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Hackney Museum launches drive to collect more of borough’s gay history with inspiring talks from Stik and I’m Empire

PUBLISHED: 13:21 03 February 2017 | UPDATED: 14:35 03 February 2017

Stik's image of two lovers on the side of the queer safe house in Dalston Lane, which he painted to commemorate the squatters' eviction on Valentine's Day 2011. (Photo: Dan Beecroft)

Stik's image of two lovers on the side of the queer safe house in Dalston Lane, which he painted to commemorate the squatters' eviction on Valentine's Day 2011. (Photo: Dan Beecroft)

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Hackney Museum wants to right a wrong: it doesn’t have enough gay history in its archive. Emma Bartholomew reports on the launch of a project to change that.

The launch of LGBTQ history month Photo: Gary Manhine/Hackney CouncilThe launch of LGBTQ history month Photo: Gary Manhine/Hackney Council

Hackney’s gay history must be taught in schools and represented more in museums.

That was the message of a reception at Hackney Museum on Wednesday last week to launch LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex) history month.

Emma Winch, Hackney Museum’s heritage learning manager, told guests: “Young people tell us museums don’t do enough to collect and share LGBTQI history. This, and the lack of representation in the national curriculum, is unacceptable. It has an effect on their identity and confidence.”

"Being openly queer was not safe but we did it anyway. I was beaten unconscious for wearing nail varnish, and still get ringing in my left ear from time to time"

Street artist Stik

It’s why Hackney Council is trying to fill its archive with photos, souvenirs and memories of gay history, public life, entertainment campaigning and culture in the borough. The museum has been collecting LGBTQI memorabilia since the 1980s but still says there isn’t enough.

Musician I’m Empire – who has worked at the museum since he was a teenager – was at the launch to give a speech on his experience of coming out as a queer man in Hackney’s black community.

And world-famous street artist Stik shared his memories of the queer “safe house” community in Dalston Lane.

Stik speaking at the reception to launch LGBTQ history month. Photo: Gary Manhine/Hackney CouncilStik speaking at the reception to launch LGBTQ history month. Photo: Gary Manhine/Hackney Council

People from around the world lived in the “famous squat community centre” in the row of Georgian houses.

Stik described how he first arrived in London in 2001 after “spectacularly crashing and burning” and joined a group squatting then-derelict London Fields Lido, sleeping in a wooden art shipping container.

“I came to Hackney because it was somewhere possible to live and I found an accepting and vibrant community,” he said. “Squatting was liberating but had its own risks.

At the reception to launch LGBTQ history month. Photo: Gary Manhine/Hackney CouncilAt the reception to launch LGBTQ history month. Photo: Gary Manhine/Hackney Council

“The artists, queers and freaks banded together but Hackney was rough at that time. Being openly queer was not safe but we did it anyway. I was beaten unconscious five minutes from this spot for wearing nail varnish, and still get ringing in my left ear from time to time.”

He described how he made his mark on the streets by painting his now iconic stick figures around his stomping ground. “I was making something soft on the hard streets, and in a way it made me feel safer,” he said.

“Soon I was asked to paint these figures on the sides of people’s houses and social centres. It became my voice in the activist community and I learned how to apply my art to activism and social causes in solidarity.”

LGBTQ history month memorabilia. Photo: Gary Manhine/Hackney CouncilLGBTQ history month memorabilia. Photo: Gary Manhine/Hackney Council

The house in Dalston Lane was also a hub for wild parties.

“Our parties like Behind Bars and Queeruption fundraisers were the most radical punk and progressive things I have ever seen,” he said, “and there’s no way we could get away with such subversive actions nowadays.

“It was a very tight queer community at the time and we were f***ing hardcore.”

Speaker Rosemary Sales, Stik, Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville and artist I'm Empire at the launch of LGBTQ history month. Photo: Gary Manhine/Hackney CouncilSpeaker Rosemary Sales, Stik, Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville and artist I'm Empire at the launch of LGBTQ history month. Photo: Gary Manhine/Hackney Council

But, he added: “By 2010 social media had pretty much blown the lid off the underground, squatting was all but outlawed in preparation for the Olympics and I had to move in to St Mungo’s hostel on Mare Street.”

The safehouse was served an eviction notice on Valentine’s Day, and Stik painted an embracing couple on the house to commemorate it.

That can still be seen, but not for much longer – it’s earmarked for imminent demolition as part of a new development.

I’m Empire told the gathering: “Growing up in Hackney and the challenges I faced as a young black gay person were hard – no one knew where to put me.

“I couldn’t jam with the thugs, I couldn’t jam with what we would call the geeks, so it was always a struggle.

“No one knew how to even deal with the fact I was a young black gay person. One of the troubles we have in this community is as a black gay person our community doesn’t believe that happens and can be very ignorant.”

Mayor Philip Glanville also spoke at the event where he and husband Giles were applauded for being Hackney’s first couple to convert a civil partnership into a marriage in 2014.

“Hackney is well known for its diversity and we have an interesting history of welcoming everyone,” he told the crowd to murmurs of agreement, “but these are dark times around the world, and inclusive values that are so strong here in Hackney are under threat.

“As well as a celebration, we have to remember these rights and freedoms were hard won. We can’t see this as a high watermark and see them steadily eroded under our eyes.”

If you have memories or souvenirs to contribute to the LGBTQI archive, email hmuseum@hackney.gov.uk or call 020 8356 3500.

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