Archiving Queer Lives: The Stories of Michael B

By Dr Justin Bengry, Director of the Centre for Queer History, Goldsmiths, University of London.

The lives and stories of LGBTQ+ people are notoriously difficult to uncover in the past beyond the experiences of those who crossed paths with powerful bodies like the state, church and medical profession. Such records, even where they do exist, tend to flatten out queer lives, often reducing their contours and complexity to singular and traumatic incidents. We learn about queer people in these archives in direct proportion to the amount of trauma and violence they suffered. We may understand a man charged and tried for homosexual offences to be straightforwardly gay because state and police records tell us that on one occasion he was found having sex with another man. We might know little of his life before or after the case, whether he was married, or if this incident was part of a pattern of casual sex with other men or a single opportunistic encounter borne of curiosity.

The official archive might give us these fleeting glimpses of a queer past, but it is only ever partial. I mean this in two senses of the word: it is incomplete and fragmentary, and it also tells us stories largely from the perspective of the oppressor. The records and archives of lobbying, campaigning and social organisations including the Homosexual Law Reform Society, lesbian Minorities Research Group, and branches of the Gay Liberation Front and Campaign for Homosexual Equality dotted across the country all offer evidence of resistance against this oppression, but their records are no less partial even if from another perspective. It is, then, to the rare personal queer archive that we must turn to find insights into lives lived over decades and the messiness of complex experiences that may subvert our expectations of simple or straightforward stories. One such personal archive recently came into my possession.

Michael B was born in North Yorkshire in the early 1920s, the son of a Baptist minister who himself came of age amongst the Victorians. He was raised there, Leicestershire and Somerset, and from age six was sent to boarding school where he was bullied “in unspeakable ways.” Michael loved reading, walking, cycling and the outdoors, but never fit in to the school’s sportsminded ethos. Illness and a mastoidectomy may have given him some respite from many weeks of school, but he nonetheless missed home desperately throughout his studies at Taunton and resented his parents for sending him there. His school life until the late 1930s was only made more acutely painful by their vocal disappointment with his poor grades despite the unaffordable fees they reminded him they paid for his education.

Raised a Baptist, Michael was strongly against violence so, when the war came, he signed up as an RAF medic to avoid active fighting. He hoped to help others in need. His six years in the services took him across Europe and the Middle East and brought him directly into contact with violence and death. He prayed over children and helped others where he could but was subsequently always unable to talk about his wartime experiences. He felt that cruelty and despair ran through his life. But this period also brought him into contact with other cultures and opportunities to meet new people. After the war he married Barbara, the service officiated by his father, and by the mid-1960s had three children.

This was the story Michael told his family. Upon his death, his personal archive would reveal a much queerer life.

I first encountered Michael when his granddaughter contacted me to ask if I was interested in a collection of LGBTQ+ books she had found amongst her grandfather’s possessions. I direct the Centre for Queer History at Goldsmiths, University of London where I also lead the world’s only MA in Queer History. She and her mother had found me hoping that the collection of fiction and histories, art and photography books might be useful to my students. As our conversation proceeded, it transpired that Michael had saved much more than a couple boxes of books.

Michael’s personal archive, as well as that of his wife Barbara, are largely intact and detail a complicated life and relationships that spanned most of the twentieth century. It includes everything from his school notebooks to appointment diaries at the end of his life. In the intervening decades Michael’s university studies at Leeds University and interest in theatre emerge in exam books and theatre programmes. His faith emerges in the archive in his notes on theology and correspondence with the Bishop of Ripon. We see his wartime service in travel documents, photos and military newspapers. Barbara’s own wartime service helping evacuees is acknowledged with a certificate from the Queen and voluminous letters with family and friends pouring over her life and marriage. And both lives are recorded across numerous journals, calendars and appointment books.

By the time Michael died in the 2000s, he had been divorced from Barbara since the 1980s, but the family shared little with me about his life in the intervening years. Perhaps it was likewise opaque to them until they sorted his papers in preparation for donating them along with his books. Those books quickly confirm his desire to understand homosexual histories and cultures in the present and the past. Academic studies such as three volumes of Foucault’s History of Sexuality and David Halperin’s One Hundred Years of Homosexuality sit alongside research and policy reports. More popular titles in his collection include The Gay Mystique and Nancy Friday’s Men in Love. Michael also collected homoerotic art books detailing the work of photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden and artist Henry Scott Tuke. His granddaughter described him as a “gay man” acknowledging that she and her mother understood this book collection and read Michael’s papers in the context of a hidden sexuality he could never admit. In one wartime diary entry they sent me, Michael grapples with his “homosexual mentality,” an expression both precise and vague. It identifies desires and emotional uncertainty, but it remains an interiorized experience without action.

