27 July 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. This law decriminalised sex in private between men over the age of 21 in England and Wales, though it didn’t apply to those in the armed forces. Sex between men had been illegal since Henry VIII’s introduction of the Buggery Act in 1533. The Labouchére Amendment, introduced in 1885, had similarly criminalised any other sexual contact between men.
Events across England and Wales will mark the anniversary this year. They include BBC Three’s Queer season, showcasing a series of television programmes on contemporary LGBT+ culture presented by YouTuber Riyadh Khalaf; and the Queer Theatre programme at the National Theatre in London, which will mark the occasion with nine days of events and performances in early July.
The anniversary is a poignant moment. It offers the chance to reflect on the achievements of LGBT+ communities and campaigns since 1967, but it is also a reminder of the work still to be done. It remains illegal to be homosexual in 74 countries throughout the world, many of them former British colonies which continue to criminalise sex between men due to historic penal codes enforced by the British. Earlier this year, reports emerged of the abduction and torture of up to 100 gay men in concentration camps in Chechnya, with three gay men thought to have been murdered. Closer to home, research published in July 2017 by Stonewall, the LGBT+ rights charity, reports that 55% of young LGBT+ people in the UK have been bullied at school. A further study by Pride in London has revealed that 42% of LGBT+ people in the capital have been the victim of a hate crime in the last 12 months.
National Museums Liverpool believes in the power of museums to help promote good and active citizenship, and to act as agents of social change. As such, we are committed to representing LGBT+ history within our museums and campaigning for LGBT+ rights and equality across the globe.
The Walker Art Gallery began programming LGBT+ related events and displays in 2003, often in close collaboration with the Liverpool-based social justice organisation Homotopia. This year, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, we are hosting our biggest and most important exhibition to date. Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender And Identity brings together nearly 100 works by artists including Steve McQueen, Anya Gallaccio, Linder and Derek Jarman to explore how artists have addressed the exhibition’s themes since the Act was passed.
Art can help us to see the world differently, offering insights into personal experiences beyond our own. Many of the artists in this exhibition have used their art to give visibility to LGBT+ causes and issues. For some, this has meant being open about their sexuality. David Hockney, speaking about his print series Illustrations For Fourteen Poems From C. P. Cavafy, once said, “Of course they are about gay love, and I was quite boldly using that subject then. I was aware that it was illegal, but… I wasn’t speaking for anybody else, I was defending my way of living.”
The American artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz (1954-92) stated that “history is made and preserved by and for particular classes of people. A camera in the hands of some can preserve an alternative history.” Several artists in the exhibition, such as Sunil Gupta, use photography to give visibility to communities that are overlooked and to draw attention to their experiences. Photos from his series Exiles are on display. Each photograph in the series was taken at a different cruising site around New Delhi in India in the late 1980s. They feature the gay men that Gupta met there and appear alongside quotes from his conversations with them. Reflecting on the series, Gupta has commented: “Exploring the Indian gay scene as an adult I found an intimidating wall of silence. Those [gay men] I met in India lived a marginalised existence, giving in to communal pressures to maintain a ‘normal’ front.” Sex between men remains illegal to this day in India.
Contemporary artists, such as John Walter, continue the legacy of activism within the arts. His multimedia installation Alien Sex Club explores sex and sexual health in the 21st Century. The artist is particularly concerned with the increasing transmission rates of HIV and the factors for this. The installation at the Walker is specifically concerned with PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis). This medication, when taken correctly, can prevent the user from contracting HIV if they are exposed to the virus. The NHS will shortly begin trials for the drug regime after a lengthy debate about whether it should be available to people at risk of HIV infection. Many felt the arguments against PrEP revealed society’s continued homophobia. Walter’s ‘maximalist’ style uses pop culture, humour and hospitality to broach these subjects in a way that is accessible and engaging. In doing so, he encourages people to think about these important issues and perhaps change their behaviour and attitudes.
These are just some of the works visitors will be able to see and experience in Coming Out this summer at the Walker. Central to the exhibition is a programme of events, performances and discussions that will take place in a specially designed space at the heart of Coming Out. The campaign for LGBT+ equality and rights is far from over and it’s here that we hope people can come together and plan for a better tomorrow. We hope to see you there.
Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender And Identity takes place at Walker Art Gallery between 28th July and 5th November.