"Are you a benny tied to a tree?"
"Urgh, benny on the loose".
One of many homophobic jokes that regularly did the rounds at my primary school. They started at such a young age that we didn't really know what homosexuality, or heterosexuality for that matter, was. We just knew that to be called gay or a 'bender' was, somehow, bad and we weren't supposed to like it.
How did homophobia become so ingrained in British society, so much a given, and how has it been unpicked in the 30+ years since I left school? In fact has it been unpicked? The British Library's free, and informative, Gay UK:Love, Law and Liberty obviously couldn't answer all these questions but it did a fine job of looking at what's changed since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act that decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men, in England and Wales at least (it took Scotland and Northern Ireland much longer, the law didn't change in Belfast until 1982 and NI remains the only part of the UK without legal equality in same sex marriage!), as long as they were both 21 or over. It, clearly, wasn't perfect and it, certainly, wasn't equality - but it was a step in the right direction. One of many along a long, and often dangerous, path that gay rights campaigners and egalitarians of all stripes have walked for decades and still do to this day.
Male homosexuality was first made illegal in England via The Buggery Act of 1533 (no beating around the bush there) passed during the reign of Henry VIII and the last men sentenced to death for homosexuality in the UK (the death penalty still stands in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Yemen amongst other similarly backward minded regimes) were James Pratt and John Smith in 1835.
That November they were hanged outside Newgate Prison in London as a crowd looked on. By 1861 that crowd would've had to find new ways to entertain themselves as that year the death penalty for homosexuality was abolished. The new Offences against the Person Act (popularly known as the Blackmailer's Charter), however, bought with it its own problems. Sexual transgression, as it would then have been seen, was only a small part of the act (homicide, abortion, bigamy, and child stealing were there too) but, somehow, this led to an increase in prosecutions including the very famous case of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, better known as Bosie.
Wilde was described in a letter by the 9th Marquees of Queensbury, Bosie's father, as a 'ponce and sodomite'. Not content with inventing the Queensbury Rules used in boxing the Marquess had Oscar tried and sent to prison for just short of two years. First Newgate, Pentonville, and Wandsworth (all in London), and then, most famously, Reading Gaol which Wilde immortalised in his poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol which he wrote in exile in France after his release.
Wilde had already run into problems of censorship when W H Smith had refused to stock the issues of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine because it contained serialized extracts of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The late 19c/early 20c saw a flowering of more overtly homosexual books and authors (W H Auden and Christopher Isherwood had a decade long affair) and, as we're in a library, of course they're referenced here - in forms of manuscripts and slightly dog eared copies in vitrines. E.M. Forster's 1914 novel Maurice, Noel Coward's 1924 play The Vortex, and Radclyffe Hall's 1928 lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness.
Female homosexuality had never been specified in law but, on the release of Hall's book, it became a 'concern'. James Douglas, then editor of the Sunday Express, wrote "I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel." despite the only sexual reference in the entire book being the line "and that night they were not divided".
Havelock Ellis was more progressive than the Sunday Express (who isn't?) and his 1897 tome Sexual Inversion was the first serious, scholarly, attempt to try to understand the roots and causes of homosexuality. Sexology blossomed in its wake.
There are headphones dotted around the exhibition space where you can listen to Noel Coward's Mad About The Boy (about a crush on Douglas Fairbanks Jr by all accounts) or the story of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West and how they became lovers (Sackville-West becoming the inspiration for Orlando) despite both already being married.
After war hero Alan Turing had been chemically castrated (and later committed suicide by eating a cyanide infused apple), Lord Montagu of Beaulieu was sent to prison for 'consensual homosexual offences', and John Gielgud, in 1953, was arrested for cruising in a public lavatory things finally started to take a gradual turn for the better.
1957's Wolfenden Report (despite some bizarre clauses such as the word 'pansy' being acceptable but 'bugger' remaining verboten) recommended that "homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence" and although it would be another decade before this was enshrined in the statute books it seemed, in the rarefied air of the arts world at least, that a thaw had begun.
You could hear Julian and Sandy (as played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams) speaking Polari on Round the Horne from 1965, Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey premiered in 1968, and Basil Dearden's film Victim came out (see what I did there!) as early as 1961. It was the first English language film to use the word homosexual and the cruel irony of the film was that its star Dirk Bogarde was both gay himself and very much in the closet.
When The Minorities Research Group launched a monthly lesbian magazine, Arena Three, in 1964 and then, two years later, Maureen Duffy's The Microcosm was released nearly all the attention was on male homosexuality and the death of Joe Orton in 1967 only served to put further focus on the men rather than the women.
Orton died just a couple of weeks after The Sexual Offences Act came to pass (not that it stopped him doing what he wanted to when he was alive) and, on display in the British Library, is a page from the diary of Kenneth Williams in which he's written about the death of Orton, his friend:-
"When I think of the generosity of Joe, his warmth and affection, his kindness to me when I was so depressed. I just want to cry".
