Speak its name: a new British book of portraits celebrates LGBT pioneers.
The last 50 years, and the past few in particular, have seen momentous change in laws and attitudes towards LGBT people. We still have so far to go but we have many new freedoms, and chief among those is the legal recognition of our right to exist, form families, marry, divorce and be at the hospital bedside of our loved ones.
As recently as the 1990s, lesbian mothers were losing custody of their children to their ex-husbands purely on the basis of their sexuality or whether they were perceived as "good" (closeted) lesbians, or "bad" (open) lesbians. Today, the suitability of lesbians to parent is not even open to debate and we are celebrated for proposing to our girlfriends on Olympic rugby fields in front of the world's press.
My Korean-American wife moved to England from Los Angeles to be with me in 1996. Contrary to everyone's expectations, America was even further behind LGBT rights than the UK. There was no legal way to recognize our relationship in either place, and therefore no imminent possibility of our staying together in the same country. But, after much hard work from pressure groups such as Stonewall Immigration, the Blair government introduced a policy for same-sex couples. By following every little byway of this labyrinthine new legislation for four years, we obtained an indefinite leave-to-remain for Rena. The legend "unmarried partner of Sophie Ward" was writ large across the visa in her passport, leading to many strange interviews at various international borders, but we sobbed as we realized we could now officially stay together. We celebrated with a commitment ceremony in 2000. We felt married that day but we had no idea that within 15 years equal marriage would be established under UK law.
The understanding that it was thanks to all the LGBT activists who had come before us, by campaigning or just living their lives openly, is central to the analysis of the advance of gay rights and acceptance. A new book, Speak Its Name! published by the National Portrait Gallery, celebrates the many lesbians, gay men and famous allies, from James I of England and VI of Scotland to Elizabeth Taylor and Kate Tempest, whose portraits form part of their archives. Written by Christopher Tinker with a full and very personal introduction by Simon Callow, the book allows for many happy hours reading about favorite icons and discovering new ones. Unsurprisingly, the ratio of male to female portraits noticeably increases after the 1900s (thank you, Bloomsbury women) but those early lesbian pioneers make fascinating reading.
Did you know about the artist Rosa Bonheur (1822-99)? I didn't, and now long to see an exhibition of her work. Admired by Queen Victoria, who surely did not know about her private life, Bonheur was born in Paris and trained at the Louvre's art school. She lived with Nathalie Micas and later Anna Klumpke and was awarded the Legion d'Honneur in 1865. Sadly, her picture does not show her dressed in the male attire that she had to seek authorization to wear from the prefect of police.
Another artist with a preference for masculine clothing, Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein 1895-1978), painted a self-portrait uninhibited by notions of propriety. A striking individual who had affairs with society florist Constance Spry, socialite Nesta Obermer and journalist Edith Shackleton, Gluck also rejected gender prefixes and other societal impositions and found continuing success as an artist into later life. You can read more in Gluck: Her Biography by Diana Souhami.
A luminous portrait of Radclyffe Hall (1880-1943) by Charles Buchel defies my preconceptions of the writer as a tormented woman. Comfortable in her mannish turn-of-the-century costume and cropped hair, the author of The Well of Loneliness gazes with an intelligent serenity away from the artist. When I was first questioning my sexual orientation and longing to know more about the feelings I could no longer ignore, it was reassuring to know that such talented and brave women had forged a path long before my lifetime but those lives seemed so difficult and, as the title of her novel emphasizes without subtlety, lonely.
As a child, I had been labelled a "tomboy," a perfectly acceptable tribe in the 1970s, when wearing dungarees, climbing trees and building Lego forts were seen as fashionable not aberrant, but I did not want to be a man. What I recognize when I look at Speak its Name's distinctive portraits now, is that the women were often simply defining their own freedoms, the same freedoms afforded to men of their day, by liberating themselves from restrictive clothing and social expectations.
Still, what women! Alice B. Toklas and Patricia Highsmith, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, Josephine Baker, Billie Jean King and Maggi Hambling. So many brilliant and fascinating lesbians and bisexual women living their lives to the fullest and in doing so letting the world know who they were.
These portraits are significant not only because these women were successful in their own sphere but because they tell us and future generations that their lives are possible. When we are discovering who we are, we look to these women to guide us. Radclyffe Hall may have given me a somewhat mixed message, but Stella Duffy wrote about sexy lesbians with modern relationship troubles. Sarah Waters and Val McDermid were also out authors including lesbian characters in their fiction. For full disclosure, an early photo of me, taken by Trevor Leighton, is included. I don't pretend to possess the kudos of the subjects that surround me, only acknowledge the debt that I owe them, (npg.org.uk)
Caption: Virginia Woolf
Caption: Vita Sackville-West
Caption: Patricia Highsmith
Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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|Date:||Feb 1, 2017|
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