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Everyday Gays, Ordinary Queers, and the National Lesbian and Gay Survey – Victoria Golding

Pride 1987, 10.10am: ‘Helped E. to throw pills down the cat with cystitis. Washed breakfast dishes. Brought Gay Vegetarian placard up from cellar. Fed goldfish.’  (Correspondent No.157)[1]

This National Lesbian and Gay Survey contributor’s account of her involvement in the 1987 London Pride March reads as a mixture of the ordinary and extraordinary, the mundane and the history-making. During a period when lesbian and gay identities were under attack from homophobic responses to the AIDS crisis, and Section 28 was in the process of being turned into law, both attending the March and writing about it for future researchers were activist interventions.

This ‘ordinary extraordinariness’ is ingrained into the National Lesbian and Gay Survey (NLGS). Set up in 1985, it was an offshoot of the more well-known Mass Observation Project, which was established in 1981 as a reimagining of the original ‘Mass Observation’. Upon learning he was the ‘only openly homosexual observer’ in MO, NLGS founder Kenneth Barrow created a space for lesbian and gay people to record their everyday experiences.[2] Like Mass Observation, the National Lesbian and Gay Survey worked on the basis of ‘directives’, a series of open-ended questions on a particular topic that a respondent could answer as they wished. These were posted on a quarterly basis, with the first directive sent out in October 1985. Directives could be about the respondents’ personal lives, crucial issues of the day, or, in the style of Mass Observation, ask for diaries of what a person did on a particular day.

Ordinariness was at the heart of both Mass Observation and the Mass Observation Project, a collection of ‘ordinary people writing about their ordinary lives’.[3] As historian Claire Langhamer has analysed, ordinariness is by definition historically contingent, dependent on time and place: ‘Over time, the extraordinary could become ordinary and vice versa’.[4] Nowhere is this more apparent than in the National Lesbian and Gay Survey. Huge changes in the legal, political and social position of LGBTQ+ identities since 1985 have changed queer lived experience in profound and uneven ways. The contingency of the ‘ordinary’ subject position comes to the fore when looking at the 1980s gay and lesbian experience from today’s perspective. The very structure of the NLGS, in recording ‘ordinary’ voices as a queer activist project, means ordinariness and extra-ordinariness are intertwined not only in the responses but the project’s very rationale. This is before we even consider what it might mean conceptually to be an ‘ordinary queer’, with anti-normativity a theoretical starting point of queerness.

Pride 1987, 8am: ‘Girlfriend spilt a glass of orange juice under the microwave, so had to lift it up. 1.30pm: went to our Gayline premises where we have just opened a coffee bar’ (Correspondent No.237)

The NLGS was organised by a set of binaries, of lesbian/gay, heterosexual/homosexual, and male/female, demonstrating one of the key ways in which our understanding of gender and sexuality has developed in the years since its inception. Crucially, the way that correspondents writing under the signifier ‘lesbian’ understand their own lived experience of both gender and sexuality in relation to these categories is often very fluid, from moving between bisexual and lesbian labels to dressing as drag kings. The existence of these binaries then begins to be questioned in the wording of the NLGS’s 1990s directives. In 1992, lesbians are asked what they consider to be the limitations of a ‘lesbian/gay’ paradigm and whether they would respond to a National Queer Survey.[5]

Right at the beginning of my doctoral research, I read the entire archive of the female correspondents of NLGS Series 1 and Series 2. This was the main initial recruitment of 1985, and a ‘top-up’ recruitment starting in 1989. I was initially looking at how women conceptualised the place and space in which they were raised, and whether decisions to move location within the UK were influenced by their sexuality. But having read each person’s story, often following them for years of them sharing the most intimate of details about their lives, the emotional impact of reading far outweighed any academic sense of ‘use’. Unlike MO, the NLGS is archived at The Keep in Brighton by correspondent rather than topic, meaning that reading ‘along the grain’[6] of the archive meant taking in the details of each queer life. It felt like I had become entangled in these lives, drawn in by the emotional connection enabled by the source form. I was excited to realise that two of the longest-standing contributors, born in the 1930s, were in a long-term relationship, through matching up the contents of their diaries. I followed Correspondent No.237 from the very first directive, where she has begun a new relationship ‘and am now very happy’ to the minutiae of mopping up her girlfriend’s orange juice. Then, on Christmas Day 1989 she writes:

‘At around half past nine I rung my other lover to see what time she wanted me to turn up…my first partner does not know about it…although they know we are very good friends’

This affair is not the burning confession she needs to make to her future reader, however. In her final directive she admits:

‘I like John Major and was secretly pleased with the outcome of the General Election, although I have never before told anyone this until I am telling you now. It would be like committing social suicide, like going to the most right-on lesbian feminist conference imaginable and jumping up and saying you were into heavy SM practices!!!!’[7]

The emotional intimacy that the NLGS offers forms the foundation of my own enduring love affair with it as a source, capturing the ordinary and the extraordinary in how these queer women narrated and recorded their own lives.

Image of 1983 Lesbian and Gay Pride March from wikicommons.

Dr Victoria Golding is a Women’s History Network Early Career Fellow for 2022-23. She is a historian of queer twentieth century Britain, researching queer space, queer community and the representation of lesbian emotional experience. She completed her PhD from the University of Sussex in 2022 and has since worked at Queen Mary, University of London and Royal Holloway, University of London.

[1] SxMOA16 National Lesbian and Gay Survey (NLGS), held at The Keep, Brighton. SxMOA16/1/1/24 Contributor code:157. I am very grateful to the NLGS project managers for permission to quote from the NLGS and to Jessica Scantlebury for facilitating this.

[2] SxMOA16/2/1/1 Cover letter to Directive O ‘Ins and Outs’, Summer 1990.

[3] SxMOA16/2/8/3 ‘The Mass Observation Archive and the National Lesbian and Gay Survey: A Comparison’ c.1992, anonymous.

[4] Claire Langhamer, ‘Who The Hell Are Ordinary People?’ Ordinariness as a Category of Historical Analysis,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 28 (2018), 177.

[5] For more on this see Victoria Golding ‘Naming Desire’ in R. Ryan-Flood & A. Tooth-Murphy (eds) Queering Desire: Lesbians, Gender and Subjectivity (Routledge, 2023, forthcoming).

[6] Ann Laura Stoler ‘Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance’ Archival Science 2 1-2, (2002), 99.

[7] SxMOA16/1/1/58 Contributor code:237