Kenneth Williams, if not Joe Orton, lived to see the arrival of the gay liberation movements in the 1970s. The Gay Liberation Front manifesto was launched in '71, Sappho replaced Arena Three almost as soon as Arena Three closed in 1972. That year also saw the first Gay Pride in London. In stark contrast to the celebration of gay culture (and, let's be honest, the pink pound) it is now this event was much more a protest than a party. Less than a thousand people attended.
In 1976 Mary Whitehouse took Gay News to trial for printing James Kirkup's The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name, a homoerotic poem about Jesus. Whitehouse won and publisher Denis Lemon was given a suspended prison sentence. More positively that same year Tom Robinson wrote Glad to be Gay. It reached number 18 in the UK chats in 1979 and when Robinson played it live he regularly, and pointedly, dedicated it to the World Health Organisation who, until as late as 1992, continued to officially refer to homosexuality as disease 302.0 in the International Classification of Diseases.
Fighting institutionalised homophobia was difficult enough but, like all liberation movements, it was made trickier still by infighting and differences of opinion on which tactics to use. Conflict at a women's liberation conference in Skegness in 1971 between a Maoist faction and gay libbers caused major ructions and with the likes of Ian Paisley running a 'Save Ulster from Sodomy' campaign unity was what was needed. It always is.
The lack of government response to the arrival of AIDS and Margaret Thatcher's government passing Clause 28 of the Local Government Act to prevent 'promotion' of homosexuality in schools (in reality, teaching children that not all of us love the same way) only served to make the 1980s an even more political decade for gay rights. You won't be remotely surprised to read that Clause 28 was backed by the Daily Mail. It's a rare tick in the pro column for David Cameron that, in 2009, he apologised for it. Even though he'd had nothing personally to do with it.
The Don't Die of Ignorance campaign was as powerful as it needed to be, the Terence Higgins Trust was successfully launched, and even Boy George (who'd previously fudged questions of his sexual preferences by claiming he simply preferred a nice cuppa, which he had every right to) jumped off the fence and released the single No Clause 28 in 1988.
The kids who'd watched David Bowie performing Starman on Top of the Pops in 1972 were forming bands themselves. Some were out and proud, some were ambiguous, and some, like Bronski Beat were politically active and utterly, and rightly, unapologetic about it. You can see the covers of Bronski Beat's Smalltown Boy and Why displayed with Soft Cell's Tainted Love, Culture Club's Do You Really Want To Hurt Me, Erasure's Sometimes, Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Relax, and The Pet Shop Boys It's A Sin.
Homosexuality had always been in the worlds of music and theatre but now it wasn't pretending not to be. In the past, and despite being imprisoned for homosexual acts, Terence Rattigan was often referred to as an 'eligible bachelor' and even Elton John got married! In cinema Hanif Kureishi's My Beautiful Launderette was nominated for several awards and Jeanette Winterson's lesbian coming-of-age novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit won the Whitbread Award for a First Novel in the same year, 1985.
In 1990 Justin Fashanu became the first professional footballer to come out as a gay. The best of his playing days were behind him, the biggest team he played for in the following years was Torquay United, but The Sun still celebrated this momentous occasion with an insensitive homophobic cartoon which looked even more ill-judged when Fashanu took his own life eight years later.
Things were improving but it was too late for Fashanu. Stonewall had been launched in 1989 by Sir Ian McKellen and Lord Cashmere, amongst others, to campaign against Clause 28 but has since diversified into lobbying for LGBTQ+ rights. Attitude and Diva magazines were both launched in 1994 and you can buy them from ordinary newsagents which would've been unthinkable a few decades previously.
The gay culture that was always in the mainstream was now, on the most part, accepted by the mainstream. Elton John, David Furnish, and their kids could appear on the cover of Hello and Prince William the cover of Attitude but with no one, barring the fustiest old grumps, even batting an eyelid.
Despite 2017's Alan Turing law posthumously pardoning (though it's debatable why someone who never did anything wrong needs a 'pardon') 49,000 historic convictions (and other law changes) hatred and discrimination still linger. As much as we need the Sarah Waters of this world to write Tipping the Velvet (there's a manuscript on display) so that young people growing up gay don't feel 'othered' we also need the likes of Peter Tatchell to disrupt sermons by the Archbishop of Canterbury, shout down homophobic rabbis, and attempt to make a citizen's arrest on Robert Mugabe.
In a few very small rooms this exhibition told a story that in turns was frustrating, painful, depressing as well as joyous, life-affirming, and never shirked from insisting that love is love however you choose to practise it. There's so much hate in the world right now you'd have to be of a very twisted mindset to deny anyone their right to love, and to express that love, however they want. So if the bennys are on the loose and no longer tied to a tree that's a good thing for everyone.