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Notes from the collections: NLGS

Flyer from the National Lesbian and Gay Survey “It’s funny, but I think my first feeling about homosexuality and sexual arousal was a strong urge to keep it secret forever. I definitely knew the name for it. I was twelve. My parents tuned into a wonderful radio show called “Round the Horne” every week. I adored Kenneth Williams as Sandy with his ‘friend’ Julian, obviously a gay couple. I loved the camp sense of humour, it sort of felt part of me.” - NLGS respondent

The National Lesbian and Gay Survey (NLGS) was launched in 1986 by Kenneth Barrow who, inspired by his membership of the writing panel for the Mass Observation Project, sought to collect autobiographical reports from gay men and women. Like the MOP, each contributor to the Project was given a code to use so that they could write anonymously, and candidly, without disclosing their name to the reader, or even to the administrators of the Survey. In a time where LGBT identities were often stigmatised, this was a necessity. These codes have been used to catalogue the collection, which has given then the dual functionality of protecting identities and providing access to researchers.

“As a child I was very tomboyish and a rather George-like figure (George, of the Famous Five books) desperately unhappy about being a woman. I began to lead a double life, spending the weekends wandering around record shops with a crew cut and a leather jacket, assuming the identity of a boy.” - NLGS respondent

Between 1986 and 2004, 725 people took part in the NLGS, answering questions on varied subjects from first sexual experiences to the Gulf War. Many of the subjects covered are arguably particular to the gay community: coming out; cottaging; images of gay people on television, while others cover topics that were relevant to British society as a whole: the death of Princess Diana; Christmas Day and the General Election. Responses to the Survey could be used to study how British society has changed, not just between 1986 and 2004, but further back, through the memories of older writers, to a pre-Wolfenden report era when homosexual acts between consenting adults were illegal.

“In those days before decriminalisation, homosexuality was generally perceived as a problem, as a curse everyone would want to have removed. How many young men and women must have gone through with that sickening and degrading process?” - NLGS respondent

The responses to the Directives could also be used to chart the development of LGBT identity politics in late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century Britain. The Survey name itself comes under discussion, with Survey participants being asked if they would have signed up for the NLGS had it been known as the ‘Queer Survey’, this foreshadowed the embracement of the word queer as code for a proliferation of identities in in early-twenty-first century. Opinion was divided, although most writers do recognise that there is power in reclaiming the words that have been used to hurt or belittle communities.

“First, let me say that I hate labels. I think that’s the problem with most things, putting people in little boxes, like straitjackets, and nailing the lids shut.” - NLGS respondent

The collection is useful for anyone researching LGBT history, and those researching late 1980s and 1990s history and culture in general. Two books on the Survey were published in the early 1990s: What a Lesbian Looks Like: Writings by Lesbians on Their Lives and Lifestyles (Routledge, 1992) and Proust, Cole Porter, Michelangelo, Marc Almond and Me: Writings by Gay Men on Their Lives and Lifestyles (Routledge, 1993) can be viewed along with the original papers of the NLGS at The Keep.

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