Thursday, 21 August 2014

A trans* icon at the Museum of Liverpool

Last week I visited Liverpool and finally got to see the April Ashley: portrait of a lady exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool. The year long exhibition (running until 21st September 2014 update: extended until 7th December) was co-curated by Homotopia and funded by HLF. It's focus is on the life of April Ashley, but is shaped around a timeline that charts the developments nationally and in the US for trans* people more generally.

April, who is now 79, was born in Liverpool and moved to Paris in the 1950s where she started transitioning. She is one of the first people from the UK to undergo gender reassignment surgery, and was famously 'outed' by the Sunday People in 1961 with the headline ''Her' secret is out', after which she struggled to work again in the UK, where formerly she had modelled for such publications as Vogue. A mainstay in British headlines since then, Ashley has become a highly regarded activist for trans* issues.

The exhibition is quite small, and occupies an interesting space overlooking the rather ugly sweeping staircase, but as such, it attracts visitors who might otherwise have avoided or not been interested in it, as it is not really a separate space from the main flow of the museum. There were a surprising number of families with young children at the exhibition when I was there.

Alongside the ephemera from Ashley's life and some original artworks, is an interactive screen from which you can listen to oral histories from a variety of trans* people. I only listened to snippets from two of them (I wasn't overly keen on the interactive thing), but you can read them here, and listen to a few here.

The most interesting part of the exhibition for me, was the recreated cabaret stage area, which was paying homage to Le Carousel in Paris, where many gender variant people found refuge and worked as performers in the 50s and 60s. The screen on the stage showed short films from and about trans* people, and was a really nice feature.

It's a respectfully done exhibition, the language and pronouns used are all refreshingly appropriate, and the balance between a singular narrative, and a wider social and legal landscape is just right. Not long left to visit if you haven't already.

'Miss April' by Ben Youdan (2012)

(It was tricky to take a picture of this one without it being a "selfie")

Monday, 28 July 2014

Trans Pride Brighton

The 2nd Trans Pride in Brighton this weekend was the perfect antidote to my frustrations with last month's Pride in London. I blogged about it here. Some of the feedback I received from that post was that if I want to feel included, I should volunteer. I don't think this is necessarily the right attitude to take, suggesting that those who don't feel welcome should get involved, it's passing the buck, and saying you are welcome, but we're not going to go out of our way to ensure you feel it. Pride, and the response I got from someone based on me venting my frustrations, became the anti-Pride.

HOWEVER, myself and a friend headed down to Brighton on Saturday for Trans Pride. Building on the success of the first one last year, which I unfortunately only heard about retrospectively so didn't attend, Trans Pride held events over three days, with a film night on the Friday, a picnic on the Sunday and the main event on the Saturday. Unfortunately, we missed the march due to some train hold-ups at London Bridge, but the march was the first of its kind in Europe. Sarah Savage, one of the organisers, said in her opening remarks that it was emphatically a march, not a parade, as there is still so much to be angry about, as well as lots to celebrate. Caroline Lucas, MP of Brighton Pavilion (and the only MP that I actually have any faith in) said in her speech that 'tolerance is not enough' and addressed in particular the dreadful representation of trans* people in the media, and fighting for the opening of a Gender Identity clinic in Brighton and Hove.

For me, Trans Pride was exactly what a Pride event should be. It was celebratory, but its undercurrent was one of anger, action and protest. The main stage showcased the talents of various trans* and queer musical acts and spoken word performers, intersected with information about trans* services, including from the sponsors of the event, Broken Rainbow. The environment was relaxed and peaceful, and the crowds that gathered were warm and richly diverse.

One of the more moving speeches of the day came from one of the organisers Shabah Choudrey, who spoke about their own frustration at being a trans masculine person of colour at Pride events, and reminded us of the role played by trans people of colour in the Stonewall riots and in queer activism before and since.

Trans Pride has no corporate sponsorship. The venue of the event was not bedecked with Barclays flags. It was free to enter, the food and drink stalls were reasonably priced, water was handed out for free. The volunteers and security staff were helpful and even the presence of the police lacked the sinister edge it normally does at Pride events, they seemed to be there to protect those of us there, rather than to control our behaviour.

