Within local histories there’s always been a void where the perspectives and experiences of LGBT+ people should be. Over the last two years, a project based in Leeds has been working with local people to fill that void with voices - to get stories straight from the mouths of those who lived them, and those stories into the archives and museums that can preserve and share them.
West Yorkshire Queer Stories came to an end in May, leaving as its main legacy a website crammed with the memories of over 200 participants, now available to listen to at www.wyqs.co.uk. From detailed life stories reaching back to the 1950s, to spur-of-the-moment reflections recorded at recent events, it’s the largest local collection of audio interviews with LGBT+ people ever assembled in the UK, and safely stored at the West Yorkshire Archives for many years to come.
Representing the broadest possible range of queer experience within that archive raised huge questions around inclusion, integrity and trust. For the project team of myself, Ray Larman and E-J Scott, based at Yorkshire MESMAC, engagement was key. We recruited 75 volunteer interviewers from local queer communities, travelled the region visiting groups and events, and staged shows and pop-ups of our own to celebrate and promote LGBT+ heritage.
My own hope is for the project to demonstrate how history isn’t something that will be written about in fifty years time, but something we’re writing right now. Queer people can really struggle with this concept, because the histories we hear are often so troubling, unjust or incorrect that they become alienating. But for those involved in an oral history project like West Yorkshire Queer Stories, the story-sharing process is built on communication, understanding and even healing, so its benefits are hopefully more clear.
Alongside the interview recordings themselves are new films, poems, blog posts and a range of other resources. We wanted to find new ways of getting LGBT+ history out there - to prove that preserving history is an important act of activism in itself, and share the skills and resources to make it easier.
We made extra efforts to reach queer communities who face real challenges not only in being visible but also being heard, a process we hope might help bring about some positive changes. On our website, you’ll find stories from intersex people, Deaf people, queer refugees, and LGBT+ adults with learning disabilities - all examples of groups from whom it can be difficult to hear in their own words. Leeds Inspired also generously funded a special performance of The Purple List, a play about dementia as experienced by an older gay couple, to create a space for us to explore this issue with potential participants.
During the final stage of West Yorkshire Queer Stories, the Covid-19 pandemic forced some already marginalised queer communities into even deeper isolation and fear. Building on the sense of togetherness we’d felt during the project, we managed to sneak in a few extra outcomes at the very end. Online, we arranged watch parties of our short films, and recorded a series of new podcasts in which the team and guests discuss their favourite stories. For the ‘real world’, where so much had suddenly started to feel so remote, we decided to put together a physical book as a quick and quirky snapshot of the collection. A thousand copies, mixing participants’ portraits and quotes with archive material from local queer history, will be on the way to individuals and libraries soon.
It’s been an exciting ride and I’ve learned a lot from this project, including times when an interview has stopped me in my tracks and I’ve heard something I’ll never forget or which has completely questioned my thoughts and values. These little life-changing moments are waiting for new explorers to come along now. I’m pretty sure that listeners will be as inspired, comforted and challenged as I've been, but above all I hope they’ll be proud of queer history, how it connects them to others from the past, and can continue to bring them closer in future.
West Yorkshire Queer Stories was made possible by a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Look out for highlighted stories from the collection featured on this blog in future months.
Images: DIY Plaque Making / Leeds Museums & Galleries, Huddersfield Pride 1981 / Peter Scott-Presland, Leeds Pride 2019 / Yorkshire Mesmac