While interning at the National Railway Museum in York, I had the opportunity to conserve and research this “Gentlemen” toilet sign. The object first caught my attention after making its way into the conservation lab. Following an audit of one of the museum’s storage warehouses. Being LGBT+ History month, I jumped at the chance to explore a possible alternative cultural history for the object. My research led me to interview Dr Justin Bengry of Goldsmiths, University of London (convenor of their MA program in Queer History) in turn allowing me to shine some light on what life might have been like for queer men in the early 20th Century.
[Shoun Obana] Hi Justin. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. The general context of this interview is to discuss LGBTQ+ history with a particular focus on the museum object I am working with, but I would also love to learn more about you and your work. Can you start by telling me a bit about yourself and your background?
[Justin Bengry] Hi Shoun. Thanks for inviting me to chat with you. I am a lecturer and Director of the Centre for Queer History at Goldsmiths, University of London, where I convene the MA in Queer History. This program is the first and only postgraduate degree in queer history in the world. Beginning with my PhD, my research has focused on the prehistory of the ‘pink pound’, so I’m really interested in economic questions and how they intersect with LGBTQ+ history. I am primarily an historian of the 20th century, but I also dabble in the 19th century.
[SO] Can you tell me about some of the projects you have been working on?
[JB] Sure! I’ve been working on quite a few projects. I was the lead researcher on Historic England’s project ‘Pride of Place: England’s LGBTQ heritage’, that was led by Professor Allison Oram, then at Leeds Beckett University. That was, and possibly still is, the largest project that Historic England has ever undertaken that investigated ‘underrepresented heritage’. It was a project that focused on LGBTQ+ history and heritage in England specifically. It Included policy guidelines, research guides, teaching resources, an online exhibition, statutory listings recommendations and updates, and a crowdsourced map of England’s queer heritage.
“There are so many queer histories everywhere”
I was also a researcher on the ‘Queer Beyond London Project’, which was again led by Alison Oram, and Professor Matt Cook. This project explores how LGBTQ histories are different outside the capital and how people’s lives are affected by local and regional specificities and historical contexts. The stories that are important to people in London are not necessarily as significant to people outside of London because of the variation in pressures, interests, concerns, and experiences in different parts of the country. Contributions to that project came from the whole of the UK but our research was England focused, focusing on Brighton, Leeds, Manchester, and Plymouth. Of course, we could have selected many other cities; there are so many queer histories everywhere.
I’m currently working on a project called ‘Queer Pandemic: Resilience in Times of Crisis’ with Molly Merryman. Molly is Research Director of Queer Britain and an associate professor at Kent State University of Ohio, USA. It is an oral history project that aims to record LGBTQ+ experiences of the pandemic with aspirations of being the largest archive of its kind in the world.
[SO] How long have you been in your current position at Goldsmiths and what were some of the steps that led you there?
[JB] I’ve been in my current position for five years. I’m from Canada originally and I did my undergraduate degrees at the University of Lethbridge. I graduated with a degree in History and German, and another in Business Management. I then went on to do a Master’s in British History at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. After this, I did my PhD at the University of California in Santa Barbara. It was here that I started exploring queer histories in more detail which led to my PhD in the prehistory of the Pink Pound.
[SO] What challenges have you faced as a specialist in your field, or as an LGBTQ+ historian?
[JB] From 2010 until 2017, my employment was uncertain, precarious, and sometimes non-existent. I was grateful for the post-doctorate roles both in Canada and the UK during this period, as well as the ‘Pride of Place’ and ‘Queer Beyond London’ projects, as they were integral to my development as a queer historian and scholar.
Another challenge I am currently facing, along with many other staff at Goldsmiths, is a painful restructure that is underway at the university. It has left almost everyone in the history department at risk of redundancy including all Queer History teaching staff. If we were to be made redundant it would be impossible for any provision of Queer History at the University to continue. This is the battle that we’re fighting right now. My students were demonstrating at the College earlier today. They created a memorial wreath for the MA Queer History programme to lay at the steps of Goldsmiths
as a form of protest. I felt emotional seeing the photos particularly because I would have loved to have been there. Unfortunately, I couldn’t today due to other commitments.
“My students created a memorial wreath for the MA Queer History programme to lay at the steps of Goldsmiths as a form of protest”
I also think a lot of my students have endured challenging lives. As many LGBTQ+ people do, they didn’t have a sense that they were afforded access to their own history. Many of them have suffered challenges of various forms and participating in the degree is itself an act of resistance. It is really meaningful for them, and also for me.