I look forward to Trans Pride growing and growing each year, and hope that as it does, the community spirit and grass-roots nature of it doesn't dilute at all, and that the voices become more and more and louder and louder. I met so many lovely people who were taking great strides to making the world a safer and happier place for gender variant people, and unlike at London Pride, I came away feeling empowered, inspired, part of something and PROUD.

I did, however, get quite sunburnt knees, but that's no one's fault but my own.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Collecting the contemporary

Just a quick post to mention this upcoming publication, Collecting the contemporary: recording the present for the future, by MuseumsEtc, which features a chapter by my entitled 'Let’s Talk About Sexuality: Capturing, Collecting and Disseminating LGBTQ Oral His- and Her-stories', in which I ruminate the challenges specific to the gathering and displaying of queer oral histories in museum spaces. The book is edited by Owain Rhys and Zelda Baveystock.

Collecting the contemporary aims to address (amongst others) these questions:

  • How best should we engage with contemporary collecting? 
  • Should we collect to fill gaps in the existing collection? 
  • How best to record modern urban life? 
  • How might we best engage with minority communities? 
  • Should we aim to link past and present?

There is a special pre-publication offer of 15% discount if you order it now, so request your librarians to buy it!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Kelmscott Manor: a reply

If you read my previous post, you will know that I recently emailed staff at Kelmscott Manor to voice my dissatisfaction with the interpretation of Mary Lobb there. After chasing up the lack of response with the Kelmscott Manor twitter feed, I was given a direct email address for someone, and received a response the same day.

The response is as follows:

Dear Mr Curran,

Thank you for your recent comments, which I was pleased to receive. There are, as you will know, many people who were connected in significant ways with the Manor, and since arriving in post relatively recently Sarah Parker (Property Manager) and myself have been working on ‘unlocking’ some of the many narratives connected with them and addressing this in new interpretation for our visitors. This season new labels were installed throughout the Manor, a new Room guide was introduced, and in addition we undertook a research project with volunteers during our closed season, of which Kelmscott Manor’s Wider Cast of Characters was the outcome. Having made these initial steps we are undertaking additional research with the assistance of interns and aim to improve interpretation still further, incorporating, of course, Miss Lobb.

I was very interested to see that you describe yourself as having some degree of knowledge about Miss Lobb, and would be delighted if you would like to share this with us, in particular any relevant archive sources of which you may be aware. As she was a pivotal figure in May Morris’s later life we are eager to ensure that our visitors are given a more rounded picture of her than is, admittedly, currently the case.  It is regrettable that you have taken this omission to be in any way deliberate, and I would like to assure you that this is far from the case; Miss Lobb’s sexuality or physical appearance are certainly not informing factors but the reality is that when running a visitor attraction with a small team, lack of time and resources unfortunately, are.

I would like to thank you once again for your observations and look forward to your response.

With all good wishes,

Kathy Haslam

This is a great response, and I am so pleased to see it has been taken seriously and that it looks like they are committed to looking into this and expanding Mary Lobb's biography in the house to include a more sympathetic and less one dimensional interpretation of her.

I will keep you posted.

To celebrate, here's a lovely picture of Morris and Lobb, taken from the William Morris Facebook page (I presume it's not actually his).

Thursday, 3 July 2014

a letter to Kelmscott Manor

On Wednesday myself and a few of the lecturers and students from my department hopped on a minibus to Kelmscott Manor in Lechlade, Gloucestershire, the former home of William Morris. I was keen to visit to see how the relationship between Morris' daughter May and her 'companion' Mary Lobb was addressed.

I'd found out about Mary Lobb by a chance conversation with a Central Saint Martins student when I lectured there. She had written an essay about photographs of May Morris and suggested I might be interested to know she had a close relationship with Mary Lobb who had previously worked on a neighbouring farm. When May died in 1937 she left £12,000 to Lobb. Mary Lobb seemingly took her own life two years later. You can read a nice little summary about Lobb here.

