Thursday, 17 November 2016

Petworth (and a very queer statue)

I was lucky enough to visit Petworth this week on a training day. The West Sussex country house contains one of the most iconic art collections in the care of National Trust, and a Capability Brown landscaped deer park in the 700 odd acre grounds are home to the country's largest herd of fallow deer. We only had time for a brief whistlestop tour, but I will definitely make time to go back to have a closer look, and also to explore the grounds more.

There was one particular statue in the collection that stood out for me. The Petworth twitter feed helpfully pointed me towards this record on the collections website.

This is Pan and Apollo (or Marsyas and Olympos or Pan and Daphnis). In other words, it's potentially any of three combinations of mythical figures. I was struck by the tenderness, and lets face it, queerness of the statue. Let's consider for a moment that the sculpture depicts Pan and Daphnis, Daphnis was a Sicilian shepherd whose mother was a nymph, and is often depicted as an eromenos, which means the younger man in a pederastic relationship- a convention which was both socially accepted, and recognised in Ancient Greece. Pan fell in love with Daphnis, and taught him to play the panpipes. These models of relationships can be problematic to use as parallels with contemporary understandings of sexual identities. There were no rules or laws about age when it came to sex in Ancient Greece, but there were about consent. Either way, it's certainly one aspect of Greek/Roman culture that hasn't directly informed our own 'civilisation'. The curators of the British Museum's Warren Cup exhibition in 2006 no doubt had to think very carefully about how the object, which more blatantly depicts sex between erastês and erômenos, was framed in contemporary conversations around sexuality.

Apart from being a really striking statue, it serves to remind us that you never have to look too hard for queer histories and narratives in historic houses, or at least for artworks, furniture and objects that lend themselves well to queer readings and interpretation.

I was also compelled to do a little sharpie doodle of the statue:

Sunday, 30 October 2016

seeking contributions for gender neutral toilet project

In 2017, my place of work will be marking the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of sex between consenting men, by having a year long LGBTQ season of exhibitions and events. As part of this, we will be re-signing one of our toilets as a gender neutral one. Due to limitations of budget and a 500 year old building, this is just a small step, but one that we hope indicates our dedication to ensuring that our doors are opened more widely to trans and gender non-conforming people.

When I was doing my undergraduate degree in Hull, I was at the Student Union nightclub Asylum, and was threatened in the boys toilets for my gender expression, and forced out. I tried to go into the women's toilets with my friend, and a bouncer came in and dragged me out. I literally wasn't allowed to use any toilets. Public toilets can be a really traumatic place for many people, especially those who are trans and gender non-conforming. This is a project that I feel very strongly about.

As a way of marking the grand opening of the gender neutral toilet, we want to give people an opportunity to share their experiences (traumatic and positive) that they have faced in public toilets because of their gender identity or expression. There are two ways I would like to invite you to get involved:

1. Record a short sound bite (no more than three minutes) about your experience/s. These will be played throughout February in our 16th century Gardrobe- the oldest toilet in Hackney!
2. Write a short piece about your experience (approx 500 words) to be included in a short zine which will be distributed for free.

All contributions will be anonymous. The Gardrobe is on the first floor of Sutton House, and is not wheelchair accessible. The gender neutral toilet will be though, and the sound bites will be played in an accessible space throughout February, and made available online as well.

To get involved, or for more information, email me at

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Tips for writing a PhD thesis

I've been thinking a lot recently about whether or not I regret undertaking a PhD. This is mainly because today is my deadline. My writing up year has finished. I haven't though. I still have a lot of writing to do, and although I've done a lot of work over the past six weeks or so, the finish line doesn't seem to be getting any closer. Thankfully I have very supportive supervisors, who are very much on my side, and have been really understanding with how much I've struggled to balance full time work and PhD writing, and with the mental health difficulties I've had over the past four years.

If you'd have asked me at the beginning of summer whether I regretted starting a PhD, I'd have definitely said yes. I was working the most stressful and poorly paid job I've ever had, and I've never felt so undervalued. I loved working with children, a lot of the adults less so.  If you ask me now about whether I regret starting a PhD, I'm less certain. I've landed in my dream job, that would have been impossible without the unpaid work I did while I was studying, the only time I've been able to consistently volunteer, because I was fortunate enough to be fully funded for three years.

