBT Centre for the first time is a vivid one which will make you smile. Whenever I hear it the hair stands up on the back of my neck. We all know moments like this when the strong, supportive people around us simply make us feel at home: “I used to go to the young gay disco which was every Friday on Aytoun street, erm, and I thought that was all there was but he told me that there was a youth group. And… I remember–, I think it was April-ish 1984 I think … And I rang the bell, somebody answered, and I said, “Is this the youth group?” thinking, you know, the whole world was listening and writing it down somewhere. They said, yeah come in, come in and I went down the stairs, had a cup of tea, met a couple of people, got introduced to a few people including the great, and sadly missed Joyce Layland. And I saw–, there were two lads, I think they were from Liverpool if I remember rightly, but they were partners and they, erm, were kissing each other and I’d never, ever seen that. And I was like, erm, wow and then my very next thought was a tremendous sense of relief, and yes this is where I fit, this is right, I’ve come to the right place, this is definitely me.”
Lena had the courage to come out at the National Union of Teachers in 1988 at the height of the struggle against Clause 28. Returning to her classroom was a nerve-wracking experience. But here’s how her pupils reacted: “Like I said, I gave the speech and then I kind of needed a week off to recover from the exhaustion and everything. So I kind of did that and then I was really nervous about going back into school and what the teachers would say and what the children would say. And this was all young people, they were like 11 to 18 year olds, it was a secondary school. And I can remember, erm, sort of real nerves and I was teaching English and being in one classroom, you’re at the front as the teacher and the kids are all piling in. And kind of thinking, oh, you know, my heart was racing. And one lad piped up, “Ah Miss is a lessie,” and immediately this boy from the back row said, “Oh shut up, Miss is all right,” just kind of shut up, Miss is all right. And that really was the end of it.”
To find out more about this brilliant project and more like it come along to LGBT Voices at Manchester Central Library on Friday 26 February.
The Prejudice and Pride book is available to buy online. You can watch short versions of the interviews, download lesson plans and even go on a walking tour about the history of the centre. Full length interviews can be listened to in the Greater Manchester Sound Archive at Manchester Central Library.