I was really distressed to see only a very brief mention of Mary Lobb in the house, which was a small caricature of her, accompanied by a quote from George Bernard Shaw: 'I was soon on the garden flag way to the ancient door of the Manor House. It was opened by a young lady whose aspect terrified me. She was obviously strong enough to take me by the scruff of the neck and pitch me neck and crop out of the curtilage; and she looked as if for two pins she would do it as she demanded sternly who I was. I named myself apologetically....'

In the final room, there was a booklet containing biographical information about other people mentioned in the house, but Mary Lobb was not one of them. Her only mention in the house was through the eyes of someone who did not know her and clearly did not think highly of her, and while there was a photograph of her with May beneath, the main visual representation of her was a rather cruel caricature from behind. Annoyed and saddened by this, I spoke to two volunteers about her lack of mention and they both shrugged, one of them rather shiftily. I decided to write an email to the staff at the house:


I am writing with a query from a recent visit to Kelmscott Manor. The house was very beautiful and I was pleased to see so many visitors. However, I left the house with a rather sour taste in my mouth due to what I felt was a misstep and an oversight in the interpretation in the house. I'm referring specifically to the way in which Mary Lobb is portrayed.

I had some knowledge of Mary Lobb before I arrived at the house, and when I finally got there I was not only surprised at how little of her story was told, but extremely saddened that she was only mentioned as a figure of fun, while the deep affection that May Morris had for her was not mentioned at all.

Alongside the caricature of her in the small nook coming from the right hand garret, is a cruel description written by George Bernard Shaw. While this is really interesting, and definitely has a place in the house, it should not stand as the sole representation of a woman who clearly played an important part in May's life, important enough to inherit everything of May's that wasn't donated to the University of Oxford when she died. The obvious counter to this would be John Betjeman's account of her and their warm relationship, which is alluded to in the guidebook.

In the final attic room I came across the 'Wider cast of characters' booklet and assumed that the brief mention of Lobb would be elaborated upon in it. Surprisingly, in spite of the rather remote and tangential figures to whom there are pages are devoted, there was no further mention of Mary Lobb. I asked two volunteers about this oversight, neither of them knew why her story was demoted to a mere footnote of ridicule, so hopefully I can get some answers this way.

The exhibition in the display space by the ticket office mentioned Lobb briefly, but I believe that this is insufficient. There was no mention in the house of the fact that the two slept together in the same room, or about the controversy their relationship caused, or about how May's affection was so strong that she bequeathed most of her possessions to Lobb. I can think of two possible reasons for this oversight, the first is that those who oversee the interpretation at Kelmscott Manor are not willing to explore the relationship between May Morris and Mary Lobb because they do not wish to be faced with the possibility that the relationship could be considered, in contemporary terms, a lesbian one. Secondly, and equally as concerning, is that in a house full of Pre-Raphaelite beauties, Mary Lobb is not considered sufficiently beautiful to warrant covering her role in May's life in any great detail.

Either way, to demote a person to a mere caricature is unkind. I eagerly await a response about why this is the case, and hope that by raising this matter, it can be addressed and that the bond between May Morris and Mary Lobb can be given the attention it deserves in such a beautiful and important heritage site as Kelmscott Manor.

Best wishes,
Sean Curran

I really hope they will respond, I'll be sure to post it here if they do. I think heritage sites must be held accountable for their treatment of the narratives of people with non-normative identities, to overlook them is both irresponsible and distressing for queer visitors and their supporters alike. For those who think this is excessive, I hope you never have to experience finding the rare historical figures that you can relate to being reduced to a figure of ridicule. People like Mary Lobb and May Morris are part of a still barely visible queer heritage that can contribute to legitimising contemporary queer identities, especially when encountered by children, who see themselves as outsiders or marginalised because of who they are.

In spite of this, Kelmscott was really beautiful, and worth a visit!

I'll blog again soon about my Taiwan trip.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Pride: #freedomto complain?

I attended my first Pride in 2005, just weeks after I had come out. It was in Manchester, and because I was new to the whole thing I saw it for what I then thought it was; a street party. This was also my first experience of Canal Street, which looked much like Queer as Folk had promised it would.

