The secret history

A new interactive map carries the history of Islington’s LGBTQ+ community

By Sean Mcgovern

When it comes to identifying our community heritage, some reminders of our past, such as notable buildings, statues and street names, are easier to recognise than other less physical presences. The heritage, however, of marginalised or once-ignored groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community, is more diffused. A borough with a background of radical history, Islington is also the birthplace of the gay rights movement in Britain. This began with the momentous, first Gay Liberation Front demonstration at Highbury Fields in 1970.

Some of our LGBTQ+ heritage is easier to recall, such as Britain’s first gay Mayor and first gay MP, Bob Crossman and Chris Smith respectively, who even served Islington and Finsbury concurrently. Other aspects of the heritage, unfortunately, often run the risk of disappearing altogether because these were not considered worth keeping or recording or became discarded, lost or forgotten over time. For these areas of history, sometimes all we have to work with is memory itself, and when those recollections are gone – they’re gone.

Thankfully ‘Islington’s Pride’, a project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Islington Council, has been addressing this issue. For the past five years, it has been working hard to preserve, protect and celebrate the queer heritage of the borough.

As a result, the project team has built up a broad and diverse collection of LGBTQ+ related material, housed at Islington Local History Centre in EC1. We are pleased to announce that this unique collection will, once again, be accessible by appointment from mid-April 2021, when the Centre reopens following Covid lockdown

A central showpiece of the project is the soon-to be-released ‘Humap’, our digital LGBTQ+ heritage map. This features biographies, stories, oral-history extracts, images and walking trails and, furthermore, it will be accessible on a wide variety of digital and smart platforms to enjoy either at home or while you’re out and about. Additionally, we are not just putting LGBTQ+ heritage on the map, we’ve even created our own contribution in the form of 50 eye-catching commemorative plaques, which are soon to be installed across the borough, including in EC1 for Phil Cox and his pirate radio show Gaywaves.

Community heritage is about celebrating people that we know and also recognising the contributions of those with whom we may not be so familiar. The 50 plaques are merely a cross section of over 150 points of interest on the Islington’s Pride heritage Humap, honouring the people who fought to change laws, contributed to arts, education and politics, as well as the places we went to meet, drink, dance and be carefree. We are cautiously optimistic that by the end of April, and following the government’s reopening roadmap, we will be able to install our plaques and to share our digital map with the people of Islington and beyond, as we make the borough’s once marginalised and hidden LGBTQ+ history truly visible.

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