Book Review: A Little Gay History of Wales by Daryl Leeworthy

Publisher: University of Wales Press
Format: Paperback
Release Date: January 22n, 2020
Genre: Nonfiction – History

Rating: 5/5 Stars

Let’s start this with a touch of background and a dash of anger – I was born in ’89, the year after the restrictive, disgusting ‘Section 28’ was introduced. This was in effect in Wales until 2003, but it wasn’t like it was repealed and suddenly teachers could talk more openly to us about differences in sexuality or the complexities of gender. We were still under the shadow of this law throughout my education. This resulted not just in a lack of information, but very much accepted homophobia, ignorance, and a search for answers, usually via the internet, not always to be trusted. It’s the kind of stuff you internalise. It does not surprise me that so many, like me, are taking longer on their journey, perhaps not realising they are LGBT+ until later in life, almost mirroring the journeys that some of the older generation went though, embracing their sexuality when older and perhaps already in long-term committed relationships.

Section 28 set rights back in this country. It returned a hush-hush culture, and made it that much more difficult to learn LGBT+ history when we really should have been taught LGBT+ history in the wake of the last few decades. As stupid as it sounds, most of our education on those topics came from pop culture, meaning it was all filtered through an American lens. We were cut off from our own past not just if you were LGBT+, but if you were Welsh, considering the solidarity shown by the miners and LGSM groups who gave much needed support to the communities affected by these strikes.

Daryl Leeworthy touches on Section 28 towards the end of his book, and acknowledges the impact it has had on his own experience. But A Little Gay History of Wales gives us a detailed view of the way homosexuality was treated throughout the 20th Century. There is a small amount of information from pre-1900s, but I do think, to a point, the blurb itself is a little misleading – “This pioneering book traces Welsh LGBT life and politics from the Middle Ages to the present.” – it kind of does, but there’s a lot less from earlier periods than more recent ones, which is fine and makes total sense, as there is a lot to unpack from the last century alone, but you’re not going to get much from this book that bridges any significant gap in time.

Still, there is a lot of information here regarding the kind of society LGBT+ folks were moving in throughout Wales since 1900. The biggest drawback is that it is a “little” book at less than 200 pages, but Leeworthy does what he can with limited information, to give us as full a picture as possible. Some things, because of the sources, aren’t overly clear, but there’s a lot to give us an idea of what life was like for anyone queer, though there is a heavy focus on gay men – again, largely because that is who we have sources about.

Some of this is about those who were able to live their lives as who they were, true to themselves and if not embraced by their communities, at least allowed to have a “live and let live” existence, but this book also reminds us that our past is not so distant, and how recent a lot of changes in regards to LGBT+ rights were.

The things that stick out in this book are the way laws were imposed, and the way the restrictions of the laws often fed into preconceived prejudices – often, the men punished for “unlawful acts” were the sailors and other ship-workers arriving in the docks, caught with a white, Welsh man. It’s not hard to guess at who was actually punished for this (which neither should have been!) and the narrative surrounding it being twisted into foreigners ‘corrupting’ locals.

There is some positive stuff in here – again, the LGSM, the solidarity, the rise of movements and networks to help, but it all seems to come with a negative attached. Even the ‘heart-warming’ story shown in Pride can’t erase the difficulties faced by those with HIV/AIDs at the time or the way Labour have, in recent years, treated LGBT+ and especially trans folks. For every instance of solidarity there seems to be others where the gap between gay men and lesbians was widened, with much of the focus during the later half of the 20th century on gay men.  

These books are important. The work Leeworthy and others are currently doing to painstakingly go through documents and sources, reading between lines and trying to get to the heart of the stories, is so incredibly important for LGBT+ history which has largely been ignored. Leeworthy’s focus on the working class, everyday queer folk is crucial for us to see the way attitudes have shifted over the years, and where they have gone backwards.

Leeworthy starts his book discussing the events depicted in the movie Pride, and ends it on Section 28. At a time of increasing union strikes in the UK, issues over cost of living, rising prices, and the backwards views of the currently in power Tory party, it’s really hard to not see the parallels. But it is important to acknowledge the advances, too – many of those discussed in the book had to hide their true selves, or move away to live as they wished. Things have changed, and more of us have an understanding of who we are without having to live without discovering or acknowledging it. But we have to be aware of our past, too, and the history of the movements, the fights for civil rights, and how recent many of that truly is. A Little Gay History of Wales is a great start, and well worth digging into.


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