I hadn’t then began to think about my own identity, or at least I didn’t have the vocabulary to, nor had I started to think about where I fit in to Pride, or really about what Pride once was, or could be again. I thought it was expensive, at £15, to walk down a street that was usually publically and freely accessible, and I was annoyed that the club nights were all so expensive, but the weekend became a larger sort of coming out for me, it was the first time I had been ‘out’ with other queer people in the daylight. I met someone who was my age whose mum had come with his nephew in a pushchair. She came every year and loved it. This solidarity was, perhaps, my first subtle glimpse that Pride might actually be about something more, something bigger. I was handed a free porn DVD by a muscular man in a thong.

That evening we soon found out that all of the club nights that we had in mind were sold out, so we went to the only lesbian night, which was woefully under attended. They had a no-man policy, but naturally they didn’t batter an eyelid as I entered. My friend, the only other male in the group was allowed in after some bartering. It was a good night, a nice (albeit modest) crowd, but it felt very much removed from the rest of the activity of Canal Street that weekend. Another hint of something wrong about Pride.

The following year, me and a different friend attended Manchester Pride again. It was more expensive than the previous year, and I was heckled on Canal Street several times for being a ‘fucking goth’ or a ‘fucking emo’. It seemed an emphatically less safe space this year, since I had started wearing makeup. Another problem.

Since moving to London I’ve attended Pride four times. I’ve watched the march only once and usually my attendance has consisted of drinking shop-bought booze on a curb with friends. I feel like I can’t criticise Pride in the way that perhaps I know I should, because it would be hypocritical. I’m complicit in its flaws, I don’t march, I don’t help. Pride, for me, has become annual event where me and my friends drink in the street and have a lovely time. Nothing more. I am part of a complacent and lazy generation. We know where Pride’s roots lie, we know how embarrassing Pride has become, but inspite of this, we still find being allowed to be obnoxiously queer en mass in a public space extremely refreshing. The words ‘being allowed to’ are another problem.

This year, Pride was a last minute decision for me. Having just returned from a trip to Taiwan at 7am that morning I decided to cheat jetlag by joining my friends in our usual spot on a curb by Soho Square.

I broke tradition this year slightly by going to the ‘main stage’ in Trafalgar Square first, mainly to see the wonderful Conchita Wurst perform. The queues to get into the make-shift boxed-in arena were waves upon waves of umbrellas, and the fences around the arena were sheathed with giant adverts from selfless companies such as Barclays and ASDA. When rightly disgruntled folk began to pull down the adverts to see the stage they were quickly re-erected by the security. The theme of this year’s Pride was FREEDOM.

This picture captures Pride this year for me, a peeled back advert that prevented people from seeing a free event. Our view was literally masked by corporate sponsorship. The excessive crowd control for such a peaceful gathering was absurd, and everyone, even the security, could see that.

With sharpened elbows, we did get in. And after enduring a set from Sam Fox (whose set proved that no crowd are more forgiving of mediocrity than the queers), Conchita arrived. I was left with a real sour taste at the ‘banter’ between performances from several DJs, Antony Cotton (who in spite of playing the most visibly gay character in Coronation Street, manages to be the least queer of an otherwise deliciously queer soap) and Ian McKellan. While the sentiments from these folk were sort of blandly heartwarming, they all spoke only about (and to, and for) gay men.

Ultimately, what distresses me most about Pride, above the sinister corporate soullessness, is its misogyny, and ignorance of trans issues. Gay men are arguably the most privileged of a still pilloried community. A community that is sadly very fractured. Unsurprisingly, the trans community have responded to this by creating a more activism-focused Pride event in Brighton, and likewise, an annual Dyke March for the lesbian community and its supporters now exists. It seems to me that the trans, bi and lesbian communities are not really welcome at London Pride, and if they are it’s as an aside or a footnote. The trans community were integral not just in the stonewall riots in the US, but in countless battles for LGBTQ rights in the UK, our lesbian sisters are still underrepresented and misunderstood in ways that, on the whole, gay men (specifically in London) are not. Lest we forget that queer women were at the forefront of providing support, blood and their angry voices during the AIDs crisis in the 1980s, 90s and beyond.

