Huw Osborne (ed.), Queer Wales: The History, Culture and Politics of Queer Life in Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2016), PB £39.99.
Huw Osborne (ed.), Queer Wales: The History, Culture and Politics of Queer Life in Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2016), PB £39.99.

On the face of it, this book, the first scholarly publication to really deal with the question of LGBT life in Wales, is a landmark. By virtue of its status as the first, it should be broadly welcomed. When I began my research on LGBT history in Wales, some of which appeared in Llafur and Contemporary British History last year, I had little supporting literature from a Welsh context. There was Huw Osborne’s biography of Rhys Davies, which presents a vision of South Wales that I disagreed with (I’ll come back to this in a moment); there was Russell Davies’s work on (hetero)sexuality in Carmarthenshire; and there was – is – a small but burgeoning gender studies field which has begun to move from women’s history to matters of gender, gender performance, and masculinity. My problem with Osborne’s presentation of the coalfield, drawing on Rhys Davies it must be said, is that it relies on a reading of the coalfield as a (to quote myself) ‘closed community defined by a singular, macho masculinity’. This was not always the case. Indeed, in his work, which does not dwell at all on the queer dimension, Paul O’Leary offers one way of exploring masculinities in the coalfield; there are others.

Queer is something of a problematic word in the Welsh context. As Mihangel Morgan notes in his contribution to the book: ‘The word “queer” in south Wales is still an insult and hurtful; hardly anyone there knows that it has been “reappropriated” by academics, and the same can be said of cadi, cadi-ffan in north Wales’. It has, he carries on, ‘been imposed on us through a form of imperialist, American, linguistic annexation’ (pp. 67-8). This should, I think, set some alarm bells ringing amongst readers. The willing use of queer as a framing device for the essays is allied to a particular set of theoretical assumptions that underpin more recent scholarship. Iconic, in the British context, is Matt Houlbrook’s Queer London (Chicago, 2005). For Houlbrook, ‘contemporary terms […] cannot be imposed straightforwardly on the past’ and so ‘queer’ comes to denote ‘all erotic and affective interactions between men and all men who engaged in such interactions’. But this is to simplify Houlbrook’s theoretical underpinning which posits ‘queer’ not as an essential characteristic of a person but as a social construction that changes over time. It is similar to Judith Butler’s thesis on gender. Both, ultimately, arising from the work of Michel Foucault.

This all stands in contrast to an older set of work on LGBT history. This work was identifiably political and much of it was written by those active in LGBT politics in the 1970s. A key figure was the Rhondda-born sociologist, Jeffrey Weeks. Active in the Gay Liberation Front and its ideological successor the Gay Left, Weeks typified the activist-scholar that readily transformed academia in that decade. Funny how so many came from South Wales at that time, isn’t it? Given this importance, not to mention his Welsh origins, it is a curious fact that Weeks is marginalised by the scholars collected by Osborne. The only work highlighted is his textbook Sex, Politics and Society (1981). There is no room, therefore, for Weeks’s ground-breaking Coming Out (1977) or his more recent The World We Have Won (2007) which discusses in a degree of detail Weeks’s experiences growing up in the Rhondda after the Second World War. This is to be regretted. But we should not be surprised. What Weeks’s absence underscores is that this is not a work of history – indeed there is not a single historian amongst the contributors to a book that describes itself as The History, Culture and Politics of Queer Life in Wales – and whatever its potential this is a fatal flaw.

The closest that we come to a historical chapter is Mihangel Morgan’s fascinating exploration of the changing Welsh-language vocabulary of sexuality. This is far and away the best chapter, too, and is a genuine revelation. ‘Welsh’ he writes, with some delight, ‘is a very queer language after all’. To be able to go back to the sources and trace hidden meanings is vital to the development of LGBT scholarship and Morgan’s chapter will become a go-to for students for the foreseeable future. Indeed, it benefits from several readings to properly grasp the way in which language has developed to accommodate those whose sexuality – or sexual practices – deviates from the ‘norm’ of heterosexuality. The challenge for scholars going forward will be to pick up on Morgan’s etymological delineation of the cadi/queer and work through historical sources with a careful eye.

