We’re delighted to have been awarded a ‘Level-Up’ grant by the SE Museums Development team for a project exploring our collections for LGBTQ stories.
Over the last year we have been working with people who identify as LGBTQ to put together trails for our visitors around the galleries and to capture their responses. Unfortunately, due to the Covid pandemic, it has meant that we have been unable to work as closely with our fab partners to work on other activities shaped by their responses to the project. In the meantime, we hope you can virtually enjoy the work so far with responses from our partners and curators to items within our collections.
We hope that those who follow the trail will be encouraged to think about how gender and sexuality have been perceived throughout history and within different cultures, and how they are interpreted today.
Lady Godiva (Aithne’s choice)
During an age where showing a woman’s hair without a covering was akin to the status of a prostitute, Lady Godiva was willing to go out completely naked to ease the suffering of her people. It’s maybe this idea of a grand sacrifice demanded by someone who will never have the same standards of morality applied to them that really strikes a chord. The Earl of Mercia could have very easily made things better without humiliating his wife. Through demanding something in return, it had to be something he knew would not only humiliate her, but make her seem shameful to others. It’s the same with the LGBTQ+ community, who are expected to be on their best behaviour, be polite, make the people around them comfortable with what they are and to modify their behaviour to fit in with what is wanted, in the hope that one day there will be the equality that could very easily be provided without all the immense social pressure.
Elizabeth of Bohemia (The Winter Queen)
Although Elizabeth herself was not a notable historical character from an LGBTQ perspective, her father was.
Elizabeth was the daughter of James VI and I and Anne of Denmark. King James was known to have previously had a relationship with Lord Esme Stewart, 1st Duke of Lennox before his marriage to Anne. Lennox became so influential in James’s politics that he was forced into exile in France where James kept in secret contact with him. Upon his death Lennox’s heart was returned to its true place with James. King James also had a relationship with Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset. They met after Robert broke his leg at a tilting match where King James insisted on nursing him back to health. James had his lover knighted and made the Viscount of Rochester and the Earl of Somerset. George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham who was ‘the handsomest-bodied man in all of England’ became James’s final lover. James made George the Earl of Buckingham, the Marquess of Buckingham and then the Earl of Coventry and Duke of Buckingham, making him the highest-ranking non royal. Upon King James’s death the Earl of Buckingham became an advisor to Charles I.
Ancient Lives Gallery
Aphrodite has been identified as the patron of lesbians in the lyrical poem ‘Ode to Aphrodite’ by the poet Sappho, who herself is a symbol of female homosexuality. Sappho is believed to have come from the island of Lesbos and the term ‘lesbian’ is an allusion to her.
Aphrodite’s son with Hermes was the beautiful young man Aphroditus or Hermaphroditus, who became fused with the nymph Salmacis to create a two-sexed deity.
In contrast to modern European military, homosexual behaviour was encouraged amongst ancient Greek soldiers as it was thought that it would increase unit cohesiveness, morale and bravery. The Sacred Band of Thebes was a military unit from 378BCE which consisted of male lovers who were known for their effectiveness in battle.
Atum was the first Egyptian God who was both man and woman. Through asexual reproduction Atum created Shu and Tefnut. They then produced Geb and Nut. Finally Geb and Nut, the earth and sky combined to produce Isis and Osiris and Seth and Nephthys. Isis exemplifies the reproductive woman, Osiris the reproductive man, Seth the non-reproductive eunuch and Nephthys the unmarried virgin/Lesbian. Here we have the Goddess Nepthys where some readings allude to the goddess as a lesbian due to her infertility and the ambiguous sexual orientation of her husband.
These penguins up until 2006 were known as Fairy Penguins. However, an aquatic centre in Australia made the decision to change their name as they felt it could be seen as offensive to the gay community. Although they had not received any complaints from the community, they felt the new name was more politically correct! Local gay activists called the move ‘barmy’.
There have been many incidences recorded where male penguins have exhibited homosexual or transgender behaviours through sex, courtship, affection, pair bonding and parenting. One such couple were Jumbs and Kermit at Wingham Wildlife Park, who were given an unwanted egg to incubate and raise.
However, homosexuality in animals is seen as controversial by social conservatives because it asserts the naturalness of homosexuality in humans, while others counter that it has no implications and is nonsensical to equate animal behaviour to human ‘morality’.