I don’t know how these problems can be resolved, but until they are, London Pride will always be an uncomfortable and embarrassing affair. I will always be a staunch supporter of Pride, even if I’ve never seen it work well as an event that combines anger and activism with love and celebration. But why do I, like so many others, feel like I can complain about it when I’ve never marched? when I’ve never done anything about it? I’m part of a generation of lazy armchair activists whose anger at the keyboard is never realised as it should be in the flesh.

What can we do? How can we restore a sense of pride in Pride?

Answers on a beermat please.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Museums and Education in the 21st Century: global and local discourses

In a few weeks I will be speaking at a conference in Taipei, Taiwan called 'Museums and Education in the 21st Century: global and local discourses'. This international conference will be convened by the Institute of Education and National Taiwan Normal University. The themes of the conference are based on the intersection between education in its broadest sense and "self-conscious‟ public museums as sites for social interaction, places of collision and possibility. Such sites move beyond the physical museum to embrace social media and the virtual museum. In particular this conference will seek a better understanding of the implications and contradictions of local and global changes for a rapidly expanding museum world.

 I will be giving a paper entitled 'Master-Mistress: queer uncertainties in historic houses', on a panel alongside LIN Ching Chiu and WU Dai Rong: 'Embracing and Empowering Urban Youth: Social Relations, Social Responsibility and the Educational Roles of Museum' and Hyunsoo KOH: 'Comfort for Whom? Representation of ‘comfort women’ issue in Museum of Women’s Human Rights'. You can see the full programme here and more information about the conference here.

I'm really looking forward to it, there looks to be a really interesting cross-section of papers, and I'm excited to visit Asia for the first time! I'll blog about the conference and about Taiwan once I return.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014


Apologies for the radio silence recently, I've been working on a conference paper for an upcoming event in Taiwan (I'll blog about that soon). But in the mean time, some words:

I’ve been thinking a lot about academic writing using autobiography, and about the difficulties of striking a balance between anger and scholarly rigor (whatever that is, I've yet to achieve it). The book Why are faggots so afraid of faggots: flaming challenges to masculinity, objectification, and the desire to conform - a collection of essays edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore has prompted this, as well as my disenchantment with a lot of academic writing which is, frankly, unreadable and pitched in its humanless tone at a privileged few, one of which, in spite of being half way through my PhD, I (thankfully, or perhaps, worringly) don’t consider myself to be. I heard recently a fellow PhD student say that during the research process, the thought of being a ‘writer’ doesn’t occur until the final stages. This is far from my experience. For me, writing is as important, if not more important, than the data collecting, the reviewing of literature and a whole host of other rather shudder-inducing bullet points in the thesis recipe.

I thought I’d try writing, quite informally about my own experience as a queer person, as a particular type of queer person; someone who presents themselves as gender neutral/gender queer; someone who feels marginalised (thankfully, or perhaps, worryingly) from mainstream gay male culture; someone who feel marginalised within academia (or, at least, in my own higher education institution); someone who constantly carries around class guilt at referring to myself as being from a ‘working class background’ but having found myself, having tumbled down the rabbit hole, in the very privileged position of studying a funded PhD; someone who feels perpetually underequipped for higher education, due, partially to this guilt, partially to my queerness, and partially to my constant eye-rolling at the absurd world of academia. I said once in a queer reading group (eye roll), that I thought that writing a thesis, particularly in the arts and humanities is an act of narcissism, that essentially we spend three years researching and writing, about ourselves. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, I think there is real value in research that is rooted in the personal, that’s angry and involved, and a bit bruised and damaged. That said: I will now write about ME.

