arts and design

From Gentleman Jack’s hat to Olly Alexander’s cape: 10 objects that tell Britain’s queer history


In 1972, hundreds marched in the first Pride event in London, united by a refusal to be invisible in the face of a homophobic, hostile society. Fifty years on, the capital is host to another important milestone: the arrival of Queer Britain, the UK’s first national LGBTQ+ museum.

Three months after the museum opened in Kings Cross, its first exhibition is now open to the public. We Are Queer Britain is a selection of artefacts that bring together important voices, objects and images from the UK’s queer activism, art, politics and culture, with some materials dating back to the 18th century.

Many stories remain undiscovered, hidden and untold, but Queer Britain’s first exhibition is a stirring and vibrant guide to how LGBTQ+ people came out of the shadows in the UK. Here are 10 pieces from the show that capture the essence of the UK’s modern queer history.

Oscar Wilde’s prison cell door

Wilde’s cell door, on show at Queer Britain.
Wilde’s cell door, on show at Queer Britain. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

You are immediately greeted in the exhibition by the door of the prison cell that confined Oscar Wilde in 1895. The celebrated Irish writer was imprisoned on the charge of gross indecency after his relationship with another man was discovered. He died three years after his release, destitute and outcast. He left behind a complicated legacy of flamboyance, fear, inspiration and injustice. Wilde’s experience of being villainised by the media and persecuted by the state has made him an icon for many LGBTQ+ people and, as curator Dawn Hoskin says, the piece is also symbolic of the doors he opened for later generations.

At Queer Britain, the cell door is displayed alongside a cover of the Gay Liberation Front magazine Come Together, which ran from 1970 to 1973. It reads “Oscar power to Oscar people”, reflecting Wilde’s enduring significance in queer British history. “In the museum space, the door literally casts a shadow,” Hoskin says. “It’s representative of how Wilde’s legacy and the homophobia of that time created a shadow, too.” Also displayed is a 1909 edition of Wilde’s De Profundis, written during his imprisonment and published after his death. It belongs to Queer Britain co-founder Joseph Galliano-Doig. “I found this copy of De Profundis when I was 14 and anxious about being gay. It saved my life,” he says. “It made me feel seen, comforted and angry.”

Duncan Grant erotic watercolour

The Duncan Grant erotic watercolour
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

The visual arts have always been a haven for queer expression, recording lives, loves and emotions long before the LGBTQ+ acronym existed. Duncan Grant, one of Britain’s most famous mid-20th-century painters, navigated a time when gay and bisexual people risked legal persecution in expressing and representing their lives. He was born in 1885, seven months before an act was passed in parliament that criminalised all male homosexual sex in England (the same law under which Wilde was imprisoned).

In 2020, more than 400 erotic drawings by Grant were found under a bed. “Everybody thought they had been destroyed,” said Dr Darren Clarke, head of collections at Charleston, the Sussex farmhouse where Grant lived and worked. The 422 works were created in the 1940s and 50s, a time when male homosexuality was still illegal, and depict “every conceivable act of couples”, as Clarke put it in 2020. “It’s quite a kama sutra of Duncan Grant’s sexual imagination.” The collection was secretly passed from lover to lover, and from friend to friend. Due to the vulnerability of old watercolours to excessive light, Queer Britain will showcase three of Grant’s drawings on rotation; the choices will become gradually racier over time.

“All of the drawings have a tenderness and intimacy to them,” says Hoskin. “The first piece has a gentle hand on the thigh and represents making the ‘first move’, which is connected to what the museum is doing with our first exhibition, too.”

Rotimi Fani-Kayode portrait by Robert Taylor

Robert Taylor’s portrait of Rotimi Fani-Kayode.
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Rotimi Fani-Kayode was a photographer who moved from his home in Nigeria to England in 1966, at the age of 12, to escape the Nigerian civil war. While working in New York he became friendly with Robert Mapplethorpe, whom he cited as an influence on his work exploring tensions between sexuality, race and culture. Fani-Kayode was living in Brixton when he died at age 36 from an Aids-related illness in 1989.