[SO] Thinking more specifically about the “Gentleman” toilet sign that I have been working with at the National Railway Museum, why might it have been significant to a gay man in the early 20th century?
[JB] Train stations were known as places for cruising and sexual opportunity. This was partly because people were coming and going from them all the time. It also helped that men who were commuting or going between cities might be away from people who knew them or lived near them. If you lived in Leeds and you were passing through the train station in Durham, it would be unlikely that you would bump into your neighbour in the way you might in Leeds.
Public toilets were often used by men who very often did not have the financial stability and class position, and therefore possibility of privacy, to have sexual encounters in their own homes. Others might have been married men or living with parents. At this point when the sign was in use, homosexuality would have been illegal and punishable by imprisonment or fine. Going to a single-sex space such as a public toilet was a risk but also an opportunity to meet someone for a sexual encounter. But with this came the danger of being caught. Some toilets were patrolled by police and men who frequented public toilets for sex might have known of others who were arrested, convicted, imprisoned, or fined for sexual acts in certain toilets. They may even have had near-miss encounters with the law in these spaces themselves. Toilets then, for some men, were sites of opportunity and of danger.
[SO] Would convictions of this nature have been dealt with discretely?
[JB] No, not always. Some men pled guilty to make the situation go away as soon as possible. Very often, however, newspapers would report on convictions. Such reports had the potential to – and often did – ruin lives. Reports would expose men to their entire communities and beyond by naming and shaming in local and national newspapers. These reports could also be read in multiple ways, which is interesting and useful to historians. In some cases, people might read about a case involving a friend. A reader might also learn that toilets themselves are a place of possible sexual opportunity or which ones are particularly active. A reader might also discover that the police already know about a particular public toilet, meaning they should steer clear if they don’t wish to get caught. It is even possible that a reader may see this content as a form of erotic reading as it was a gateway to imagine what might be going on in these spaces. Because of these possible interpretations, news reports on toilet offences are important historical resources.
[SO] Could you talk about some milestones in LGBTQ+ history?
[JB] Given that we are talking about the toilet sign and the persecution of men who had sex with men, I’ll mention the legal moments such as the Buggery Act in 1533, when sex between men comes under the jurisdiction of the state. In 1835, the last execution for homosexual offences in England took place. In 1861, buggery was abolished as a capital offence. In 1885, the Criminal Law Amendment Act introduced the crime of Gross Indecency, which criminalised all sexual activities between men, short of buggery, and made them punishable by up to two years imprisonment with or without hard labour.
There are various Sexual Offences Acts. A key one in 1967 partially decriminalised same-sex acts between adult (over 21) men committed in private above in England and Wales. The same did not apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland where the laws changed in 1980 and 1982 respectively. Only in 2003 was gross indecency finally scrubbed from the statute books.
All this being said, it is important to mention that these dates say nothing about lesbian histories, queer people of colour, trans histories, the Gender Recognition Act, or key moments in trans-activism. So, my list gives significant dates in LGBTQ+ history that we tend to focus on, but it hide as much as it shows.
“Queer history is everyone’s history”
[SO] Why is it important to talk about LGBTQ+ histories?
[JB] Something like your toilet sign speaks to the lengths that people were forced to go to by the law and the state to find others with similar desires. This situation was deliberate and is something that we should all be interested in, and we should ask questions about why that was the case.
The toilet sign also highlights the fact that queer history does not just occur in an exclusively queer domain, nor does it only involve people that we would define as gay today. Lots of men had sex with other men, and some then went back to their wives and families. These men didn’t necessarily identify as gay or even come out in later life. This sign illuminates histories of multiple groups and it speaks to the idea that queer history is everyone’s history.
[SO] Finally, are there any resources that you would recommend for people who wish to educate themselves on queer history?
[JB] I would direct people to Historic England’s ‘Pride of Place’ project that I mentioned earlier. While working on it, we did our best to be as inclusive as possible, including a wide range of stories. We approached it with the idea that queer history is everywhere. By thinking about places, streets and buildings, we acknowledge that all these places – places that are already so familiar to us in our day to day lives – have incredible histories that lay just beneath the surface, ready to be discovered and explored further.
(Photo Credit: Shoun Obana, taken of ‘Gentlemen’ Toilet Sign part of the National Railway Museum Collection)