The personal & the political: In parallel with the histories December 30, 2016Posted by Tomboktu in Feminism, History, LGBT, Women's rights.
My paternal grandmother was told by her doctor in the 1930s that she would be risking her life if she were to have another child. She approached her parish priest to seek his support on raising this with my grandfather, but was told that if God called her and another child to his side, then she should accept God’s will. At some stage between the end of the 1950s and the early 1990s she told my mother, her daughter-in-law. My mother, in turn, told me of this about a decade ago. My mother was clearly angered at how my grandmother had been treated. Her own life was affected by the ban on contraception, although all her children were born before the Supreme Court ruling on contraception in the Magee case or the formation of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement.
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A micro-scene early in the film Pride has the fictional character ‘Bromley’ step out of the Pride parade to watch from the footpath. A woman passes him, and announces her view: ‘disgusting’. And he says ‘Yes’ and nods approvingly. In the succeeding few seconds, George MacKay, the actor who plays ‘Bromley’, conveys the horror that his character feels at betraying what he came to London for that day in 1984, and in a few moment he rejects that betrayal and rejoins the Pride march and the real-life Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.
Later in the film, his sister and mother accidentally find his cuttings from Capital Gay and photographs from events with Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, and we are shown, in silhouette and without dialogue, his parents confronting him when he returns home late that night. Although ‘Bromley’ was a fictional character added to the dramatisation of a historical event, a tweet after the film was screened on St Stephen’s night showed that it reflected a real, lived experience: “Thank you #Pride & the character Bromley for explaining to my family why my uni years were concealed, distant & disassociated.”
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I don’t know if there is a historical school or method that studies the personal experiences of people in social and political changes, particularly of those not in key roles. There might not be; maybe at that stage it ceases being history and becomes biography or sociology. It would also be a more challenging approach: the records are probably less likely to be available. In many cases, the reason will not be that a record was not kept but that there was nothing to record: a silence, the absence of a conversation — even an avoidance of thinking about something.
But those hundreds of thousands of personal experiences and histories are important. A history without them is incomplete. Without survivors of domestic violence telling their stories to other women, there would not have been the campaigns to change police practices, create new laws, or fund emergency shelters, which are the stuff of that history. The narrative of lgb equality is missing something central to its history without the accounts of coming out, of not coming out, of being told, and of different lives in two places, and how those changed over the decades. The stories in the history matter.