Pink & Purple Shoes
These shoes that are ‘feminine’, give off an image of what women ‘should’ be. They do, however strike a chord with the LGBTQ community as they reflect the colours of the Bisexual flag. The pink represents sexual attraction to the same sex only (gay and lesbian). The blue represents sexual attraction to the opposite sex only (straight) and the resultant overlap colour purple represents sexual attraction to both sexes (bi).
With the introduction of In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF), same sex couples have been able to become parents. The child shares its genetic makeup with one of the parents without having to go through the traditional methods to become pregnant.
Coin with the head of Hadrian
Hadrian, the Roman Emperor from 117 to 138CE, had an intense relationship with Antinous, a Greek youth of extraordinary beauty. Unfortunately, Antinous died under mysterious circumstances in the Nile. Hadrian had loved Antinous so passionately that he ordered statues of the beautiful young man to be placed in all temples and cities in his empire, so he could be honoured and worshipped as a god.
Bentlif Art Gallery
Battle at sea painting
The adoption of male dress was a means for many women, including many lesbians, to protest the status of women and the roles assigned them by patriarchal societies. Cross-dressing had been and continued to be utilized by women to allow them to “pass” as men and be accepted. Some examples are Ann Mills, who in 1740, lived on a frigate call the Maidstone. She lived and worked as a man so she could be a dragoon. Kit Cavanagh (Mother Ross) spent many years disguised as a dragoon in the British Army until they discovered she was a woman.
Until the 1970s, the public perception of lesbians was all about masculinity. To assert difference and as a signal to other lesbians, many women-loving women adopted certain “masculine” clothing, such as a collar and tie or trousers. In America, it was illegal for men and women to dress completely in clothes of the opposite, and they were required to wear three pieces of gender appropriate clothing!
Albert Goodwin painting
Albert Goodwin studied with Arthur Hughes and Ford Madox Brown of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists who were tackling the problematic subjects at the time of poverty, emigration, prostitution and sexual morality. Simeon Solomon who was an associate of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood depicted same sex desires in his paintings through androgynous, chastely lounging angels and deities. He was arrested in 1873 for attempting sodomy. His biggest fan was Oscar Wilde.
Japan in pre-modern times was extremely accepting and even encouraging of male homosexuality and bisexuality, even celebrated and idealised. The Samurai enter into wakashudō, where an apprentice would be taught martial arts, life skills and if they were agreeable, become their masters’ lover. This practice continued for several generations of samurai. By the 17th century male prostitutes were in great demand in the cities with samurai included as their customers. Prostitution then expanded from the brothels and in to the theatres, where many kabuki actors were male prostitutes in disguise. Highly sought after by men and women, the kabuki actors were frequently found in bed with paying customers when not on the stage.
It is only recently that the Japanese language has begun to distinguish sex and gender. There had also not been a set connection between gender and sexual preference. Sei was the word used to distinguish the binary biological sexes, female and male, as well as the concept of gender.
River Safari Gallery
In Greek mythology, Ganymede was a Trojan prince known for his great beauty. Zeus fell in love with the youth and turned himself into an eagle and abducted Ganymede, taking him to Mount Olympus. Ganymede’s father, King Tros of Dardania was compensated by Zeus with the best horses and explained that Ganymede would now be immortal, serving as a cup-bearer to the gods and Zeus’s lover. King Tros was relieved at his son’s honourable position. Hera was jealous of Zeus’s affection for Ganymede, forcing Zeus to turn him into the constellation Aquarius (the water-bearer).
In 2004 that the Gender Recognition Act was passed, giving Trans people full recognition in their appropriate gender. One story from Greek mythology of a Trans male was that of Caeneus.
Caenis was the daughter of Elatus (a Lapith chieftain) and Hippea. After being raped by Poseidon, he then changed her into a man at her request, so that she could never be raped again. He also made Caenis invulnerable to weaponry. Caenis then changed his name to Caeneus and became a warrior.
He met his fate in the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs. One of the centaurs mocks Caeneus and undermines his fighting skills when he finds out about Caeneus’ female origins. Caeneus killed the centaur and as revenge, the centaurs piled tree trunks and stones upon him as he was immune to weapons. After being crushed by the tree-trunks, there are different tales of what happened. One story states that Caeneus flew away from the pile of tree trunks as a golden-winged bird. Another is that he changed back into a woman after death and was buried as a woman.
