Exploring the Wolfenden Report and its legacy: 60 years on

Jessica Stevens-Taylor, LGBTQ+ Heritage Project Officer, Support U
Jessica Stevens-Taylor, LGBTQ+ Heritage Project Officer, shares the rewards, challenges and lessons learned from Support U’s project exploring the Wolfenden Report.

About Wolfenden 60

The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution was chaired by the then Vice-Chancellor of Reading University, Lord John Wolfenden. Wolfenden's report, which was published 60 years ago this year, recommended a 'partial decriminalisation' of homosexual acts between men, which was made law 10 years later.

As an LGBTQ+ support charity based in Reading, Support U were keen to mark this significant event in LGBTQ+ rights.

“Wolfenden 60 is looking at the events and attitudes that surrounded and followed the report's publication.”

Wolfenden 60 is looking at the events and attitudes that surrounded and followed the report's publication.

We have a particular aim to engage young people so that they can develop an appreciation of the struggles faced by previous generations. We are also working with volunteers to conduct archival research and oral histories.

We'll share our findings through an exhibition, schools packs, events and a documentary. The project is due to finish in early 2018, with an official launch of the documentary and exhibition in November this year.

A newfound enthusiasm for research

My involvement with the project began in March, when I started volunteering to help Ian and Kath who had newly been appointed as project officers. At the end of June Ian had to leave the project, and my experience volunteering full-time enabled me to smoothly take on his responsibilities.

“Exploring the archives has given me a newfound enthusiasm for historical research.”

Exploring the archives has given me a newfound enthusiasm for historical research. From the history lessons I had at school I never appreciated how interesting it could be.

With a short project such as this, we have found that it is important to remain as flexible as possible in your approach. There are numerous dead ends in research and other setbacks. With a short schedule, letting these go and moving forward is vital.

The power of committed volunteers

Support U is a volunteer-led charity and HLF share our passion to engage the community. We have recruited several volunteers, particularly young people, to help with many aspects of the project.

Never underestimate the value and power of committed volunteers; however, we had underestimated the time it can take to manage these marvellous people.

If you are thinking of working with volunteers, it is important to budget the resources and time you will need to recruit, train and support them.

“If you are thinking of working with volunteers, it is important to budget the resources and time you will need to recruit, train and support them.”

Working with our volunteers has been hugely rewarding. We have lost count of the number of times we have heard “Oh, did you know…?” as they uncover something they did not expect.

There have been similar eureka moments for us too. Hearing Dr Caroline Derry talk about the female perspectives offered to the Wolfenden Committee was very enlightening.

We have also been taking volunteers out to archives to help with research. In addition to our local archive at The Museum of English Rural Life, which holds a Wolfenden collection, we are excited by the National Archives and have recently run a trip to The Lesbian and Gay Newsmedia Archive in Bishopsgate Library.

One of the areas we could have planned better was in budgeting for volunteer travel. It’s very expensive to transport volunteers by train to see the archive collections, and in hindsight we should have applied for a significantly larger travel budget. 

Oral history: rewards and challenges

Part of our planned output is a documentary featuring first-hand accounts, particularly from gay men who remember life before and immediately after the report.  

Finding contributors for this has proved challenging. For many people these memories are still very painful, so many people are reluctant to relive them.

Additionally some more mature people may not be fully 'out' and might be put off for fear of being found out.

With oral histories, it’s important to be aware that you are dealing with people’s individual experiences, and make sure you have the time and training to handle this sensitively. There is guidance available on this from the Oral History Society.

If you would be willing to share your experiences with our project, either on camera or anonymously in writing, please get in touch.

HLF support and grants for LGBTQ+ projects

This is the second project that we have run supported by HLF. The first was Hidden Voices, an oral history project collecting stories from LGBTQ+ people living in and around Reading.

“HLF also have a keen interest in promoting LGBTQ+ heritage stories.”

For both of these projects, HLF are natural partners due to the historical focus and Support U’s position in the community. HLF also have a keen interest in promoting LGBTQ+ heritage stories.

One thing has become abundantly apparent working with HLF – they are really driven towards community engagement and enrichment. Having a project with an historical focus is unlikely to gain support unless it has strong outcomes for participants and the wider community.

With the project underway, the interactions we have had with the people at HLF have all been very constructive. They are very supportive of LGBTQ+ projects and are running a free information event on 14 September 2017 at Reading Museum. This event will allow people and groups to network and discuss HLF support for LGBTQ+ projects.

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