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LGBTQIA+ British History Reads

By Amy Blay, Rhys Wright, Shan Heyworth and Rosie Green


LGBTQIA+ history in the UK is full of overlooked chapters and fascinating figures. So, to celebrate LGBTQIA+ History Month, here are some non-fiction books that delve into this rich history.

 

Fabulosa! by Paul Baker


“How bona to vada your dolly old eek!”


While to many of us this may sound strange, such vocabulary made perfect sense to gay men living in the early 1900s and was used to camouflage their true identities in public spaces. In Fabulosa!, Baker discusses this lost language, known as Polari, and explores how it provided protection and security for the community prior to the decriminalisation of homosexuality.


While spoken mainly by gay men, it was also used by some lesbians, theatre performers and sex workers. Though its usage has dwindled, Polari has since been seen in some films, music and books, and some of its slang, such as naff and bevvy, have crossed over to be commonly used across Britain.


Fabulosa! delves into Polari’s history, from its origins and usage to its emergence into the mainstream and eventual decline. His words are enlightening and entertaining; it is a must-read for anyone wanting to learn more about queer British history. A truly bona book indeed!

 

The End of Innocence: Britain in the Time of AIDS by Simon Garfield


While originally published in 1994, The End of Innocence holds up as a thorough history of the early years of the AIDS crisis in the UK. Reprinted in 2021 with a new foreword by Russell T Davies (who credits it as an influence on It’s a Sin), Garfield’s book remains a crucial history rich with detail and empathy.


Garfield’s afterword to the new edition remarks that “the numbers have never told the story the way people tell the story,” a view that sums up why, thirty years later, this book is still an LGBTQIA+ history must-read. All the facts and statistics about the crisis are presented in exhaustive detail, but Garfield’s primary way of telling this story is through testimony from the people who were there  AIDS patients, doctors, journalists, activists and more.


Speaking with their own voices when the crisis was at its height, the people featured in the book tell the history of the crisis through their own experiences. It covers the history of the epidemic from every angle  medical studies, the government response, the media scare and the experiences of ordinary AIDS patients, whether they’re gay, straight, a drug user, a haemophiliac or none of the above.


There’s plenty of attention given to the culture and individual experiences of gay and bisexual men at the time and having their interview excerpts presented first-hand opens a window into a unique moment in British LGBTQIA+ history.

 

Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide by Kate Charlesworth


A memoir and a history book, Sensible Footwear documents the evolution of the LGBTQIA+ community and discourse in the 20th century, foregrounding the lesbian perspective – which can still sometimes be neglected in historical accounts of queer history.


In this educational and entertaining, personal and political graphic novel, cartoonist Kate Charlesworth recounts her own journey as a lesbian alongside a wider political and historical story of LGBTQIA+ community, rights and life from the 1950s to the present day. While the narrative follows Charlesworth’s individual experiences, it also introduces influential queer figures and cultural touchstones that form shared memories of the LGBTQIA+ community.


Charlesworth also traces the changes in legislation and politics that form the background for her story. One especially important aspect of the book is its focus on feminism, and its evolving relationship with lesbians and LGBTQIA+ movements.


While queer history itself is rich and fascinating, Sensible Footwear is a particularly fun and engaging vehicle to learn about it. Charlesworth uses the visual medium to immerse the reader in the past, with memorabilia and motifs from the respective eras and collages representing them. Her expressive and evocative visual storytelling conveys a detailed and honest account of a personal and shared experience of growing and changing, both for Kate Charlesworth and for the UK. 

 

Queer City by Peter Ackroyd


A central focus of many LGBTQIA+ histories is that queer people have always been here – with here, in the case of Peter Ackroyd’s Queer City, meaning London. Tracing its history all the way from the Celts, who originated the name of the city, right to the present day, Ackroyd presents a vivid image of London through the ages and, through it, the changing attitudes to and experiences of queerness in Britain.


On his tour of the city, Ackroyd visits Roman baths, Elizabethan theatres, 18th century molly houses and modern clubs – a map of forgotten history brought to the fore through thrilling storytelling and countless case studies. Sweeping right through society – from slaves up to kings, with soldiers, sex workers, actors and nuns among them – he highlights the diversity that has always existed under the umbrella of queer experience.


With its hugely diverse population and a history spanning millennia, London is an ideal location to track how different people saw and experienced queerness in different times, and Ackroyd creates an exciting picture of a city with queer people hidden everywhere in its history, from Holborn to Hampton Court Palace, Soho to Spitalfields and everywhere in between. 

 

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