National Trust and Stephen Fry under fire for ‘outing’ historical figure
Descendants of a gay nobleman have lashed out at the National Trust for featuring him in an LGBT history campaign.
The Trust has been delving into Britain’s gay history as part of its year-long ‘Prejudice & Pride’ programme to mark 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.
Prominent LGBT figures including Clare Balding and Stephen Fry have been involved in the campaign, with Fry narrating a short film earlier this month telling the story of Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, a Justice of the Peace and the former squire of National Trust property Felbrigg Hall.
Fry’s powerful short film, The Unfinished Portrait, explains that although many records and accounts acknowledged the scholar’s homosexuality, it was airbrushed out of history and not mentioned to visitors to the Hall.
The clip explains that Wyndham Ketton-Cremer – known as ‘Bunny’ to his friends – was responsible for “restoring his exquisite ancestral home and bequeathing it to the nation” in the early 20th century.
Fry explained: “Official accounts of Robert’s life tend to offer only a partial story, and neglect to incorporate what was widely accepted by those who knew him. The truth is, when researching Robert’s life, we find many accounts that openly acknowledge his homosexuality.
“Of course, to be gay when he lived could lead to prosecution under the law.”
However, the use of the public figure in the campaign has angered some of his descendants
According to the Daily Mail, Wyndham Ketton-Cremer’s godsons have attacked the film, accusing it of ‘outing’ the historical figure.
E C Coryton Saltash wrote: “Wyndham, who was my godfather, was an intelligent, charming man who dedicated much of his life to Norfolk.
“He was discreet about his sexuality, and I can see no reason why the National Trust should not have respected this. It has betrayed his gift and his trust.”
Tristram Powell added: “His sexuality was incidental and scarcely headline material. It certainly wasn’t the main focus of his life, which he was fortunate enough to be able to live in as private, or as the Trust would say ‘hidden’, away as he wished.
“The ‘outing’ of him by the Trust for its own commercial reasons feels exaggerated and mean-spirited – another kind of intolerance.”
In a statement to PinkNews, the National Trust said: “Many of our places were home to, and shaped by, people who challenged conventional ideas of gender and sexuality.
“We are proud to share a fuller portrait of Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer and do not attach shame to his sexuality. The people we interviewed were clear that we weren’t ‘outing’ him because amongst those who knew him, this was widely accepted.
“As a renowned researcher who studied and published biographies of important literary persons in the past with integrity, he would most likely have known that future research on his works, life and times might be studied and published, many of which were included in his bequest to the National Trust.”
Professor Richard Sandell, of the University of Leicester, with whom we worked on the project, said: “I would strongly argue that we cannot perpetuate the values and attitudes of the past. You would only continue to conceal these truths if there was still a stigma attached to being gay.
“It is important to people today that we talk openly – just as we do about the personal lives of people who were heterosexual.
“We discovered so much more to Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer than what we know. He’s a well-known biographer of Thomas Gray and Robert Walpole, and discussed their same-sex desires in an open and honest way.
“But we also found beautifully written poetry, love poetry, from his time at Oxford when he was just 19 years old. We get a sense that it was difficult to be who he was. We know he would’ve been aware of what happened to people who were found to be homosexual, and that would be a difficult, if not terrifying, prospect.”
The National Trust also pointed to a quote from Stephen Fry, who said: “Some have asked why this is necessary – why the lives of people who challenged conventional ideas of gender and sexuality should be made public and celebrated in this way.
“The answer is quite simple – to do anything less is to suggest that same-sex love and gender diversity is somehow wrong, and keeping these stories hidden only lets prejudice – past and present – go unchallenged.”
A columnist for the Daily Mail previously urged people to “resign in disgust” from the National Trust over its queer history celebrations.
Right-wing columnist James Delingpole lamented that he had already cancelled his National Trust membership so can’t cancel it again.
He wrote: You can only resign in disgust once — or I’d definitely be doing it again over the announcement that the NT plans to stage a special season of LGBT (that’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) events.
“Older readers may remember when the National Trust used to concern itself with such fuddy-duddy stuff as preserving Britain’s architectural
heritage. But apparently the LGBT audience is a vital one that it has hitherto neglected.”
The columnist claimed there was a “degree of irony about the Trust’s latest plan”, because one of the leaders of the organisation in the 1930s was “waspish about homosexual behaviour”.
That claim is slightly strange, given what the Daily Mail was busy doing in the 1930s.
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