A compelling art exhibition is soon to open which explores the lives of Cumbrian lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people in their 60s.
It has been commissioned by the CELEBRATE: LGBT History in Cumbria project and provides a preview for the project’s final exhibition in September, and many other events and activities, planned for Elements, a festival of inclusion taking place later this year.
Fine art and documentary photographer Colin Tennant’s aim has been to reflect the experiences of people living in a largely rural region during decades of immense change in attitudes and lifestyle.
Colin’s ongoing work explores the role of LGBT identities in the participants’ everyday lives as ordinary members of families and communities.
The initial exhibition, entitled Here, Today is a series of eight images. It will be in Tullie House Garden, Carlisle, from 13 to 26 June and is free.
Colin, who is based in Glasgow, has spent several months getting to know the participants. All are from a generation that experienced prejudice, discrimination and alienation but have witnessed the shift from marginalisation to mainstream.
He said: “It’s opened my eyes to the struggles people have faced in life and the bravery they have shown. The exhibition is about age, gender and sexuality in a predominately rural location, but it’s also about communities and our relationships with the places we call home.
“We often associate LGBT life with big, cosmopolitan urban areas and think LGBT people face more difficulties in small communities, but that is not always the case.”
Among those photographed is Martin Reeves, 65, a gay man who has been in Carlisle since the 1950s. For the past five years he has been involved in Carlisle’s Cumbria Pride event. He said: “The exhibition is a great idea, it’s an important time to record LGBT history because so much has changed and is changing so fast.
“There is generally much more acceptance of LGBT people than there used to be. When I was a young adult there weren’t many places a gay man could go, they tended to be specialised and a bit out of the way. Things have come full circle and LGBT people can go out anywhere now, so the specialist bars and clubs are disappearing.”
His views were echoed by Sue Stelfox, a 62-year-old transgender woman from Kendal, who works as an electrical engineer for a power company. In her spare time Sue collects, repairs and races post-classic motorbikes.
She said: “It’s very worthwhile to record the history of LGBT people in Cumbria. When I was growing up in a small town in the 60s it was an area of life that just wasn’t talked about and people knew very little about. Hopefully the exhibition shows people as they are in real life and makes them into ordinary members of the community.”
Sue has campaigned on LGBT issues through the trade union movement and was on the TUC LGBT committee.
Tonia Lu project co-ordinator of CELEBRATE: LGBT History in Cumbria believes the exhibition, and the Elements festival, come at an important moment in UK social history. She said: “It’s a reflection on changing times and lives of LGBT people. Before the internet people in rural areas like Cumbria often suffered an acute sense of isolation.
“There are many resources available to younger LGBT people now through the internet and other media, they don’t necessarily understand how difficult it was back in the day – or that back in the day could be only a few years ago.”
Many challenges remain, though, especially for older people.
Tonia said: “Some still fear coming out. And for trans people who decided they were too old or did not want to take the risk of making the transition there can be issues with the care system, which is often not prepared for them. There is a danger that they could end up being treated as the gender they do not identify with.”
The exhibition is about awareness and education and shows how much diversity there is within the LGBT community. And it is fundamentally optimistic. As well as being photographed participants have also been interviewed about their lives and experiences.
Joan Devereaux, a 67-year-old transgender woman based on Ulverston, said: “This has been an excellent opportunity for many trans people here in Cumbria to have their stories told. The interviews will show future generations how the community at large, and the medical professions, have progressed to deal with those who need to transition.
“They will also show the trials and tribulations many others go through to maintain their own lives whilst being aware that they too should look to transition but decide to continue in both modes.’
“It shows how the LGBT community has become more mainstream over the past 50 years. There is still a way to go, but it’s proof of how the UK leads in worldwide LGBT issues. It is a beacon of hope for other countries where the LGBT community is still persecuted.”