Never Going Underground

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Claudia Clare's Clause 28 Tea Set

There is a delicious irony here in that the infamous Section 28 of 1988’s Local Government Act specifically prohibited “the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” and this exhibition, named after the campaign to repeal the act, is overwhelmingly family friendly.

The exhibition marks 50 years since the passing of another piece of legislation — the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967.

Going in I didn’t know what to expect — I wasn’t accustomed to LGBT+ history being publicly and proudly displayed. You get the feeling that the People’s History Museum knows this and acts accordingly. For every Claudia Clare Clause 28 Tea Set there’s a terminology wall inviting people to contribute. For every Paul Harfleet Pansy Project picture there’s a Polari poster featuring the slang of the pre-decriminalisation gay community. For every Campbell’s Soup Pride costume there’s a history and rights timeline.

The exhibition is about gaining knowledge rather than merely spectating. This is helped by a smorgasbord of talks, activities and tours which give background to the exhibits and their history. On the day I went there were ten talks, three tours and a theatrical performance.

It feels next to impossible not to immerse yourself in the various stories and snapshots of the past. I particularly enjoyed the board game simulating a group of LGBT+ people trying to escape the police, and a children’s space where they can make Molly Spoons — wooden dolls used in ceremonies in Molly Houses in the 18th and 19th centuries as symbols of “coming out”.

I’ve never before seen an exhibition about LGBT+ history which focuses so much on the activism and community rather than culture and visibility. The point is what was attempted and achieved rather than treating LGBT+ people and their lives as some sort of spectacle.

The only negative criticism I can think of was the inclusion of a “Bobby Dazzler” police helmet from Manchester Pride 2016. Since there is space given to how the police in the past, and still today, actively oppress LGBT+ people, this piece was off-putting to say the least. It seemed to be saying that queerphobic police were a relic of the past because some of them went to Pride in shiny helmets.

The event that year included a protest from Action for Trans Health about the recent deaths of several trans women in men’s prisons — a protest that is documented here in a small collection of pictures of modern LGBT+ activism.

But, all in all, I would recommend this exhibition to anyone who is in the Manchester area and wishing for a revolutionary way to spend an afternoon.