Making heritage part of society’s conversations about equality

Richard Sandell, Professor of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester
Richard Sandell, Professor of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, explores the capacity for heritage organisations to support the fight for equality for LGBTQ people.

In 2017, as more of our heritage sites, galleries and museums than ever before feature LGBTQ stories to mark 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales (with the introduction of the Sexual Offences Act 1967), it can be tempting to think that equality for LGBTQ people in the UK today is pretty much all sorted - done and dusted, a cause for celebration not concern. 

But equality struggles are not only negotiated in parliaments and law courts. Despite increasing recognition under the law, public understanding and levels of respect for lesbian, gay, bisexual and especially transgender lives are highly uneven. Prejudice and discrimination continue to impact the capacity for many to live their lives as fully, freely and safely as they should.

“I am heartened by the inclusion of more diverse lives in our museum and heritage institutions.”

Discriminatory or offensive comments about LGBTQ people are not only made by bigoted individuals in the street, the playground or on the internet. More worryingly, suggestions that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lives are somehow deviant or abnormal, immoral and unwelcome, are regularly given force in the public pronouncements of high profile politicians, journalists, community and religious leaders around the world. These comments powerfully shape the climate within which young LGBTQ live with potentially devastating consequences. As numerous academic and clinical studies across different countries have revealed, rates of suicide amongst young LGBTQ people are significantly higher than for the rest of the population with a growing consensus amongst researchers as well as campaigners that this arises from widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people in the public sphere and its associated stigma.

Heritage that shapes the LGBTQ experience

How might heritage organisations, museums and galleries help to counter such prejudice? My research over the past ten years or so has revealed that museums, galleries and heritage sites play an important – albeit overlooked and often unacknowledged – part in shaping the moral and political conditions in which LGBTQ communities carry out their battles for equality.

Over the years, the Heritage Lottery Fund has made important contributions to this work, supporting a wide range of LGBTQ-focused projects, working with members of the community and empowering them to tell their own stories. Two exhibitions – April Ashley: Portrait of a Lady at the Museum of Liverpool and Never Going Underground at the People’s History Museum – offer exciting examples of projects which take a bold and unapologetic stance in support of LGBTQ equality.

I am heartened by the inclusion of more diverse lives in our museum and heritage institutions and by the support of HLF for participatory, ethically-informed ways of working with communities that empower them to tell their own stories but there is more that we can do. 

Missed opportunities for heritage?

I suggest that we should be more confident in challenging the legitimacy of discriminatory attitudes towards LGBTQ communities. Our museums, heritage sites and galleries can be understood not as neutral spaces within which diverse opinions are shared but as sites which stand for a particular set of values.  Above all, we need to insert our organisations more purposefully and confidently into the debates around not only LGBTQ equality but human rights concerns across the board.

“Debate and dialogue are undoubtedly central to our efforts to win hearts and minds.”

Taking a stand in this way would not be an attempt to close down debate – indeed, debate and dialogue are undoubtedly central to our efforts to win hearts and minds. It would allow us to pin our colours to the mast through an expression of an unwavering institutional commitment to the values and principles necessary to advance human rights and social justice for all. 

An unwillingness to take up and articulate a position, I would argue, risks complicity with forces of domination and oppression.  At a time when the rights of LGBTQ communities are under threat – not only overseas but here in the UK – we need to be prepared to take sides and speak out unequivocally against attempts to justify unequal treatment of people on the basis of gender or sexual differences. 

I don’t pretend this work is easy or straightforward but a growing number of heritage organisations are finding their voice and beginning to recognise that they have an opportunity to concretely advance human rights and respect for all.   Perhaps most importantly, this can be understood not as bolt-on, project-based and fleeting, but as a core part of our thinking and practice in the sector.

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