When I saw a girl with two glittery rainbows painted on her cheeks and a rainbow flag wrapped around her body entering through a door, I knew exactly where to go to find OUTing The Past’s Festival of LGBT+ History at Leeds City Museum, in celebration of LGBTQ+ History Month. It was the second year that the festival happened, in partnership with West Yorkshire Queer Stories, a website that gathers stories from queer people from all walks of life, older and younger, for the purpose of diversifying museum collections and archives.
Inside the museum, there was face painting, young people chatting about queer issues with older ones, kids walking hand in hand with their parents and asking questions, film festivals stands, choir groups, a fetish table, and right in the centre of the space there was colourful box: a time capsule. It was being decorated with stickers by the organisers of the project, while they talked to two teenagers about their different experiences inside the LGBTQ+ community through the years.
Kelly Bentley-Simon, 37, is one of the people responsible for the capsule. A youth worker for Bradford Youth Service, she was asked to help with the Queer Youth Time Capsule, and jumped at the chance. “It is a way to record history as it is happening,” she told me. “We´ll look back 5 years from now and see what it was like back then, but the back then is now”. The box will stay at the museum for some years until it is time to open it, after which Leeds City Museum plans on making an exhibition with its contents.
She let me have a look inside: there were cards, bracelets, pamphlets, badges, all donated by young people. She pulled out a huge rainbow flag and showed it to me. “This was an activity organized by a teacher in one of the schools here in Leeds,” she explained. “They have this LGBTQ+ club called The Umbrella Group and members wrote a little message on this flag and they donated it to us”.
Examining the flag, phrases like “Be who you are and don’t care what anyone else says” and “If it´s not about you why do you care?” jumped out at me. According to Kelly, this wouldn’t have been possible when she was in high school.
“I graduated in 1998: back then, teachers couldn’t speak freely about these issues. It was considered propaganda, like they were pushing the LGBT+ agenda forward and influencing the students´ minds,” she remembered. Section 28 was abolished in 2003, having previously forbidding teachers from teaching and speaking about LGBTQ+ issues since 1988. It was censorship of awareness of queer people´s stories, the opposite goal to that of LGBTQ+ History Month. “But today you have this,” Kelly said as she smiled at all the positive material donated by teachers and students alike that piled up on the table.
This kind of openness was something one of the members of Leeds Gay Community Patrick Hall, 70, would never have imagined in his youth. He saw male homosexuality decriminalised in ‘67, and all the progress that has been made since then, but still remembers the danger and the fear. LGC has existed for about 50 years, and looks to provide a safe space where gay and bisexual men, usually from older generations, can meet and socialize.
Patrick has been a member for most of his life. His table stand is covered with old LGBT books, fliers and magazines, all in perfect condition, and his voice remains in the same calm and friendly tone throughout our whole conversation.
“I think queer people today have different worries, different fights”, Patrick observed. “We are worried about bullying in schools, we are talking about gender, labels and trans rights. That wasn´t the conversation 20 year ago.”
The simple act of talking about LGBTQ+ history inside the museum would have been impossible two decades ago, but now that it is a right, Ross Horsley, 41, a West Yorkshire Queer Stories employee, considers it activism. He walked around the festival looking to help anyone that might have a question, or just want to chat. Since his job is to talk to different people of different ages and backgrounds, he notices the changes in what older and younger generations of queer people worry about.
“I think representation is the main difference,” he said. “20 years ago you never saw yourself on TV, and today there is so many queer people and queer characters around, but we have to know there can be wrong types of representation”.
I can see the meaning behind his words; there has been progress, but we need to be careful to not settle. Trans characters are still being played by straight people in many TV shows and movies, while actual transgender actors can´t find a job.
Labels that define the sexuality and gender spectrum have also changed. “We use queer as an umbrella term in our organization but we understand that lot of older people are used to it being used against them on the streets as a slur,” Ross said. “We understand if they don’t want to use it, even though it is so accepted nowadays among younger generations.”
I spent the rest of my time looking at the stands, talking to people, signing up for mailing lists and buying badges. I saw a little girl pull her dad’s hand in the direction of the face painting table, asking for rainbow-themed makeup. Two teenagers with purple hair were deep in conversation with two older women, pride pins on their shirts. The time capsule was almost completely covered with stickers.
As letters in the LGBTQ+ initialism keep being added, and more people find themselves in nonbinary genders and more specific sexualities, the reappropriation of the word queer to define the entire community has grown.
I can’t help but think that LGBTQ+ people have come a long way, and it is important that we don’t forget anyone’s struggle, but also that we learn to live in the moment and appreciate what we have now, in this rainbow decorated happy little room in the centre of Leeds.
Images courtesy of Leeds City Council