There are three other chapters that form section one of Queer Wales: ‘the queer past before 1900’. Daniel Hannah examines writer Felicia Hemans; Jane Aaron considers Cranogwen (Sarah Jane Rees) and Victorian Wales; and Harry Heuser draws attention to the passions of George Powell of Nant-Eos. All three are literary scholars, and their explorations of ‘the queer past’ is fundamentally based on critical readings of literary texts. This is not the past in any meaningful historical sense of the term, nor is the approach taken at all historical. Aaron’s is easily the most effective analysis but none of the chapters really takes us beyond the immediate object under consideration. They say little about life in Victorian Wales for those whom we would now recognise as LGBT. Here’s the thing, of course, historical research on LGBT life in Victorian Wales is quite difficult – all the more difficult for the fact that criminal charge rates for gross indecency and sodomy were very low. This is important because records generated by the police and the courts have tended to provide the richest seam of evidence. Anglesey, Cardiganshire, and Merioneth, had no cases of sodomy or attempted sodomy for several decades of the nineteenth century; and even in Cardiff it was general only a few cases a year. Any attempt to replicate Harry Cocks’s Nameless Offences (London, 2009) in a Welsh context would be very hard indeed. That absence of prosecution actually makes Wales quite an interesting place from the point of view of LGBT history, with a little bit of historical imagination thrown into the methodological mix.

It may well be, to offer some defence of Aaron, Hannah, and Heuser, that the literary method is the best, but unless someone has bothered to sketch the historical outlines, what meaning does the literary actually have? On what basis are historical assumptions being made? When was Queer Wales?

Let me explain what I mean by turning my attention to Huw Osborne’s contributions to the book – notably the editor’s introduction. This picks up, perhaps inevitably, on the film Pride, a dramatization of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ and their efforts to support mining communities in the Neath, Swansea, and Dulais valleys during the 1984-5 miners’ strike. Osborne writes that he has ‘mixed feelings about it, and these feelings are related to the difficulty of thinking about queer nations more generally’ (p. 1). Osborne’s reading of Pride rings hollow, for me. I think he misses the point. Guided by queer theory he fails – in a metaphor for Queer Wales as a whole – to see the politics of LGSM, the politics of the moment that Pride took place in, and the politics of the participants on all sides. Instead, he wrongly suggests that the ‘film reinforces a division between “Welsh” and “queer” experiences’. By which is meant, ‘the film privileges metropolitan spaces in the formation of queer identities and denies any meaning to rural and non-metropolitan spaces’. This does not stand up to scrutiny. Several of the ensemble have experiences (and origins) that are quite distant from the ‘metropolitan’: Mike Jackson came from Accrington; Steph, was a self-confessed ‘gobby northern lesbian’; Gethin came from Rhyl and is shown visiting his mother in rural Wales; and Mark Ashton came from Northern Ireland and explains in the film that his vision of reconciliation derives from his experience of the Troubles. What the film articulates is not ‘the myth that queer lives must almost always exist elsewhere, beyond Welsh borders – most likely in London’, as Osborne suggests, but that various strands of politics – those of class, gender, and sexuality – had lacked a catalyst to bring them together in a meaningful way. As Sian James put it to me once, Pride is a love story.

In actual fact, as my own research demonstrates, by the time LGSM went dancing in Dulais in October 1984, LGBT activism and visibility in Wales was quite substantial. In 1985 the first pride march took place in Cardiff and the South Wales Echo even went so far as to describe the Welsh capital as a place in which you can be ‘glad to be gay’. This isn’t to elide the many issues that faced LGBT people in Wales, but it is important to recognise the growth of the ‘pink pound’ and (above all) support services – the South Wales FRIEND line (the local equivalent of London Gay Switchboard), the North Wales FRIEND, the Lesbian Line, GaySocs in the universities, CHE branches in the north and south, bookshops such as Neges in Swansea and 108 in Cathays where literature could be bought and read, and advice centres such as the RIB in Charles Street, Cardiff. All of these things were in place by the mid-1980s, some of them since the early 1970s. Problematically for the position articulated by Osborne, and implied by the title Queer Wales, none of these organisations operated in a pan-Wales fashion. CHE looked to neighbouring branches in England: the North Wales branches were eventually part of the Wirral District, and Cardiff, Newport, and Swansea, worked closely with Bristol and Bath. When branches in the south organised visits they went not to Llandudno or Bangor but to the Moulin Rouge in Bristol or the gay bars in Bath. There were occasional attempts at bringing activists together from across Wales in the 1970s but for all intents and purposes ‘Wales’ did not exist in LGBT activist terms until the formation of Stonewall Cymru in the early 2000s. Like so much recent ‘nationalist’ scholarship, there is a danger in reading back into the past a Wales that simply did not exist.

