Sensible Footwear – A Girl’s Guide

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LGBTQ History Month Blog by Sue Shave, LGBTQ Museum Director

I was privileged recently to interview Barnsley’s modern day answer to Ann Lister, the legendary Kate Charlesworth about her graphic novel “Sensible Footwear” for the Buckinghamshire Archives History Festival in November 2021. Kate has used her extraordinary artistic skills to document lesbian life from the 1950s against the backdrop of significant national events and key moments and people in LGBTQ history during this period.

The novel starts with Kate’s early life in Barnsley and realisation that she was a lesbian and her journey through coming out to friends and family and increasing involvement in the gay scene in major English cities including Manchester and London. Our conversation centred around what it was like to grow up knowing you were gay in times where lesbians were barely acknowledged and rarely talked about except in muttered euphemisms. In the book Kate describes herself in 1977 as “the Trainee dyke about town” . We have all been there Kate!

The experiences Kate had and key people she met who fought to get acceptance and the right to live and love who we want were also discussed. She even met Dusty Springfield and includes many LGBTQ heroes in her novel from Noel Coward, Quentin Crisp and Billie Jean King to comic Susan Calman and the newly resigned first lesbian Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick. We covered coming out, the Gay Scene, changes in lesbian dress code including sensible shoes, how you signal you are a lesbian to other lesbians and LGBTQ role models.

Kate and I discovered that we both loved Gilbert and Sullivan or G & S to all the fans and her novel includes verses written to well known G & S tunes. I was in several productions at York University many years ago and I conducted the Mikado, one of my life highlights! Here is one of her verses but you have to hum the Major General’s song from Pirates of Penzance as you read it!

“When I was just a baby dyke, the scene was a -political
But then I came to understand
The personal is political
That butch and femme were constructs
Learned from het’ronormativity
Perpetuating patriarchal sexual activity”

Watch our conversation about this lived experience of lesbian history and the courage to be who we are and celebrate despite much opposition over the years below. There are many more positive representations of lesbians and LGBTQ people in popular TV shows and literature today than even 20 years ago but many people still experience prejudice and hate from those around them. It is crucial that museums and other heritage organisations proudly include LGBTQ stories and objects in displays to make sure we are visible and continue the fight to be accepted. The new displays in Discover Bucks Museum (opening this Spring 2022) will feature images of LGBTQ people and their work including art by local transwoman Emma Prill about her trans journey on show in Discover Bucks Art.

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