“It’s nice to be back in Brighton, it’s like being welcomed back with a nice warm blanket.” Like many others, Elspeth Mallowan had gathered at the Ledward Centre, in support of local queer historian and storyteller Jane Traies and her upcoming project. Traies’s upcoming book chronicles Jenny Roberts, a trans-lesbian author and bookseller’s journey to organising and running the York Lesbian Arts festival (YLAF) from 1998 to 2008. What started as one of the two women’s bookshops in the city of York, known as Libertas, grew into one of the largest gatherings of queer women in the UK. For 10 years, the city of York would see thousands of queer women each autumn, celebrating the works and lives of queer women from across the country and ending their nights with a ‘Disco of a thousand lesbians’. 

After an extensive career as a teacher and head teacher in state schools, Jane did her PhD at Sussex in 2014, and is a research associate at the University’s Centre for Cultural Studies with her current research interests lying in the field of sexuality and ageing. 

Janet Jones, one of Jane’s long-time friends, was drawn to “Brighton’s positive LGBTQ+ vibe and thriving arts, culture and music scene.” An early attendee of YLAF and a frequenter at the Lesbian Lives conferences (between Brighton and Dublin), Janet says that while the city has not essentially shaped her identity as a queer woman, it certainly has been comforting to exist in an environment which provides its people with an opportunity to connect with queer culture and community in so many ways. 

Both Jane and Janet are participants of ‘Between the LGBTQ generations,’ started by a research fellow at Sussex’s School of Media, Arts and Humanities, Eleanor Whitcroft. According to Eleanor, this project comes from a place of noticing gaps in the community and the acute prevalence of loneliness in both older and younger members of the LGBTQ+ community. The UKRI funded project aims to go beyond representation and facilitate communication between LGBTQ+ people from different generations through a series of 1-to-1 befriending meetings and wellbeing workshops.

Grace, who is a younger member of the project and a student at the University says, “Despite being part of a project where we are all united because of the fact that we are part of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s the one place where it doesn’t matter…we all have different identities, but we are all part of this community, so we don’t care or have preconceived notions about it”. Finding a space where being queer is normalised, creates an environment where people can express distinct aspects of their identities without the fear of being stereotyped. This is an important aspect of the relationships fostered by the project.

Seeing and talking to older queer people gives young people hope and reassurance about what the future has in store.

As a student, and especially as a young adult, it can feel like the world is going to end with a bad grade and it can be hard to see how things will pan out in a long-term scenario. But seeing and talking to older queer people gives young people hope and reassurance about what the future has in store. 

Grace says that living in Brighton as a queer person has allowed her to recognise the futility of gender and the power that lies in expressing yourself in the way you want rather than doing what is expected from a person. There is a sense of camaraderie in the way people express themselves and the existence of a larger student population over the course of several years has facilitated Brighton’s recognition as the “Gay Capital of the country.” 

Growing up in Hastings, one of the older community members, Bob, frequented Brighton throughout his childhood. He was always aware of the existence of Brighton’s queer scene. “I always knew it was here, but I did not know what it was. I remember coming here as a teenager… for shopping or something. Getting a bus back along western road… and these two men were discussing makeup and how much they wore it. I mean this was the 1960s… so it was like… I had never seen a man wear makeup before or even thought about it. This is like the first recognition of Brighton, [as] somewhere that might be a bit more interesting.” 

Image: Brighton Rainbow Bus, Tabatha Fireman

Bob was involved as a student activist in the AIDS prevention and Stop the Clause movements in the ‘80s. Although, while he could be out and express himself freely outside work, the enforcement of Section 28 in 1988 made things harder, forcing him to suppress his identity as a gay man while at work. 

In 1996 Bob moved to Brighton and has seen the rise of the queer scene to what it is today. Moving out from the back streets of Kemptown and The Laines, the city has now turned into somewhat of a safe space for queer people over the years. According to him, “Brighton is ahead of the curve… it has been for a long time.” Say in a city like London, it can be easy to feel isolated and out of place. This is less common in Brighton due to the visibility of free and honest expression of gender and sexuality. While it is not completely free of instances of homophobic and transphobic attacks, it has in a way made it slightly easier for people to express themselves freely.

As mentioned in the conversation with Grace, “it is often hard-to-find role model relationships when you are a same-sex couple since it’s been that much more underground, but here it’s easier to see that and it’s not just limited to fictional or representation from a far distance.” 

It is important to develop a sense of community through collaboration to develop cross-generational dialogue and increase visibility.

Another member of the project, Charlotte Eagleson, a media student at the University, says that meeting and forming connections with people from different generations of the community has allowed her to learn a lot regarding the local history and inform the perception of her queer identity in the present day. “It has been so inspiring to see how queer culture and queer joy transcend generations, evolving and growing into a powerful force of love and friendship and camaraderie over time and space.” 

Based on the testimonials Eleanor has received over the past four months of the project, both younger and older community members feel a sense of upliftment and joy when meeting and interacting with each other. The bonds that are made across generations not only provide a front of discussion surrounding shared experiences but also allow a dynamic transfer of knowledge, ideas, and interests across different age groups. 

As a community who have been historically erased and forgotten, it is important to not only preserve the stories and experiences of those who came before us, but it is imperative to develop a sense of community through collaboration to develop cross-generational dialogue and increase visibility. The efforts taken by older queer folks to make themselves visible and stay true to themselves in a time when it was seen as a taboo is the reason why a lot of us are able to enjoy the freedom we have. It’s inspiring to hear them talk about their lives and live on to see future generations further the movement for rights that was started by them.

Categories: Features Top Stories

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *