LGBT History Month at the MRC: The Social, Political, and Economic Contexts of Identity

Rebecca Jones reflects on some of the sources that have caught her eye whilst working as a Digitisation Assistant at the MRC. 

As a member of staff at the Modern Records Centre and a member of Warwick’s LGBTUA+ community, I’m always reminded that LGBTUA+ history is inextricable from the social, political, and economic context in which it exists. This LGBT History Month, I have been thinking back through some of the most fascinating documents I’ve found in our extensive archive that have significance to those interested in LGBTUA+ history, especially those that occurred in some unexpected contexts.

Work in the Sweated Trades, 1910s-1920s (part of the Trades Union Congress archive)

There’s an interesting figure who turns up a few times in the “Work in the sweated trades, 1910s-1920s” digital collection (which is drawn from our large Trades Union Congress physical collection). Documents 292C/239.08/1/72 and 292C/239.08/3/54 give us a brief glimpse into the life of Georgina Johnson, whose expression of gender seems to have been remarkably fluid. Johnson was a maker of hammered chains who employed female apprentices in her home-based workshop, and was therefore registered on the White List, which is where we find her first mentioned. Referred to by her learners with female pronouns, she nevertheless used the names “Georgina” and “George” interchangeably, and referring to herself dually as “mistress or master” in her self-penned learner agreements:

“I (Georgina Johnson) trading as George Johnson at the above address hereby agree to learn Annie Davies the Art of Hammered Chainmaking and while in my employ she shall behave herself towards her said Mistress or Master for the term of 2 years.”

Of course, there are a number of practical reasons why this may be the case – the potential for greater respect and ease of commerce earned by conducting trade correspondence under a male name, for example; coupled, perhaps, with a pre-written form agreement with pronouns designed to be struck out as applicable. Or perhaps George Johnson was in fact a male relative from whom Georgina inherited her workshop. It strikes me as interesting, though, that no other women employers – and there were quite a few registered on the White List – adopted a male name, either for convenience or as an artefact of a former business owner, let alone consistently insisted on its inclusion next to her given name; and that other learner agreements appear to be bespoke, referring to the “master” or “mistress” singularly according to the recognised gender of the employer. Indeed, I digitised the paperwork of dozens of White List employers, and the case of Georgina (George) Johnson struck me precisely because she stood out in this regard: she seems to have been quite attached to both of her professional identities, though of course we can say nothing of her personal life based on this small degree of evidence.

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(Johnson is not the woman pictured here, though her workshop would have been very similar, being in the same region and trade at around the same time.)

Firefighter: The Journal of the Fire Brigades Union

In a previous blog, I noted that towards the end of the twentieth century, the editors at Firefighter became increasingly socially conscious. The argument that if everyone was deserving of equal help and protection in an emergency, then by extension they were also deserving of equal rights and protections under the law, seems to have been a guiding principle in this.

The first mention of gay and lesbian issues in Firefighter was a passing, yet sympathetic, reference in an article on tabloid sensationalism in 1993. By the end of the decade, however, not only was the magazine regularly advertising conferences and workshops for LGBTUA+ members of the fire service, but attention was being paid to the homophobia, both personal and institutional, that those members were experiencing as part of the workforce:

Pat Carberry, Chair of the FBU National Gay and Lesbian Committee, was given a standing ovation for his criticism of a homophobic leaflet handed out at the entrance to Congress. The leaflet condemned the TUC’s support for a woman’s right to choose and also “vile homosexual practices”.

Would he,” asked Pat, “call me vile if I was cutting him out of a car crash or rescuing him from a burning building?

(From Firefighter: Journal of the Fire Brigades Union. Vol. 28, No. 6. October/November 2000.)

We pay into pension schemes the same amounts as our heterosexual counterparts, yet our partners are denied any benefits when we die. The pink pound is good enough to be taken from us, yet the payback is sub­standard.

(From Firefighter: Journal of the Fire Brigades Union. Vol. 26, No. 10. November 1998.)

During the same era, the journal featured frequent articles on LGBTUA+ interests, ranging from impassioned arguments to repeal Section 28, to defending the right of gay men to self-identify using the word “gay” instead of “homosexual”.

The Boar

The University of Warwick’s own student newspaper has never been inclined to shy away from the hard-hitting social issues of the day. LGBTUA+ interests and issues have been present, at least on the peripheries, since The Boar was founded in 1973, particularly after GaySoc (a precursor to what is now Warwick Pride) was established in 1978.

Two articles that particularly caught my eye were featured in The Boar in 1985. The first ran in March for Gay Week, during which a number of gay-friendly events and informative talks took place around the university. It featured an anonymous piece written by an openly gay student about their experience of campus life. This proved to be something of a first, as even though The Boar had previously been largely positive on LGBTUA+ issues, most of this had been conducted from a presumably heterosexual standpoint reflecting on the campus’s gay community as an outsider.

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The second was printed in October, and was aimed particularly at the latest intake of freshers to the university. In it the author, an open member of GaySoc, implores LGBTUA+ students at length not to feel alone, and to feel safe coming out now that they were living independently. He points out that, statistically, there must have been around 500 LGBTUA+ students at Warwick at the time, and ends on a message of unity and support that – somewhat progressively for the time – explicitly includes not only gay men and lesbians, but bisexual and trans people, as well as straight allies.

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Elsewhere in the archive

These are all items that I have stumbled upon, quite unexpectedly, during the course of my work as a Digitisation Assistant at the archive. However, we do hold several physical collections that are of specific interest to anyone interested in LGBTUA+ history – including, but far from limited to, a 1949 newspaper article detailing the life and times of an American GI who deserted his unit and lived as a woman in the UK for several years; a 1954 Medical World journal featuring a sympathetic early treatment of trans identities; and a photograph taken at the 1984 Rugby Town Council rally that led to the first openly gay MP publicly outing himself in his speech. I showcased these, and a number of others, as part of a talk on LGBT+ History at the MRC for LGBT+ History Month 2019. (With thanks to my colleague Liz Wood, for helping me to select these items and generally making me look much more well-informed than I really am!)

The Modern Records Centre is an extensive and varied archive, and LGBTUA+ history is just as extensive and varied. It is also a part of bigger histories – those of culture, politics, and economics in many different times and places – and by looking across all of these disciplines for connections, we can gain a better understanding of the whole: both how context influences how we talk and think about gender identity and sexual orientation, and how expressions of gender and sexuality influence their contexts. All human history is, in part, the history of LGBTUA+ individuals; and evidence of that history is often closer to the surface than you might expect.

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