Either way, I can't wait for it to be over, it's drained so much from me, and I can't wait to be able to sit at home doing nothing without feeling guilty about not working, to be able to look forward to leaving work knowing that I can relax, I mostly can't wait to start tackling the massive stack of books I haven't read for the last four years.

I've also been thinking about how many pieces of advice I've ignored, or wish I had heard, and thought perhaps I can use this weird reflective moment to try and be of use to other people. So here are my top tips, specifically for writing the thesis. (I'll give you a bonus tip about applying: THINK VERY CAREFULLY ABOUT WHETHER A PHD IS THE RIGHT THING FOR YOU- can you get to where you want to be without? if so, do that instead):

  • Every time you read an article, book or chapter, or hear an interesting conference paper or lecture, don't just write a list of quotes, try and immediately formulate some writing in response to it, even if it's just a summary of ideas. Basically just write write write from the start.
  • Agree regular deadlines for written work with your supervisors from the start. If they're quite laid back, impress on them how important it is for you to have strict and regular deadlines to work to. 
  • Make friends with the university librarians and library assistants. I was lucky in this respect, as I worked in the library. They are your best PhD allies. 
  • Find a good way of managing your physical and digital work. Scrivener is great for organising documents, unfortunately I acquired it quite late in my PhD. Writing such a lengthy piece of work is an inherently fragmented process, try and keep your files and papers organised, even when your head isn't. When reading/ editing I work better from paper, if you have loads of printouts of your own work at various stages of completion, make sure you date it or recycle it if it's no longer needed. On the front of printed articles, it's useful to write a one sentence summary, not about what the article is about, but about how it's useful for you. 
  • Don't try and reinvent the conventions of a thesis. Yeah the standard formula of PhD theses is tedious, and the temptation to try and make the process more interesting and creative is high, but only like three people are ever going to read it, so just tick the boxes and get it done, you can write your masterpiece later.
  • Speak at conferences, write articles/book chapters, but make sure anything you do can be reconfigured with minimal effort into your thesis- don't make more work for yourself, likewise with any upgrading written work early on, try and use it as an opportunity to draft an introduction or a methodology chapter.
  • Teach if possible. Try and leave room in seminars/lectures for conversations. MA students are good at giving feedback without even realising it, plus they're not too jaded by academia yet, like other PhD students.
  • If you find high theory dense, inaccessible, dull and unhelpful- don't try and write it.
  • If you have a good relationship with your supervisors, always take their advice. They're trying to help you get a PhD. 
  • If you have a good relationship with your supervisors, tell them when they're wrong. (obviously contradicts previous point, but hear me out). Towards the end of your PhD (maybe even from the start), chances are you're more of an expert in your specific field than your supervisors. It's okay to say "actually, I'm not going to take your suggestion, I don't think it's important to focus on that", “that’s not really the direction I want to take with this” etc.
  • Talk about your work with your friends, especially those also doing PhDs, as you can offer each other advice, and they're more likely to humour you. Some of my biggest breakthroughs have been from conversations with friends from different disciplines over a pint.

and these are the most important ones:
  • If you are working full time, and writing your PhD full time, seek help from the doctoral school/administrators, it's not feasible, and it's not usual. don't kill yourself trying to make it work.
  • Mental health always trumps PhD. Don't cut yourself off from friends, don't stop doing the things you enjoy out of guilt. You don't need to devote every waking second to your PhD. Look after yourself.
  • Don't take yourself too seriously. Unless you're becoming an actual real doctor, no one cares you're doing a PhD except for you, and nor should they.
  • And finally, some advice for those who spend a lot of time with people doing their PhD: if they say "fine thanks" when you ask them how it's going, it means "don't ask me any more questions about it", PhD students spend so much time thinking about and talking about their work- don't feel you need to show any interest, they probably appreciate the break.

On the plus side, when this is all said and done I will have earned a gender neutral title at last.

Wish me luck, but don't ask me how it's going.

Monday, 22 August 2016

'Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display' review

Hello all, just a quick post today- I'm currently at the bitter end of thesis writing, hence my inactivity on the blog.

Some great news though, I have got the job of Community Learning Manager at the National Trust's Sutton House in Hackney, where I have volunteered since starting my PhD, and is the central site I look at in my thesis. I start in September, and I'm so excited to be part of such a great team in such a radical and important National Trust house!

I have written a review of Jennifer Tyburczy's Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display for the Histsex, H-Net Reviews site. You can read the review here, or there is a printable PDF version here. A really great book, and very timely for my thesis!