British photographer Robert Taylor met Fani-Kayode in 1987, and the two became fast friends, with Taylor saying: “My passion for photography was sparked by a richly rewarding friendship with Rotimi.” His portrait of Fani-Kayode symbolises the radical love between black queer men, speaking to a wider story of queer loss and survival, with Fani-Kayode’s legacy living on through Taylor’s work.

“I was very conscious of getting across the idea of ‘living legacies’ and people inspiring each other by making personal connections,” Hoskin says. “For queer people in particular, inspiration has not always been about seeing someone in a book – it can come from meeting friends and forming close, intimate relationships.”

Hat from Gentleman Jack

Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in the BBC series Gentleman Jack.
Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in the BBC series Gentleman Jack. Photograph: Jay Brooks/BBC/Lookout Point/HBO

Anne Lister was a Yorkshire-born industrialist, writer and landowner who is considered to be “the first modern lesbian”. Lister’s diaries recorded her daily life and, in code, her many relationships with women, which started during her school days. Her appearance was considered masculine and she dressed only in black, which is why she came to be known (generally unkindly) as “Gentleman Jack”. Her final relationship was with Ann Walker, to whom she was symbolically married in Holy Trinity church in York, which is now celebrated as the birthplace of lesbian marriage in Britain. Lister’s diaries, a rare first-person account of life as a pre-20th-century lesbian, were recently brought to life in the TV drama Gentleman Jack. This black hat, which was worn by Suranne Jones in the BBC/HBO series, is based around the signature look Lister wore every day. “I love and only love the fairer sex … my heart revolts from any love but theirs,” she once wrote.

Switchboard logbook

A Switchboard logbook.
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Switchboard, a helpline for anyone who wants to talk about gender identity and sexuality, has been taking calls since 1974. In the days when being in the closet was the norm and any semblance of equality felt like a pipe dream, Switchboard provided a lifeline – and it still does today. Displayed at Queer Britain is the volunteers’ logbook, which offers insight into the range of issues facing LGBTQ+ people in Britain, with stories of curiosity, fear, friendship and loss. This exhibit, from 1987, records a time when Switchboard was the leading source of information on HIV/Aids.

Alongside the logbook, visitors to Queer Britain can listen to a selection of actual calls from the archive, featuring Switchboard volunteers such as Lisa Power – a Stonewall co-founder and Queer Britain trustee.

Divine’s octopus dress

Divine’s octopus dress, a short, orange halter-neck
Divine’s octopus dress. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Divine (1945-1988) was a titan of drag from the era before RuPaul’s Drag Race catapulted the art form into the mainstream. Known for their work with gay film-maker John Waters, Divine was named the “drag queen of the century” by People magazine upon their death in 1988.

Divine’s work was particularly pioneering because, at the time, drag was preoccupied with prettiness and pageantry. Instead, they explored beauty in dark, sexy and confusing forms. Hoskin says this feels closely connected to British drag, despite Divine’s US roots. “Divine was about revelling in the weird and the unusual. There was always a challenging element of: am I going to be made to laugh, or be a bit scared? That is what I really like about British drag, which has a similar basis in humour and observation.”

Before their death, Divine toured the UK in the 1980s, performing high-energy disco tracks on Top of the Pops and on a boat on the Thames at Pride. This orange octopus dress became synonymous with Divine’s later years and was the inspiration behind Ursula the Sea Witch, the villain in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, which was released a year after Divine’s death. The dress is displayed alongside a series of portraits of today’s drag performers in Divine-inspired looks, shot by photographer Darren Evans.

