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The two scholars giving papers at this seminar both use oral history as a means of uncovering changing practices and identities among sexual communities from the 1980s onwards; specifically lesbian feminists and queer people of colour. They will discuss how historians can find evidence of these networks and social spaces, and how we might understand the fluidity and shifting nature of sexual and gender identifications.

Victoria Golding
‘It doesn’t make a community, it makes pairs’: Lesbians and homonormativity.

The sexual politics of late 20th and early 21st century Britain witnessed a move away from gay and lesbian revolution and towards ‘homonormative’ assimilation (Duggan, 2002). This paper explores the gendered consequences of these developments, through a close study of a lesbian community. 

From the early 1980s, lesbians began to move to the small rural town of Todmorden in West Yorkshire and create an intentional, visible community.  A close-knit community of care operated through systems such as a childcare rota, newsletter, telephone tree, and calendar of events. A community based on lesbian identity promoted forms of queer intimacy outside of the nuclear family unit.  These systems of care were grounded in both the theory of radical feminism and the practical necessity to be each other’s ‘family’ in a time of marginalisation and oppression.  This paper explores what happens to these forms of intimacy when lesbian identity becomes integrated into mainstream social structures, as demonstrated by legal landmarks such as the Adoption and Children Act (2002), Civil Partnership Act (2004) and Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act (2013). How have conceptualisations of lesbian community changed, and how is this experienced? Based on over twenty-five oral history interviews with lesbians who moved to the Todmorden and Hebden Bridge area from 1981 onwards, the paper attends to narrators’ feelings of loss as well as gain.

Khalil West
Dark Matter: Oral History and Fugitive Sexualities in Liverpool 8

In the recent proliferation of queer British historical discourse, urban dystopias – sites signifying industrial decline, insularity, and poverty – have remained underexplored. One such site is Liverpool - once a thriving port city (considered by Victorians, “the New York of Europe”), and by the 1990s, a prime example of the failures of post-war Britain. The 1981 Toxteth race riots have come to define both the city itself and the district for which they are named. Toxteth – or, as known by locals, Liverpool 8 (or L8) – is the site of Britain’s oldest settled black community and is perhaps the oldest continuous black community in Europe. Its thriving Afro-Caribbean club scene was internationally known for much of the twentieth century. Yet, while L8 has long been a popular site of research for sonic geographers, musicologists, and historians of black and interracial sociality, queer historians have ignored the district as a site of potential study and recovery, seemingly because its archive offers no traces of legibly ‘gay’ social spaces. This paper explores Liverpool 8 as a space of (queer) possibility through, rather than against, this historical illegibility as a site of queer sociality. Working with oral histories of L8 residents, activists, and club-goers, this project proposes that Liverpool 8’s social spaces reveal a far more dynamic landscape of affective and significative possibilities than the regimes of visuality which generate queer historical work have accounted for in their definitions and recoveries.

Speaker bios

  • Dr Victoria Golding is a historian of queer twentieth century Britain. Her research analyses themes of queer space, queer community and the representation of lesbian emotional experience. She completed her PhD from the University of Sussex in 2022 and is a Visiting Lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is a Women’s History Network Early Career Fellow for 2022-23.
  • Khalil R. West is a PhD candidate in History at the European University Institute. His current research explores mid- to late-twentieth century (queer) black socialities in Newark, NJ, and Liverpool, UK. In 2018, he completed an MA in Queer History as part of the programme’s inaugural cohort at Goldsmiths, University of London. His ongoing (2016-present) visual oral history project, I Am For You Can Enjoy, examines race, labour, agency, and pleasure in the experiences of black, masculine-identified sex workers, and has been exhibited in museums and galleries in New York City, Ithaca, Toronto, Liverpool, Manchester, and London. 

All welcome- this seminar is free to attend, but advance registration is required.