Gay UK: Love Law and Liberty at the British Library

Front cover of Lippincott�s Magazine publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde�s only n

Front cover of Lippincott�s Magazine publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde�s only novel, July 1890 (c) British Library Board - Credit: Archant

As Pride Month begins, Zoe Paskett visits a new free exhibition that marks the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality

Outrage! poster (c) Peter Tatchell

Outrage! poster (c) Peter Tatchell - Credit: Archant

A new exhibition marking the 50th anniversary since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality has opened at the British Library.

Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty explores gay lives through film and literature, legal reform and personal testimony, from the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde to the posthumous pardon of historical homosexual offences at the start of this year.

Oscar Wilde’s trial caused huge public sensation that led to the attitudes towards homosexuality that reigned in the early twentieth century. One of the pieces of evidence used in his trial was a version of The Picture of Dorian Gray published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, which appears in the exhibition. W H Smith refused to stock it and critics accused him of writing for “none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys”.

Virginia Woolf’s relationship with Vita Sackville-West, who inspired her novel Orlando: A Biography, is documented by sound recordings from Vita herself in 1954.

Outrage! poster (c) Peter Tatchell

Outrage! poster (c) Peter Tatchell - Credit: Archant

In the early 1950s, as many as 1,000 men a year were imprisoned amid a huge clampdown that led to Lord Wolfendon’s report recommending that it be decriminalised. It wasn’t until a decade later that the Sexual Offences Act 1967 actually followed through.

There is video footage of Labour MP Leo Abse and a Conservative peer Lord Arran, who brought the bill forward in an attempt to liberalise the law. Abse recalls the method how he had to pretend and beg for sympathy for these men who don’t have as happy lives as they. What he wanted to say was that all those MPs were potentially bisexual men who were too frightened to deal with their gay component.

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While sex between women was never outlawed, gay women have had to deal with discrimination and the added struggle for equal rights. As the exhibition says, “the relationship between lesbians and women’s liberation has been complex. Some feminists viewed gay liberation as a distraction while others, particularly as lesbian-feminism evolved, saw the two causes as inseparable.”

There are issues of Arena Three, a lesbian magazine in circulation until 1972, Sappho, another which ran from 1972 to 1981, and Diva, a magazine for lesbian and bisexual women that has been running since 1994.

The final parts of the exhibition show the power and resilience demonstrated following the change of law, and bravery despite those who still had opinions rooted in the 19th century.

What is most arresting is how close it all is – the age of consent for gay sexual activity was only lowered to match the law for heterosexual sex in 2001, and even up until 2003 Clause 28 prohibited local authorities from promoting the “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretend family relationship”. The World Health Organisation listed homosexuality as a disease until 1992,

It is clear that we have come a long way, but there is still a way to go.

Gay UK runs in the entrace hall until September 19. Entry is free.

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