During the war, Michael was stationed in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, where he would return in peacetime. As a queer historian, I know that these were places of sexual opportunity for certain men in the mid-twentieth century and long before. Sexual cultures in these places differed from England and eroticism between men could sometimes exist within local social structures; in some cases, foreign travellers wielded their power and privilege as white men within these structures, forming transactional relationships with locals. We can only speculate on whether Michael chose to return to places he had previously felt greater freedom to explore his “homosexual mentality.” Likewise, we might imagine the impact the time spent within a culture that differed so much from his own had on his sense of self, his understanding of sexuality and the stability of his marriage. Deeper exploration of the archive’s records of Michael’s time abroad may illuminate his experiences outside England further.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that Michael was a closeted gay man whose marriage inevitably fell apart when he sought a truer and more authentic gay life, whether at home or abroad. Cataloging of the collection is already uncovering suggestions of extramarital affairs with women, concerns about mental health, and even violent behaviour. It might well be that homosexuality was not the problem, or at least not the only problem in Michael and Barbara’s marriage. As we dive deeper into the hundreds of letters across a half century between Michael and Barbara and their parents, family, friends and colleagues, I expect that a fuller picture of many complex relationships will emerge.

I also hope that the Michael B archive will become a teaching resource and research collection for students of queer history. In this collection we have a unique opportunity to explore different kinds of sources that comprise the archive: diaries, letters, passports, travel documents, newspapers, photos, ephemera and much more. Michael and Barbara’s letters to each other and to others might tell the same stories in different ways: triangulating how these stories are told with other records of their lives will allow us to reconstruct possibilities, confirm uncertainties and explore deceptions. They also challenge students to question their expectations of a gay past and evaluate the possibilities of a queer history.

As a queer man — and I use that term here deliberately to suggest possibility, fluidity and to avoid overdetermining Michael as only a gay man — Michael lived his life against the grain of society’s conventions and his parents’ expectations. Married to such a man, Barbara’s life and perhaps even her own choices were likewise unconventional and their marriage another example of a complex relationship. But even a cursory examination of Michael’s papers shows that his life and experiences also fail to fit our own expectations of the kind of gay life that should appear in an archive. He doesn’t fit into neat categories. He wasn’t an ‘out and proud’ gay hero we can look back upon with admiration and pride. His erotic interests seem to have shifted across his life as he grappled with desires for men but had extramarital affairs with women. Episodes of violence stood in direct contrast to his early aversion to war. I wonder what other insights into this queer life might yet be hidden in Michael’s archive.

The Michael B personal archive illuminates a complex queer life that, like the lives of so many queer people, would otherwise remain unseen in official records, effectively erasing it as if it had never occurred. Moments from Michael’s life surely appear in traditional locations and the official archive. State and church records show his birth, marriage and death, and offer further details about his parents, family and children. School and university archives would no doubt confirm his attendance and studies. Military records record his wartime service. And other records and ephemera including passenger lists, professional association memberships and press articles might offer further morsels that bring disjointed moments of Michael’s life into clearer focus. But even collectively these snippets might only confirm what, at first glance, appears to be a conventional heterosexual life: education, military service, marriage, children, divorce, death, thereby erasing emotional traumas, self-questioning, same-sex desires and exploration of sexuality through extensive reading and personal research. Without archives of personal papers like that of Michael B to counter the flattening and partial story of the official archive, most queer lives and experiences are as if they never existed at all.

About the author

Dr Justin Bengry is Director of the Centre for Queer History at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he also convenes the world’s first MA in Queer History. He is a cultural historian specialising in queer history with particular interests in capitalism, local history, family history and policy surrounding the so called “gay pardon.” He is currently part of an international partnership researching LGBTQ+ experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Justin is completing a book on the history of the pink pound.

This article was first published in Against the Grain, September 2022.

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