National Trust shouldn’t let modern-day prejudice derail attempts to tell LGBT history

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When the National Trust announced a project to tell LGBT stories from history earlier this year, bosses probably didn’t realise what a fuss it would cause.

The year-long project known as Prejudice and Pride is now in full-swing, but threatens to disappear under a storm of controversy.

A Daily Mail columnist has called on Trust members to “resign in disgust”. The Telegraph has accused the Trust of “outing” a historical figure. And this week it was alleged that Trust volunteers at one property are in open rebellion against the project, refusing to wear badges featuring a rainbow flag.

But the Trust shouldn’t let a hostile reaction to the project detract from its bold and pioneering approach to telling LGBT stories.

National Trust

As a young queer teen, I actually grew up not too far from one of the properties that is part of the project, Kingston Lacy.

The locally-famous Dorset country house was owned and restored by a gay man, William Bankes, who sunk much of his time and money into the house, travelling the world to add to its unique collection of antiquities.

Like most compelling tales, his story ends in tragedy. Bankes was forced to flee the property he dedicated his life to, heading overseas to evade a criminal charge for ‘homosexual acts’.

But despite spending my entire childhood growing up 20 minutes away, I only learned of this incredible story for the first time through the Prejudice and Pride project. It is entirely absent from the local mythology of Kingston Lacy.

This is common characteristic of many of the stories explored by Prejudice and Pride: queer identities that are airbrushed or straighwashed from history. The Trust, as I’m sure its leaders would freely admit, itself bears some responsibility for this injustice in many cases, allowing the queerness of properties to be elided from its resources for decades.

And that’s part of why the Trust’s new project is so great. By enshrining the story of Bankes and people like him in their houses, it isn’t just helping LGBT people to see themselves reflected back in history – in many cases, it’s making amends for some of the questionable ‘official’ accounts that the Trust itself has let stand for so long.

Prejudice and Pride isn’t just piling some unrelated LGBT diversity guff on top of history: it’s making living history more accurate and compassionate.

A generational divide

One challenge faced by the Trust has been winning over its staff and volunteers to the project.

As reported by the Telegraph, a faction of Trust volunteers is in open rebellion, refusing to wear ‘Prejudice and Pride’ badges for the duration of the project.

It is worth acknowledging that a large part of the issue may be demographic in nature. The majority of Trust volunteers are older people and retirees, to whom LGBT issues are still alien.

While we have made a lot of progress in this country in winning hearts and minds on LGBT equality, older people have been the slowest to change, and the Trust perhaps did not consider this properly before the launch.

PinkNews polling last month found that 56 percent of over-65s still believe gay sex is unnatural, 57 percent oppose same-sex adoption, and 66 percent oppose teaching about gay relationships in primary schools.

Given the high concentration of older people at Trust properties, it is possible that more needs to be done to communicate the aims of the project to them.

I believe most people who give up their time to the National Trust are fundamentally good people, and that ignorance is driving their response more than anti-LGBT prejudice.

Squabbles about who has to wear badges are reductive, and no replacement for an open discussion of history.

History is messy

Of course, history presents unique challenges when it comes to reflecting LGBT people, as the backlash to the project has shown.

Much of the controversy surrounds Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, a Justice of the Peace and the former squire of National Trust property Felbrigg Hall.

Known as Bunny to his friends, Wyndham Ketton-Cremer was responsible for restoring his exquisite ancestral home, bequeathing it to the nation in the early 20th century.

His sexuality was “widely accepted” among his immediate social circle during his lifetime, as the Trust explained in a powerful short film – created at the property and narrated by Stephen Fry – about how queer identity is erased from history.

However, the project to celebrate Bunny’s queer identity has been challenged by his godson, who alleged that the late figure was always “discreet about his sexuality”.

Given Bunny died in 1969, just two years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, it is hardly surprising that he did not advertise his sexuality widely in public in his lifetime – but to describe him as ‘in the closet’ is to apply modern standards to a history already far removed from present day LGBT experiences.

He made little attempt to conceal evidence of his sexuality from the historic record. Among the documents he left to the Trust is beautifully written love poetry, written from his time at Oxford.

The Trust explained: “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.”

It’s a fine balance. It is hard to reconcile the modern-day instinctive feeling that ‘outing’ is wrong with the need to reflect people whose lives were, by necessity, partly concealed.

But if we limit our exploration of LGBT identities to people who publicly declared their sexuality, we are at risk of erasing the identities of people who lived at a time when it was simply not possible or advisable to do so.

Stephen Fry, a supporter of the Pride and Prejudice project, perhaps said it best.

He 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.”

Who gets to tell stories?

Though the Trust is bearing the brunt of controversy this week, we should remember that it is not the sole arbiter of history – it is the responsibility of everyone to ensure the history we tell is accurate.

I have a vivid memory of a school history lesson on the Holocaust, at the tail end of Section 28.

I noted the textbook recalled the list of persecuted groups: “Jews, minority ethnic groups, Roma gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled…”

A worksheet produced by our teacher recalled a similar list: “Jews, minority ethnic groups, Roma gypsies, the disabled…”

I doubt many of my heterosexual classmates noticed what was missing. But I would bet that every queer kid in the class did.

Nick Duffy is the UK Editor at PinkNews.