I've also started a professional twitter account, you can find me and follow me @TowardsQueer

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Speak Out! LGBTQ+ history exhibition & the 2016 LGBTQ ALMS conference

Hello! Apologies for such a lengthy gap between blog posts. I started working in a secondary school in Hackney in November, and I'm still writing up my thesis, which leaves little time for blogging, but I shall endeavour to do better!

Speak Out!

Speak Out London, LGBTQ+ history exhibition is now up and running at the London Metropolitan Archives. I am so pleased and proud to have been a part of such an excellent project. The exhibition is part of an LGBTQ+ oral history community project revealing stories of LGBTQ experience in London from 1395 to the present. It's been a real labour of love for the LMA team, myself and a legion of volunteers. The next phase of the project is a website!

Here are a few pictures:

I'm particularly pleased with our wall of contested definitions, where visitors are invited (and encouraged) to graffiti it with their own additions, corrections and thoughts to the ever-evolving ways in which those in our wonderful community define, describe and identify.

LGBTQ+ ALMS conference 2016 'Without Borders'

Another project I'm involved with is the 2016 LGBTQ+ Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections (ALMS) conference, hosted by Bishopsgate, University of Westminster and LMA.

I would never have thought, when me and Jan Pimblett (from the LMA) were drinking jagermeister in the oldest lesbian bar in Amsterdam during the 2012 ALMS conference that we would be working together on its follow up in London. The programme is phenomenal, and can be found here. And over the next few weeks in the build up, the website will be continuing to grow with tasters, teasers and tidbits! Keep up to date here. Hope to see many of you there! You can buy tickets here.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

"It had to be both" Twilight People at Islington Museum

Twilight People: stories of gender and faith beyond the binary is now up and running at Islington Museum.

Curating narratives of people with marginalised identities presents a series of challenges, especially when those people have intersecting marginalised identities. Alongside those challenges come great opportunities for transformative and radical curating; for subliminal activism that can educate, enlighten and wave the flag for pride, and for social justice. In Twilight People two worlds meet in a peaceful and powerful crescendo, that challenges and undoes the notion that trans and gender nonconforming identities are inherently at odds with faith, and that indeed gender identities can be affirmed, discovered and renewed through religion, and that religious identities too can be reinvented, strengthened and celebrated through gender diversity. Twilight seemingly represents an in-between place, but this exhibition aims to show that a trans journey is not necessarily about a start point and a finish point, a before and after, but rather that the transformative moment of Twilight can indeed be the destination itself.

Curators have a great responsibility. In highlighting the fluid and non-binary natures of faith and gender identities, it is essential to allow the subjects of the exhibition to have their voices at the forefront of the exhibition. Oral history allows this, and museums and archives are increasingly realising that aside from being interesting and engaging sources of his-and-herstory, that oral histories serve a political purpose in filling in the gaps in historical records that so often exclude diverse voices. The theme of Twilight People is Body and Ritual. My own expectations of the stories we collected, and the beautiful portraits, were that they would highlight the trans body, and the ritual of faith, but they also uncover bodies of faith and rituals of gender. The subjects of the exhibition are not merely subjects, through their generous participation and sharing, they are stakeholders of an important landmark in queer exhibitions, co-curators, activists and educators.

Here are some photographs from the exhibition:

And here are some from the installation:

Marie and James from Roundhouse Radio worked in collaboration with young volunteers and SOAS radio to create a beautiful sound piece from the oral histories which will hopefully be available online soon. Here is James modelling the headgear from the public launch:

A huge thanks to everyone who worked on the project, but especially to the pioneering Surat-Shaan Knan, who is breaking ground with every project he embarks upon (also, highly recommend Through a Queer Lens at the Jewish Museum which he and Ajamu collaborated on). I had the pleasure of listening to Surat-Shaan's oral history in full and feel privileged to have heard it, one of my favourite moments is when he is discussing the intersection between his Jewishness and his gender identity, and he says "it couldn't be one or the other, it had to be both", which I thought beautifully captured the exhibition for me (and inspired the title to this blog post!). Massive thanks also to Charlotte Kingston, the lead curator, from whom I've learnt so much, both about curating, and about how to be an amazing ally. Huge love to both!

The exhibition runs until the 5th of March, I hope you are as moved, enlightened and excited by these stories and images as I have been.