Rainbow hijab ensemble

Faiz’s multicoloured hijab, with the mannequin’s hand resting on the shoulder of another female mannequin
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

In 2005, representatives from LGBTQ+ Muslim charity Imaan marched at London Pride. Faizan Faiz, the organisation’s co-founder, wore a rainbow hijab to make a statement about the erasure and marginalisation queer Muslims have faced, from outside and also from within the LGBTQ+ community. “On the 2005 Pride march, we were jeered by gay Islamophobes and in defiance we gave a speech to 10,000 people at Trafalgar Square,” they say in the notes accompanying the exhibit. Just as the Pride flag symbolises different people coming together, the rainbow hijab represents the union of queer and Muslim identities. “If my mum had known her handiwork would end up in an art gallery, would she have viewed me being LGBTQ+ differently?” Faiz adds.

Hoskin says that, while it would have been easy to curate an exhibition that was purely celebratory, she was keen not to erase challenging moments like this. “We shouldn’t just be talking about the idea of an LGBTQ+ community versus wider society, but should also be looking within and questioning how inclusive and open to diversity we actually are,” she says.

Lady Phyll and Christine Burns statues

Figures of Christine Burns (left) and Lady Phyll.
Figures of Christine Burns (left) and Lady Phyll. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

At the start of 2018, there were 925 public statues in the UK – just 158 of which depicted women, and only 25 of which depicted non-mythical or non-royal women. (By contrast, there were more statues of men named John.) The Put Her Forward project set out to change this by making 25 three-dimensional printed statues of inspirational women. Activists Christine Burns and Phyll Opoku-Gyimah (known more widely as Lady Phyll) were among the 25 women selected. Burns, whose statue previously stood in Manchester, was a key negotiator in the creation of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, while working with trans equality organisation Press for Change. She has since written the book Trans Britain: Our Long Journey from the Shadows. Opoku-Gyimah, whose statue was unveiled in Lambeth, is a trade unionist who co-founded UK Black Pride and is the executive director of Kaleidoscope Trust. In 2016, she rejected an MBE to protest against persecution of LGBTQ+ people under homophobic laws put in place by the British empire.

Olly Alexander’s Glastonbury cape

Olly Alexander of Years and Years wearing his cape at Glastonbury 2016.
Olly Alexander of Years & Years wearing his cape at Glastonbury 2016. Photograph: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage

Part of the story of the UK’s LGBTQ+ movement is new leaders coming to the fore within the art and culture worlds, as well as activism and politics. Years & Years frontman and It’s a Sin star Olly Alexander has become an advocate for queer people, speaking out on a range of topics, from mental health to sexual health and bullying. Performing at Glastonbury festival in 2016, Alexander wore a vibrant rainbow cape and delivered a rousing speech on LGBTQ+ rights, where he called for the elimination of racism, ableism and misogyny. “Sometimes I’m afraid but I’m never ashamed. I am proud of who I am,” he said, wrapped in the colours of the Pride flag. “Say ‘No thank you, fear!’”

There is a dialogue between Alexander’s cape and a nearby item in the exhibition: a handwritten letter from Elton John to his teenage self, in which he urges himself to let go of his fears – and change his name. He and Alexander have since performed gay anthem It’s a Sin together at the 2021 Brit Awards. This cape is a reminder that the visibility of Alexander’s generation follows years of struggle and silence.

“Sometimes, for older queer people, seeing younger people discover themselves sooner and have that freedom of expression is wonderful and joyful to see,” Hoskin says. “But also, that might be tinged with a bit of sadness. We wanted to create space for that intergenerational dialogue.”

Trans Pride placards

Placards reading “Fags fight for our trans youth” and “Trans and proud”
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many of the larger-scale Pride festivals were cancelled. In their place, Trans Pride emerged as a radical alternative for people who consider Pride to be a political protest. These placards were collected at London Trans Pride 2022, where 20,000+ people marched in defiant joy, but also rage at the hostility and state-sanctioned prejudice being directed towards trans people. Reflecting on the past 50 years, these handmade signs are a visual record of how much Pride has evolved, while maintaining its founding principles of queer solidarity and resistance.

“These placards capture a colourful combination of joy, fierceness and emotional urgency, as well as the process of advocating for yourself and being an ally to others,” Hoskin says. “We are a museum, but we’re very much a ‘museum of now’. We don’t have to wait for years to respond. We’re able to do that quickly, in the moment.”

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