British Library
The British Library, London

If you want to know how far we’ve come in the fifty plus years since homosexuality was partially decriminalised in Britain, pop along to the British Library in Central London. They’ve got a fascinating collection of exhibits.

If you were alive in 1967, chances are you’d never believe the day would come when a glossy magazine would feature a same sex family positively on its front cover. Or the heir to the throne giving an in-depth interview to a gay magazine. This is all carefully documented in artefacts available in the British Library.

In the UK, the history of legalised homophobia starts in 1533, when the Buggery Act was passed during the reign of Henry VIII. The law was reinforced in Victorian England, and oppression continued throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

For example, you can see an original copy of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. It created a much more oppressive law against homosexuality, and brought about the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde.

Lippincott’s Magazine published The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s only novel, July 1890 (c) British Library Board
Lippincott’s Magazine July 1890 (c) British Library Board

There’s a great deal of fascinating Wildean archive in the British Library, including a copy of Lippincott’s Magazine. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s only novel, was first published in the magazine.

The book was slammed by critics of the time as “effeminate and contaminating”. Wilde rewrote it to play down the homoerotic content.

There are some fascinating facts to unearth in this wonderful library. For example, did you know Terence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea was originally written with two gay men as the protagonists? Rattigan based their story in part on his secret relationship with the actor Kenny Morgan.

There’s a copy of Virginia Woolf’s transgender classic Orlando, about a male poet who becomes a woman and lives for centuries meeting key figures of English literary history. Alongside it is an interview with Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West talking about the inspiration for the book.

Original poster for Pits and Perverts fund raiser concert

Until I revisited recently, I’d forgotten the British Library not only has a vast collection of books and documents, but also a comprehensive audio archive.

I spent a wonderfully nostalgic time listening to Julian and Sandy, AKA Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams, from the BBC radio show Round the Horne. At a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain, they regularly brought the secret gay language Polari to a weekly listening audience of up to fifteen million.

Then there’s a recording of the late Mark Ashton, one of the founders of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, portrayed in the 2014 film Pride. Or you can listen to a recording from 1932 of Noel Coward singing Mad About the Boy.

Spend a day here, and learn about the bravery of the campaigners whose efforts led to the increasing sexual equality we enjoy today.