Life in Wales, Britain, and around the western world, is immeasurably easier for LGBT people: rights and freedoms imagined half a century ago are now a fact established in law. But what about the harder process of refashioning education and remodelling citizenship so that equality is a given and there is no longer a need to undergo a distinct process of self-emergence (coming out, if you prefer). Things have changed quickly in the last two decades: although it took until 2016 for the first openly gay Assembly Members to be elected, openly gay MPs began to be elected in the early 2000s – Chris Bryant for Labour and Adam Price for Plaid Cymru. Following the 2015 election, Westminster has the highest number of LGBT members in the world. The same is true of sport: Team GB at the Rio Olympics has the highest number of openly gay athletes of any participating nation. It’s easy to take a rest thinking the struggle is over, but, as John Sam Jones notes in his chapter, it isn’t. The need for education remains, particularly in schools. He writes, ‘the persistence of homophobic bullying reflects a common paradox that, as sexual diversity becomes more accepted and visible in our culture as a whole, it becomes a more visible and identifiable target for discrimination in schools’ (p. 178).

This is a complex issue, not one that can easily be taken up in detail in a book review, but is a further iteration of the necessary role of political activism in bringing down barriers and bringing about integration. John Sam Jones is a sympathetic guide, as he is in his novel-memoir Crawling Through Thorns. He provides a potted summary of what went on in the 1980s and 1990s, notably AIDS and Section 28. It’s especially difficult for those who have grown up after the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s to fully appreciate the sharpening polarisation of that time – the British Attitudes Survey is a good guide and shows quite plainly that rising levels of tolerance in the early 1980s were reversed by the early 1990s. A similar challenge exists today for those who have gone to school after the abolition of Section 28. Although not widely implemented in Wales – some councils, such as Labour-controlled West Glamorgan even went so far as to refuse to do so – it nevertheless led to the absence of LGBT discussion in schools throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Such detail is missing from the potted summery, however, and John Sam Jones relies a little too readily on easily found examples from England. We do not learn from this chapter – even in outline – the effects of Section 28 on Wales itself.

This is, finally, not an easy book to read. It is full of terms and phrases that will (perhaps) give lay readers academic-induced headaches – although lay readers may be put off by the cover price of £40 (give or take) so that might not matter too much. More problematically it is not particularly successful in excavating what it meant to be LGBT and live in Wales in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. Its theoretical base, and political biases, do not really allow for that. There is no purpose to writing a glowing review of a book solely because it breaks ground. Queer Wales is undoubtedly a landmark in Welsh scholarship, but it will survive better in the world of literary studies than it will in historical ones. In contrast to recent works on the north of England (Helen Smith’s Masculinity, Class and Same-Sex Desire in Industrial England, 1895-1957) or Scotland (Jeff Meek’s Queer Voices in Post-War Scotland), Queer Wales actually yields little real insight into its subject. As I said earlier, what is the historical foundation on which many of the arguments are constructed? This goes largely unanswered. In the end, I think the greatest legacy of Queer Wales may well be to convince historians to finally tackle this field properly. There is a clear need for a history of LGBT people in Wales, both from the point of view of scholarly endeavour and (perhaps more significantly) to fulfil a need from the community itself. In the words of Dai Donovan, the Pride version rather than the real one:

When you’re in a battle against an enemy so much bigger and stronger than you, to find out you have a friend you never knew existed well that’s the best feeling in the world.

That friendship and sense of community is what histories of the LGBT community, in part, provide. Here’s the thing: it took two decades from the first stirrings of an academic Welsh women’s history in the late-1970s and early 1980s to the publication of Deidre Beddoe’s Out of the Shadows (2000). Let us hope that it does not take as long before an equivalent history of the LGBT community emerges. And who knows, perhaps it really will be called: Your Gays Have Arrived!