15 March 2011
As part of the Write Queer London event "LGBT blogging at the Museum of London", Kate Smith did some research to inspire our workshoppers and uncover some LGBT objects hidden in plain sight. From the Emperor Hadrian to Big Brother, we have reproduced her notes from the tour below plus some of the blogs inspired by the day.
1. Bronze head of Hadrian (a copy of one in the British Museum) Dug up from the River Thames in 1834, this bronze head was created in 2nd century AD. We know that Hadrian visited Britain in AD122. when he was in his 50s and his lover, the Bithynian Antinous was in his early teens.
We know about their relationship because in AD130 tragedy struck: Antinous was drowned in the Nile. Hadrian is reported to have 'wept like a woman'. He then began an extraordinary process to perpetuate the memory of his beloved, creating the Egyptian city of Antinopolis, deifying him as a god, and putting his image up across the Empire. As Sarah Waters puts it in a recent academic article he was 'the most famous fairy in history'. Attacks on the divinity of Antinous occur quite frequently in the early church fathers - nicely summarised on Wikipedia.
For more information on Hadrian, see these videos from the British Museum's 2008 exhibition Hadrian: Empire and Conflict.
Gay monarchs can be some of the easiest people to spot in history - their lives are extremely public and (until things go VERY wrong) they are relatively untouchable. The Norman monarch William Rufus was almost certainly homosexual, as was James I.
2. Temple of Mithras There is almost as much unfounded speculation about Mithraism as about the Druids - with almost as little surviving textual evidence. Just one ritual was ever found, in a 4th century Parisian magical manuscript discussed in "Echoes of the Gnosis" in 1907. It's hugely evocative, but may or may not be a genuine Mithraic ritual. (See handout in downloads section for more information).
Mithraic temples were scattered across the Empire, following the path of Roman soldiers. The Temple near the Museum of London has an inscription mentioning a soldier inducted into the order in Orange, France. All-male cults which totally excluded women tended to be associated with latitude towards homosexuality, and Mithraism, unlike many other religions, did not impose celibacy on its priests. Scholars have suggested that Mithraism may be linked to same-sex culture.
By the fourth century however, Mithraism was dead: in London, the heads of Mithras and associated gods were buried under the floor of the Temple, which was then rededicated to Bacchus.
3. Great Fire of London
The Great Fire of London in 1066 caused a jamboree of xenophobia all over the capital. At the top of the scapegoat list were the Papists, then the French, then anyone from abroad.
Foreigners were killed or injured by mobs during and after the fire. It was also assumed that the fire was a punishment for the sinful ways of the city and this meant its substantial provision of sex workers were also blamed. In this context it was inevitable that rich young men who practised homosexuality would also come in for ritual blame:
"'Have not some young Absaloms, even, as it were, spread their Tents to commit folly in the face of the whole City, as if Fornication alone were too little sink them into Hell, except joyned with Sodomy and horrible Blasphemy?"
(Also see handout, downloadable at bottom of page)
4. 18th C Samuel Drybutter Near the prison, in the Museum of London's downstairs galleries, there is an 18th century cartoon of the hangman eyeing up Samuel Drybutter. Samuel was a well known homosexual, who escaped hanging several times. It seems from contemporary accounts that he was not a very personable individual and this may also have been a factor in his eventual death at the hands of a mob. (read more about Samuel in the download at the bottom of the page taken from Rictor Norton's site)
Also in the Georgian courts at the time was a very interesting case involving a known transvestite called the Princess Serafina. Unlike Samuel Drybutter, the princess (otherwise known as John Cooper) seems to have been held in good esteem by her neighbours, as evidenced by the witness statements given by them in court. This, despite her cross dressing ways being common knowledge. The Museum of London blogger Lucy Inglis shared the the full story with us on the day. Read it here on her blog, Georgian London.
5. Pleasure Gardens London has always had its cruising grounds but locations have shifted over time. The gentry picked up tricks in Chelsea. There are repeated stories of people soliciting guardsmen in St James's Park - which was the undoing of David Garrick's associate Bickerstaff and Samuel Drybutter.
In the Vauxhall pleasure gardens, recreated at the Museum of London, it is can be safely conjectured that hidden trysts and assignations between every combination of sexes took place. Among the vignettes featured in the projections in the Museum's pleasure garden is one starring a cross dressing lady of fashion, wearing the attire of a gentleman and conversing with an ambassador.
6. Modern times In the modern galleries we find a flowering of material - gay histories are interweaved with campaigns for the rights of women and ethnic minorities. Exhibits include pride badges (now held by pretty much every museum in the country), oral histories (which museums are finally finding ways to display engagingly as well as collect) and magazines from just after the legalisation of male homosexuality.
All of this material spells freedom, but - like the women's rights and BME material - it's all about the performance of identity in a city space. Material about gay lives as ordinary lives is still less visible - although this does come through a little in the Museum's film of Londoners since the '60s talking about their lives. One of the speakers sings with Gay Men's Chorus, and describles being spotted by his Aunty Sandra singing in a section of Big Brother. He says that he felt considerably more embarrassed that she would associate him with Big Brother than that she'd realise he was gay.
Other displays to look out for are a suit designed by Alexander McQueen and the placards of the delightful Protein Man. Protein man spent over thirty years campaigning against lust near Oxford Circus complete with leaflets and a distinctive banner. Protein Man was probably straight (he seems mainly concerned with acts of heterosexual lust at university) and was not religious. However he appeals to gay sensibility and contrasts interestingly with the moral writers of the Fire of London tracts. Both are equally obsessed with what other people do in bed - but whereas in 1666 the hellfire preachers were opinion formers, modern tract writers like Protein man are objects of comedy and some pity.
We hope you have fun following Kate's tour and are inspired by it to do some research and writing of your own and enter the Write Queer London writing competition.
Meantime, here are some of the Blogs from the blogging workshop and a couple of tips to get you started. Do get in touch if you blogged about this session, we'd be happy to link you.