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.