26 February 2012
For conservatives, the ideal of the family home was for decades a neat shorthand for all that was un-queer - the peaceful stability, the slightly worn sofas, the nick nacks of everyday life. Gay people by contrast were imagined living 'out there' in a perpetual cycles of clubs, drugs and sexual encounters. So what was it like living in a queer household in the 1950s?
The Geffrye Museum, with its series of rooms charting domestic interiors from the 17th century to the 1990s, generously provided the backdrop for us to find some answers.
HIstorian Alison Oram gave a talk about queer households from the 50s as discussed in the papers of the period. She described how in the post-war period homosexuality was describled as a threat to the heterosexual nuclear family that was by turns exotic but also to be found everywhere - in the man who was more comfortable with other men at his club, in the woman who was only truly alive chatting with her women friends rather than attending to her husband. She explored some court cases where tempestuous relationships had brought gay lives into the papers, but also the long standing joke perpetrated on the British public by television personalities Nancy Spain and Gilbert Harding, both of whom were gay, who teased each other on air about the possibility of getting married.
In the second half of the session Cherry Smyth, nattily got up in 50s clothes, led a poetry workshop based on items from the 50s in the Geffrye Museum's handling collection. We imagined repressed passion among the toasters, irons and Bakelite phones of the period, before wandering the museum imagining gay narratives in the rooms like empty stage sets. Some really nice poems emerged from the workshop (the winning poem of Write Queer London this year was written there).
Poet Cherry Smyth looking entirely convincing as a 50s lady of letters.