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Kissing at London Pride 1988, 25 June 1988Photography by Gordon Rainsford Archive, Bishopsgate Institute

Sex, drugs and activism: a history of queer resistance

A new exhibition at the Barbican, Out And About, celebrates the joyful side of LGBTQ+ activism

Archive-based exhibitions can often be a little dull. No matter how interesting the contents of a leaflet or letter might be, there’s a limit to how aesthetically exciting such documents are when encountered in a gallery setting. Happily, Out and About!: Archiving LGBT+ History at Bishopsgate Institute, a new (and free) exhibition at the Barbican, isn’t like that at all: in fact, it’s a real visual spectacle, filled with colour and utilising all kinds of media. From the second you walk through the doors, you’re met with enormous banners draped from the ceiling, video screens, and a collage of flyers for club nights and sauna adverts surrounding a veiny, erect penis. There’s a large table at which you can sit down and rifle through old newspapers, listings, and porn magazines, which makes for a more immersive – and perhaps more arousing – experience than simply peering at a wall. 

“There’s an ideology behind it,” explains Stefan Dickers, Special Collections and Archives Manager at Bishopsgate Institute, the cultural centre from which the exhibition draws its material. “We’ve been collecting LGBTQ+ archives now for about 10 years, and it’s important for us that they’re not just relics –  rather than being hidden behind glass, we want them to be approachable, touchable, and right there in your face. We also wanted the exhibition itself to be queer, and not done in a traditional, didactic way where you follow a narrative of the grand stories. We hope people come away inspired by what they see as well as feeling angry or sad.”

The exhibition is also expansive in the themes it addresses. There’s a satisfying tonal disparity in the way that it goes from informative posters about the AIDS crisis and placards from trans liberation protests, to adverts for drag nights and fetish parties. The political, social and sexual are presented side-by-side, which reveals the reality that these things have always been intertwined. It’s common today to hear people complain that Pride should be a protest, not a party, but these concepts have never been diametrically opposed. “Protest is hugely important to archive, but it’s also important to record people’s experiences of going to clubs, having fun, writing poetry, or having sex,” says Stefan. “We wanted this exhibition to reflect that while we were protesting against Section 28 [a homophobic Thatcher-era policy which banned ‘the promotion of homosexuality’ by local authorities, including schools], we were having a lot of fun at the same time. A lot of positives came out of those moments of struggle. I hope people will come away with a sense of the fun of queer life, as well as the difficulties.”

It’s true that the exhibition does carry a certain melancholy. Looking at all these flyers and listings magazines, the bounty of bars, pubs and nightclubs, it was impossible to escape the feeling that queer life in London has been diminished in the last 20 years, a period during which well over 100 LGBTQ+ venues have closed. But Stefan insists that present-day queer London is still vibrant, exciting and politically charged. The exhibition conveys this idea: one of the first things you see upon walking in is a recent banner for Act Up, an HIV protest group that emerged in the 1980s and reformed in 2014. Today, Act Up continues to fight HIV stigma and advocate for equitable access to treatment for everyone who needs it, showing that there is a continuity between the struggles of past and present.

The claim that it’s ‘important’ for young queer people to learn about LGBTQ+ history risks sounding a little moralising or scolding, but it can be a useful, interesting and enjoyable process. It’s certainly helpful for political movements to understand their own lineage; the mistakes made and victories achieved by their forebears. But this exhibition isn’t just about looking backwards: it’s partly an effort to understand the experiences of LGBTQ+  people today as part of a larger history, and the idea that our own stories are also important to record. The Bishopsgate Institute is hoping that this exhibition will inspire young people to donate their own materials to the archive, and a lot of what is already on display is contemporary: alongside digital photographs of people enjoying nights out on the scene, there is as a vast display of placards taken from a ‘Black Trans Lives Matter’ protest in 2020, along with artefacts donated by the Museum of Transology, a community-led project which collects objects and photographs related to trans, intersex and non-binary experiences. “A lot of the collections you can see at the exhibition, such as The Museum of Transology material, come from people donating their own stories,” says Stefan. “It’s an archive which doesn’t talk about people; it’s people talking about themselves.

While subtly expressed, the indivisibility of the gay, lesbian and trans communities is a major theme of the exhibition: it shows that these histories have always been entwined and that these groups have always fought and partied alongside one another. According to Stefan, the biggest lesson that LGBTQ+ movements can learn today from the past is the importance of unity, and of resisting attempts to divide us. “We need to act together to defend what we’ve achieved and ensure that it's not threatened in any way.” Despite the demonisation that trans people currently face in the media, Stefan isn’t worried about the exhibition being controversial. “It’s not controversial in my mind,” he says, “it’s part of the history. And the people who think that’s controversial probably shouldn’t come to the exhibition. This is the story that we tell; the story we believe in.”

‘Out and About!’ is showing at the Curve room in the Barbican from 28 February – 21 March. Bishopsgate Institute’s LGBTQ+ archives are open to the public by appointment year-round, as well as being available online