Earth Heritage Gallery
This natural mineral was given the name Peacock Ore as it appeared to reflect the colours of the Peacock bird. This small piece shows all the colours of the six-stripe version of the rainbow pride flag established in 1979. The colours have their own meanings: red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, blue for harmony and purple for spirit.
In 2004 the Civil Partnership Act was passed, giving same sex couples the same rights as married heterosexual couples. Finally, in 2013 The Marriage Act was passed legalising same sex marriages.
For much of history, weddings were akin to a business deal in which two families joined forces for a beneficial arrangement or alliance. As a result, the wedding dress was chosen to express the family of the bride’s wealth and social status. Throughout history, a bride would rarely buy a dress specifically for the wedding but would wear her finest dress to the ceremony, no matter what colour it was.
Today marriages or civil partnerships are about love and commitment. We have the freedom to be really creative and step away from stuffy traditional wedding roles and customs.
Fans were believed to be the key to a secret language between lovers in the Victorian era with over two dozen signals to be learnt allowing young lovers to communicate between one another. In an age when women had to conform to strict rules of etiquette, it is believed that this secret language became an ideal way for a lady to discretely communicate with and flirt with her admirers. However, in reality this was most likely to have been an invention of fan retailers to sell more of this accessory, with some also publishing fan etiquette guides. Obviously, this would only work if the person to whom you wished to pass a message on to, could actually understand what you were doing! That is not to say that the use of a secret code or language with accessories hasn’t been used in the LGBTQ community. The handkerchief code is often used among homosexual males to indicate sexual availability and preferred sexual fetishes.
Children’s clothing in the past was non-gender specific. All children wore the same kinds of clothing until a young boy was given their first set of breeches to distinguish them from girls.
Throughout history children have been expected to play with gender specific toys. Young boys were given cars, chemistry sets and toy guns. Girls were given things to prepare them for life as a wife and mother. They were given dolls to practice nurturing children, doll’s houses to perfect the running of a household and cooking equipment to be able to prepare meals which are typical female, gendered pursuits.
Local History Gallery
Barming Asylum Door
Homosexuality had been classified as a mental illness since the 1920’s and was treated as such until the early 1970’s. It was felt that homosexuality could be ‘cured’ through treatment. Aversion therapy worked, according to textbooks, by altering behaviour through the application of an unpleasant or noxious stimulus such as apormorphine (a vomit-inducing drug). In other words, the patient came to associate a nasty sensation – through unpleasant tastes, corporal punishment and electric shocks, when being faced with homo-erotic imagery or behaviour. The painful experience would supposedly put them off for ever. Not all patients would survive their ‘treatment’.
It wasn’t until as recently as 1992 that The World Health Organisation declassified same-sex attraction as a mental illness.
Chains & Manacles
The partial decriminalisation in 1967 of male homosexuality didn’t extend to the Navy, Armed Forces, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man. Previous to this, many members of the LGBTQ community had been imprisoned including some of the greatest minds of our times. One of the most famous being Oscar Wilde who was sentenced to two years hard labour in Reading Gaol, which proved devastating to his wellbeing.
“We know not whether laws be right, or whether laws be wrong. All we know who lie in gaol is that the walls are strong and each day is like a year, a year whose days are long… The most terrible thing about it is not that it breaks one’s heart—hearts are made to be broken—but that it turns one’s heart to stone,” from the poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde.
There was also Alan Turing, often termed the ‘father of modern computing’, who was prosecuted for gross-indecency with a 19 year old man. Unlike Oscar Wilde, he accepted chemical castration for one year rather than imprisonment. This caused him to become impotent, develop breasts and suffer from depression. Upon the start of his ‘treatment’ Turing stated that “no doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who I’ve not found out”. Throughout his treatment he remained resilient; often expressing this in his private letters “I have had a dream indicating rather clearly that I am on the way to being hetero, though I don’t accept it with much enthusiasm either awake or in the dreams.” Alan Turning died aged 41 as a result of cyanide poisoning, believed to be suicide.
In 1988 Margaret Thatcher introduced Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. This stated that councils should not ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. This meant that teachers could not talk about same-sex relationships, including students coming out or tackling homophobic bullying.
As a result Sir Ian McKellan came out as gay on BBC Radio and lobbied against Section 28 and other barriers to equality. Section 28 was not repealed until 2003.