I think constantly about gender. It’s pretty much my main preoccupation. We were sat in Soho square one summer day, and a drunk old woman, who we assumed had been sleeping beside us, suddenly arose and crawled towards us (like Sadako mounting the inside of the well in Ringu) and exclaimed to me “you think you’re a woman, but you’re not”. A violent start to an uncomfortable and incoherent conversation. My friend later said, of the rather unusual exchange: “It’s weird that she said that, it must have been the only time we’ve ever not been talking about your gender issues.” While this was said in jest, like most funny things, it was based somewhat on the truth. What is it about me that day that said to a woman – with her eyes closed – that I believed myself to a woman? My appearance often elicits a double take (sometimes welcome, othertimes an awful intrusion, stop looking at me, get a grip etc.), because I happily present myself as femme, but she couldn’t see me. My voice, to the unenlightened is a man’s, camp and sibilant at times, but I’m not softly spoken; I bark. And bark even louder when I’ve had a few cans of red stripe in the sun. Not to mention I swear like a fucking trooper. I think ultimately, what stumped me and my friends that day was that my gender presentation is fast becoming an afterthought to us, there isn’t, I’d like to think, anything contrived about it (or at least no more so than anyone else’s), for the past ten years I’ve worn makeup and had long hair, and while at first it was an act of some delayed teenage rebellion, and a plea to be noticed, it is now something that I don’t really think about- unless someone else’s response to me makes me think about it. The act of putting makeup on is no more or less part of my routine than brushing my teeth. My close friends, too, are taken aback if someone says something offensive or stares or nudges a friend on the tube to point at me, because they don’t see anything else other than Sean. What is everyone else seeing? And why are they interested?

An interesting thing happened at work today. Three or four of my colleagues, who have all seen me present as femme for many years now, commented on me wearing a bright pink tshirt. My response was, perhaps defensively, perhaps self-deprecatingly, “I thought I’d go for something a bit more masculine today.” Would they comment on a cis woman colleague wearing a pink tshirt? Maybe. Maybe I’m thinking about it too much. I probably am. But I can’t help but think that people who compliment what appears to be a boy who presents as femme are really saying “I get it, I’m okay with it.” A round of applause all round. It’s just a pink fucking tshirt. I know I’m defensive about this, but I’ve been conditioned this way (spit on me in Manchester as you cycle past on your bike, take a picture of me on your iPhone on the bus, called me a tranny etc. etc. etc.), much the way that my colleagues have been conditioned to make doubly sure that I know that they ‘accept’ me, just the way that boring oafs on the tube have been conditioned to resent women, and anything/anyone feminine by proxy.

I do think about gender all the time. I have to, I’m constantly reminded about it, whether I want to be or not. When I was an undergraduate, I was asked to leave the men’s toilets in the student union club because they thought I was a woman, a bouncer then removed me from the women’s toilet. My friend, who remembers the event more clearly than I do, told me the next day I had said to the bouncer “where am I supposed to piss then? A pint pot?” the answer I’ve learnt, is not a pint pot, but the disabled toilets, which I feel incredibly guilty about using, because I am able bodied. I am reminded about gender every time I need to use a public toilet, because of other people’s discomfort. Not my own.

I'm reminded of gender when I'm in gay bars. Where women and trans people are cast aside, where gay men aspire to be seen as 'straight-acting', where beards have become currency.

I was reminded of gender on the bus the other evening, I was going to my friend’s for dinner. I could hear a group of school boys behind having a very involved conversation about whether I was a ‘man or a girl’ (funny that I become infantilised if the latter is the case). I didn’t really think much of it, aside from being mildly irritating (and a bit surprising; for once I had no makeup on, my hair was tied up and I was wearing a bloody hoody). But afterwards I thought about it again and about how intrusive the conversation was, because, since they didn’t seem to be able to glean any idea of my gender from my appearance, what their curiosity ultimately boiled down to was about my genitals. I expect more from kids usually, they tend to know better than their parents, but on the other hand how long can we excuse people’s behavior because of youth? When they turn 18? 21? When they have a child? When they or someone they know is a victim of misogyny, transphobia or homophobia? (to borrow a phrase coined by Nigella Lawson – intimate terrorism).

I’m constantly aware (and feel guilty about- I am part of the twitter generation after all) of my privileges. Even as a queer person, I am very privileged. I am able to be very visibly and unapologetically queer, I’m not sure I’d be afforded such a luxury if I still lived in Sunderland. But until people stop thinking about my genitals, I won’t be able to. I’ll keep banging on about my gender identity and about gender inequality until I stop being reminded about them by other people’s incapacity for critical thought. Sometimes I’m happy to engage with people who are curious about gender variance, but other times, I wonder why it’s my fucking place to educate them.

I’ll finish with a song.