20 July 2004
Out now – gay diaries reveal an alternative past
The 1980s and 1990s saw the global onset of AIDS, the banning of the promotion of homosexual lifestyles in schools, the rise of Gay Pride and activism - and the commentators and columnists of the day had their say about it all.
But what did the ordinary men and women of the gay and lesbian community feel about the momentous issues that have shaped their history over the past 20 years? Now the truth about what they thought is out. A national survey, conducted over the past 20 years and involving around 200 diarists, has been donated in full to the University of Sussex.
The National Gay and Lesbian Survey was begun in the mid-1980s by actor and writer Kenneth Barrow, biographer of actors Dame Flora Robson and Robert Donat and contributor to the University's Mass-Observation Project. The project gathers writings based on everyday lives written by ordinary people and is kept in the Mass-Observation Archive in the University library.
Ken was inspired to begin a project that would reflect the thoughts and feelings of gay and lesbian people during what came to be a period of huge social change and significance - from Aids and "outing" to openly gay politicians and clergy. He invited gay and lesbian contributors to send him their life stories in the form of responses to various themes, such as growing up, coming out, health and political and social events. Copies of those he received were sent to the University and transferred to the Mass-Observation Archive, where they have been made available down the years (in anonymous form) for researchers to use.
When Ken, who was HIV positive, died in 1993, the work was continued by two Survey volunteers: teacher Kerry Sutton Spence and archivist Jerome Farrell. They recently decided to wind up the project and the final instalment has now been delivered to the University. Staff in the library's Special Collections unit will now catalogue the responses into an archive that forms a unique snapshot of life in the gay community over the past 20 years.
Kerry says: "We felt that the project met a need for gay men and lesbians to write about their lives at a particularly crucial time in British history for them and that, although there are still battles to be fought and won, the same urge to write is no longer so compelling."
Archivist Jerome Farrell says: "These first-hand written accounts are often fascinatingly informative; many are funny, or sad, or both; and together form a deeply moving testament to the courage and survival of people who frequently faced hostility, prejudice and incomprehension as they grew up and came out. It will be a great resource for researchers of the future."
Dorothy Sheridan, head of Special Collections, says: "This is a unique collection and we are pleased to have it at Sussex. It shows how the Mass-Observation idea of gathering personal writing can be taken up by those who might otherwise not be represented in their own words. The anonymity of the project allowed for a huge degree of candour, making it all the more valuable."
Notes for editors
For more information about the Mass-Observation Archive, visit http://www.sussex.ac.uk/library/massobs/
University of Sussex Press Office contacts: Jacqui Bealing or Maggie Clune, Tel. 01273 678888, J.A.Bealing@sussex.ac.uk or M.T.Clune@sussex.ac.uk.
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