Mary Whitehouse exhibition gives voice to queer activists

  • Date

    Thu 10 Aug 23

Material from the Dispatches from the Culture War exhibition

Items from Mary Whitehouse’s archives have revealed how the queer community tried to engage the pro-censorship campaigner in conversation during the 1970s and 1980s.

Letters from the editor of Gay Solent and the Portsmouth Gay Group are amongst the items on display at the Dispatches from the Culture War: homosexuality, blasphemy, and obscenity in British media exhibition at the Albert Sloman Library. 

They reveal how the queer community, that bore the brunt of Whitehouse’s one-woman morality crusade, attempted to make its voice heard and gave Whitehouse opportunities to meet and discuss her concerns.

One letter, from the Secretary of the London Monday Group for Homosexual Equality, includes an invitation to Whitehouse to attend one of its meetings.

“I find these objects moving and sad, as they reveal these groups’ willingness to extend an olive branch to someone so directly in opposition to everything they stood for,” explained University of Essex student, Tilly Hawkins, who curated the exhibition.

Dispatches from the Culture War, which is on display at the University’s library in Colchester until October and is free to attend, showcases items from the archive of the National Viewers and Listeners Association (NVALA), which was run by Whitehouse from her home in north Essex.

As well as letters from queer activists, items on display include a 1976 copy of Gay News. The paper was central to one of Whitehouse’s major victories when it was successfully prosecuted for blasphemy after its publication of James Kirkup’s poem The Love that Dares to Speak its Name.

“Holding the newspaper in my hands, seeing the articles about activist news and the best gay-friendly pubs, it struck me how benign it is, really just a publication trying to spread news throughout a particular community,” explained Tilly, who has just graduated with a BA Curating degree.

“I think it shows how much sway Whitehouse had. To resurrect an archaic law that hadn't been used since the turn of the century, and would never be used again, to censor a queer publication would have required significant support from the public, the media, and the judicial system.”

Despite her influence, the exhibition aims not to showcase Whitehouse’s work but instead to tell the broader picture of social change in Britain through her archives, which are held in the Special Collections of the University’s library.

“Whitehouse was a smaller player in a broader story. The items that she collected tell a story of great change in society, including queer activism, the secularisation of society, and the advent of new media technologies. I wanted to recontextualise the objects to reveal the voices Whitehouse was trying to silence,” explained Tilly.

Also included are items illustrating key moments in the history of queer activism such as a copy of the 1976 Williams Report which recommended a full overhaul of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. Controversially, the Report concluded that pornography was not harmful and should be available to buy, while ensuring children were protected from seeing it.