LGBT Britain – the BFI’s free queer history time capsule

If you’re in the UK you can access the British Film Institute’s treasure trove LGBT Britain for free, it’s a rich visual time capsule of the country’s queer past. You’ll discover the “pioneering gender-bending” risqué music hall ditty Miss Norah Blaney, (1932) and the Tennessee Williams-inspired short film Scarborough Ahoy! (1994). There are period lesbian, gay and trans focused docs. Varying in length, some videos offer deep dives into a certain period or topic, while others provide snapshots of a culture at a particular moment in time. All are rabbit holes, enticing gateways into a past awaiting discovery. These videos do far more than provide entertainment; they codify our queer heritage.

Heaven (Gay Life) (1980). Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

History has long been the playground of rich white men. These men wrote the story; they became the story. Everyone else was ignored, their experiences lost in the passing of time. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that oppressed individuals unearthed their own heritages for themselves, that new voices and battles came to light. Thankfully we are now beginning to have a richer understand of our past, but queer history still remains largely hidden, seldom taught in schools, if at all. Queer individuals are too often denied a heritage, that vital sense of belonging to something greater. This is not to criticize the writers of queer history. The history of “the love that dare not speak its name” is challenging. Gay identity is a modern construct. Can we impart a queer identity on an individual that did not identify as such? Are we falsifying the past to give ourselves a history? This is a topic addressed briefly in Being Gay in the Thirties (1981) a documentary included in LGBT Britain, that looked back on gay life thirty years earlier. Film, be it a documentary or drama, provides a lens into a particular time. They reflect a particular way of thinking, behaviors many queer people will find relatable.

How Percy Won the Competition (1909) is a delightful silent film centered around a man dragging up to enter a beauty contest; cross-dressing was common in Edwardian cinema. If modern drag is what you seek, watch What’s a Girl Like You… (1969). This documentary offers an exploration of Britain’s drag renaissance of the 1960s.

Gay Black Group (1983). Courtesy of BFI National Archive.
David Is Homosexual (1976). Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

Art has long been part of the queer story, and thankfully the BFI showcases some of Britain’s finest creators. You may find a Portrait of David Hockney (1972) to be of interest. In this short, we see a young Hockney casually going about his work. However, allow me to draw your attention to another documentary: Derek Jarman in Conversation with Simon Field (1989). Jarman was a prominent figure in Britain’s avant-garde art movement. While his films, such as Sebastiane (1976), were undeniably queer, it was in the late 1980s that his gay identity burst into public attention. He was one of the first prominent individuals in Britain to publicly announce his HIV positive diagnosis in 1986. Thereafter, he worked tirelessly to battle growing homophobia and prejudice sparked by the AIDS crisis. You can also see Jarman, dressed as a Saint, in 21st Century Nuns, (1994). This documentary showcases the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a protest group of male gay nuns working to “expiate all stigmatic guilt and promulgate universal joy.” Off-screen, Jarman wrote two journals, Modern Nature and Smiling in Slow Motion. These fabulous journals lend intimate access to the AIDS epidemic. He juxtaposes cruising on Hampstead Heath and the joys of sex with the harsh physical and political realities of being a gay man in the 1980s. There is no shame, regret, or sense of defeat.

One in Five (1982). Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

This free BFI archive also includes AIDS: The Last Chance (1986), a two-part documentary which features footage not too dissimilar from that seen on our current news cycle: hospitals rushing to build wards ahead of a predicted influx of AIDS patients. The second part explores the political response to the epidemic, in both the UK and America.

The BFI have also chosen to include a number of videos exploring other political challenges faced by the queer community in the United Kingdom. Witness a reenactment of one of the most notorious legal cases of the 19th century in The Trial of Oscar Wilde (1960). Or watch Homosexual Equality (1974), the product of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, an organization founded in 1969. This was the first time that openly queer men and women were able to produce their own program to be featured on British television. The 50-minute video is an attempt present gay men and women as ‘normal.’ (This would have certainly been at odds with more modern gay rights movements, priding themselves on difference.)

Courtesy of BFI National Archive.

While of course the archive doesn’t offer a comprehensive queer history lesson, the significance of LGBT Britain cannot be understated. Allow your curiosity to take hold and venture deeper into the past. There is a whole world out there waiting for discovery.

In the UK you can access the BFI’s LGBT Britain archive on the BFI’s website here.

For readers outside UK, there is a selection of LGBT Britain videos on the BFI’s YouTube channel which are viewable internationally.

By Boris Abrams

Britain on Film: LGBT Britain trailer

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