Hidden LGBT+ lives finally being uncovered
The recent TV mini-series It’s a Sin won acclaim for its depiction of the Aids crisis in the UK during the 1980s and 1990s. But while people were raving about the show, many of them admitted to knowing little about the epidemic – and the destruction it wreaked among the gay community.
That’s because, even in today’s much more accepting society, the history of the gay and lesbian community is largely a forgotten history. For a long time, the mainstream public didn’t want to hear our stories.
In the past, the amazing stories of LGBT+ people were actively suppressed. The only interest used to be in censoring or denying any LGBT+ elements of the records of the past. So, things were kept from public display, passages were omitted from books and sexual relationships were presented as passionate friendships. That was wilful and deliberate distortion.
But now society is becoming much more welcoming, and there’s a huge appetite to hear our stories. And there are so many amazing stories to tell.
On the one hand, there are the tales of famous figures like Greta Garbo, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Marlene Dietrich, Tchaikovsky, Josephine Baker and Hans Christian Andersen, all of whom experienced same-sex desire or engaged in same-sex activity in societies that didn’t welcome it, often channelling their frustrations into creating remarkable work that went on, in some cases, to determine the course of Western culture. On the other hand are the invisible stories of the millions of everyday men and women whose lives made less of a mark but included events as dramatic as familial rejection, professional dismissal, social exclusion, blackmail, criminal conviction, imprisonment, torture, electric shock therapy, chemical castration and execution.
Arguably, even the most ordinary LGBT+ person of a certain age has lived an extraordinary life. Most LGBT+ people from the past went to great lengths to conceal their identity – sometimes marrying and starting families, at the very least destroying all evidence. After their deaths, if families found letters, diaries or photos, they usually destroyed them. This has made it all too easy for historians to erase our existence from the record and deny the contribution we’ve made to society.
Even when evidence does exist of same-sex relations – as is the case with 19th-century Yorkshire landowner Anne Lister or Queen Anne – this is often coded, covert or patchy.
For the LGBT+ community, telling our stories and knowing our history is a matter of both self-discovery and survival. History empowers us. At its most fundamental, it says: we have always been here. We have a place.
Fabulosa! : The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language by Paul Baker
Polari is a language that was used chiefly by gay men in the first half of the twentieth century. At a time when being gay could result in criminal prosecution – or worse – Polari offered its speakers a degree of public camouflage, a way of expressing humour, and a means of identification and of establishing a community.
In the mid-1960s it was thrust into the limelight by the characters Julian and Sandy, voiced by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams, on the BBC radio show Round the Horne: ‘Oh Mr Horne, how bona to vada your dolly old eke!’
Did you know that William Shakespeare used the term bona (good, attractive) in Henry IV, Part 2? It was part of the expression bona roba (a lady wearing an attractive outfit). In “Fabulosa!”, Paul Baker recounts the story of Polari with skill, erudition, and tenderness. He traces its historical origins and describes its linguistic nuts and bolts, exploring the ways and the environments in which it was spoken, the reasons for its decline, and its unlikely re-emergence in the twenty-first century.
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