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Pride of Place

England's Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans and Queer (LGBTQ) Heritage.

Gender diversity and same-sex love have long been part of England's history. But LGBTQ identities as we understand them today only date from the last decades of the 20th century. Prior to this, same-sex love and gender diversity were treated as criminal acts or moral sins, medical or emotional problems, or were absorbed within accepted family and community relationships. So LGBTQ people and their histories have often been hidden, marginalised or suppressed.

A note on terminology

Pride of Place uses the term 'queer' both in its historical context and also as an inclusive term to indicate the complex experiences of sexuality and gender diversity across history. In the past, 'queer' has been used both as a term of derision and also of self-identification. Many people today, scholars and community members alike, have reclaimed the term but use it differently: to capture the complexity of gender and sexuality not otherwise addressed by LGBT. It is with this in mind that we use the acronym LGBTQ.

The Pride of Place project

In 2014 Historic England commissioned a team of historians and scholars at Leeds Beckett University's Centre for Culture and the Arts to identify and research the locations and landscapes associated with England's LGBTQ heritage.

The project, Pride of Place, adopted an inclusive approach in defining its scope. Many historical locations and sources shed light on LGBTQ pasts.

Some identities, groups and periods have been better recorded than others and are therefore better understood. We know much more about men who desired other men than about any other group. LGBTQ historical records also often focus on famous 'elites' and white gay men. Lesbian, bisexual, trans, working-class, disabled, black, and ethnically diverse voices within queer history are less visible. More research is still needed to better understand these diverse LGBTQ histories.

A colour photograph of Shidben Hall
The exterior of Shibden Hall, Halifax, the home of Anne Lister.

The project was supported by a knowledgeable steering group and had a number of aims:

  • Identify, document, and increase awareness of the significance of LGBTQ histories and heritage in relation to England's buildings and landscapes
  • engage community members, the heritage sector and scholars in documenting locations of LGBTQ heritage by identifying sites and recording their histories
  • identify a number of LGBTQ heritage sites for consideration for inclusion on the National Heritage List for England (NHLE), and to suggest amendments to existing entries on the NHLE where there are important LGBTQ associations which deserve to be better known
  •  nominate buildings or landscapes for consideration for local heritage listing on the basis of their significance to LGBTQ histories
  • encourage the management of current heritage sites open to the public, as well as those designated in the future, to include LGBTQ histories in their interpretative content as a key part of engaging with the public.

The project was divided in to 2 phases.

The first phase included the gathering of crowd-sourced content and production of a map, hosted by Historypin. Members of the public were invited to identify places relevant to LGBTQ heritage and history. Contributions were made by the research team, by individual contributors and at a series of pinning parties hosted by the research team at venues and events all over England. Many personal stories emerged, and these help to construct a broad and inclusive queer heritage. Pride of Place also drew on the increasing body of wider research by local and community groups and by academics into our queer past.

The opening up of the project to individual contributions raised a number of questions for the project team and the steering group. Beyond the usual considerations of accessibility and usability of data, there were public knowledge issues more in keeping with sites like ‘Trip Advisor’. How representative is the data that are being posted? Does this matter?

In addition, there was the question of partnerships. From the start these were viewed as highly important. What inferences might be drawn from Historic England hosting the site? Would this deter some potential users by giving the process a veneer of authority?

These issues caused debate. Some parties were keen on ‘traditional’ structures, with an emphasis on reliability. Others saw the method of gathering data as being a more populist, democratic tool. Questions were also asked about the use of a ‘wiki’ format and the possibilities of a self-regulating system. It was, though, concluded that, even if consensus on some issues could not be achieved, then at least a layered view would be presented. The hope was that by using crowd sourcing information the project would challenge customary heritage processes and in so doing be more inclusive and representative.

A archive photograph of Holy Trinity Chuurch Goodramsgate, York showing the south windows and tower.
A view of Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York, showing the south windows and the tower above. Anne Lister and Ann Walker celebrated their union here in 1834. © Historic England AL2383/046/01

Identifying LGBTQ sites

The second phase of Pride of Place aimed to uncover new locations associated with England's LGBTQ past and to revisit existing heritage sites to consider their LGBTQ significance. These included, most obviously, places of LGBTQ social interaction, political action and community organisation, but were not limited to these. They also included homes and domestic spaces once lived in by 'queer' people as well as buildings and interiors created by LGBTQ designers and architects, locations which may themselves hold 'queer' resonances.

One of the key desired outputs of the project was to identify new sites for listing.

Whilst a range of assets was highlighted, particularly pubs and clubs, crowd sources actually revealed very few examples which met the criteria for listing.

There was also little apparent overlap between architectural and LGBT knowledge and thus nothing of significance emerged in respect of, for example, specific gay or lesbian architects.

The history revealed tended to be rather ephemeral and therefore intangible. There was more potential when considering amendments to existing listings, approaching existing knowledge from different perspectives and uncovering otherwise hidden heritage. One new listing was registered, and 18 amendments were made to existing list descriptions as a result of the project

Why LGBT places matter

Place gives a sense of belonging. The built environment is where we have lived, loved, socialised and taken shelter. Not only does it meet our needs, it reflects our lives and desires. There is no tidy history of the LGBTQ past. Some places are significant because they were used to escape hostility towards same-sex love or gender diversity. In certain periods, however, queer behaviour was ignored or even accepted. Contrary to common belief, queer people were not always considered deviant.

LGBTQ people have long used public and private buildings, parks and streets to create their own cultures. Even though identities are expressed differently today, having a knowledge of this heritage gives LGBTQ people a sense of long-established communities. Our historic buildings and spaces of all kinds have acted as meeting places for LGBTQ people, in all towns and villages, and across time.

Most cities and towns had particular bars and pubs that tolerated and welcomed queer people, some even when homosexuality was illicit or illegal. Theatres and artists’ studios have also been places of greater licence for pleasure and queer behaviour. They were and often still are cosmopolitan, bohemian spaces where alternative ways of living can be imagined or experienced.

Powerful institutions of the past, such as schools or monasteries, have been locations of same-sex relationships, as well as places that issued warnings and decrees about these desires. Town halls, the centres of local government across the country, have seen impassioned debates about LGBTQ rights since the 1980s. The Greater London Council was vilified for promoting lesbian and gay equality, and therefore the seat of its power, County Hall, has a strong role to play in the LGBTQ story.  More recently, town halls have hosted the civil partnerships and marriages of lesbians and gay men, alongside the unions of heterosexual people.

Some open spaces have become notorious as places where men sought sex with other men. From the late 19th century public toilets have often been sites for public sex, ‘cottaging’, by men. Churchyards might be ‘cruising grounds’ for sex, as St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden was in the 18th century. Inside churches, we sometimes find memorials to love between men, or between women. Trans people have ‘fooled’ church authorities into marrying them – reports of such weddings are found from the 18th to the 20th centuries.

Many more types of buildings and places - suburban streets, dockyards, factories, courtrooms, the historic homes of the affluent and elite, even palaces- are significant to LGBTQ heritage. But these stories often remain invisible to visitors today.

Archive photograph showing a group of men including homosexual activist Edward carpenter sitting in a garden with a house in the background.
Edward Carpenter, an early activist for the rights of homosexuals, with friends at Millthorpe, Derbyshire. © Sheffield Archives: Carpenter/Photograph Box 8/95

About the author

Sandra Stancliffe

Sandra Stancliffe

Head of Education and Inclusion with Historic England

Parts of the text for this article were originally written by Professor Alison Oram from Leeds Beckett University who led the Pride of Place research team.

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