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A walk down memory lane: reclaiming our queer histories

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself doing something a little different. A colleague and I had decided to join MRSpride’s inaugural London Street Tour, a 90-minute walking tour with Queer Tour of London's Dan de la Motte and Dani Dinger. 

Stood in Ole & Steen on the Strand surrounded by a gaggle of familiar and unfamiliar faces, armed with a classic walking snack (a cinnamon ‘social’ bun – if you know, you know) and a sense of relief after a morning and lunchtime of back-to-back meetings, I was ready. Ready for what exactly, I wasn’t too sure - but I knew I loved a good walk and if I learnt something new in the process then, bonus.

We met the iconic tour guide duo that are Dan and Dani outside the Lyceum theatre. From the get go, their warmth and energy put the group at ease - peppered with a good dose of humour and a little sass. Our queer history of London theatreland had begun. This was going to be fun. 

“We have always been here”

The aspect of the tour that struck me most was how every celebrity-of-note spoken about was not a name I had come across before, and I don’t think I was alone based on the headshakes every time Dan or Dani would ask “have you heard of… they were big in their day”. From Fanny and Stella, to Ivor Novello, and Maud Allen. These are just a few of the most celebrated individuals of their time. But despite their successes, were also involved in some of the most sensational trials of their times – all because they were queer. Whether it was dressing in drag or being openly part of the LGBTQIA+ community, there were consequences for all of them, including jail time for some.

“One of Britain’s biggest colonial exports is homophobia”

Of all of the stories shared, that of Miss Fanny Park and Miss Stella Boulton will likely have a lasting impact on the way I continue to think about what progress really looks like when it comes to diversity and inclusion. This is the story of “the young men who shocked Victorian England”, arrested by the Metropolitan Police after over a year of surveillance, charged with “committing the…crime of buggery”, and publically trialled at Bow Street Magistrates Court

Fanny and Stella, “parading openly on the streets of central London, challenged conventional assumptions about gender and sexuality, respectability and transgression, business and pleasure”. After a sensational six-day trial, a jury found them not guilty and the two were acquitted. Whilst a positive outcome for Fanny and Stella, their legacy is believed to have inspired a change in the law in 1885 which ensured that even in instances where “sodomy” could not be proven, an individual could still be charged with gross indecency based on their clothes, demeanour, names or even how society saw them. 

So, one progressive step forward, in effect, became two or more steps backwards for queer communities. This was in a time already “renowned for its rigid gender roles and strict social ideals”--- add to that the height of the British Empire, and therefore the spread of often binary ideologies and cultural norms into Britain’s ‘colonies’, many of which will have had their own indigenous cultures and structures surrounding gender identity.

“Reclaiming queer history is a form of activism”

Whilst I may have subconsciously gone into the MRSpride London Street Tour hoping to learn a few new queer London history facts to take back to the team (and get my step counts in), I left with much more. Moments and learning opportunities like this can be transformative if we are open to learning and challenging our own perceptions of what all of this means and what impact it has (and will still have) in our everyday lives. 

They may not have seen themselves as activists in their time, but each queer celebrity highlighted on this tour exemplified a level of unashamed pride in being who they were. Hearing their stories through the deeply passionate and knowledgeable duo that is Dan and Dani is a testament to the importance and impact their stories had then and now. These are all names and lives of importance, in unpacking the full richness of London’s history and in reclaiming queer stories in our history books and collective common knowledge.

Events like this are a little different, and they are important. Would I prioritise making time for it during the working day? Yes, I would. Is it relevant to my job, my life and my local community? Yes, all of the above. Would I recommend you to do it next time it comes around? Yes, definitely. It’s a chance to get out of our heads, onto our feet and be in a space to reflect, celebrate and champion the contributions of the queer community in our lives. Bonus that it is during Pride Month, because that leaves no room for excuses. Happy Pride!


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