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Transgender nuns, gay cabaret and the Poll Tax: History tour with a difference uncovers Hackney’s LGBT heritage

PUBLISHED: 17:14 22 June 2017 | UPDATED: 17:14 22 June 2017

Queer tours of London tour guides Kat Kai Kol-Kes and Nell James Grace at the grave of Nelly Power in Abney Park Cemetery. Picture: Polly Hancock

Queer tours of London tour guides Kat Kai Kol-Kes and Nell James Grace at the grave of Nelly Power in Abney Park Cemetery. Picture: Polly Hancock

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Nell James Grace from Queer Tours of London speaks to Emma Bartholomew about the tour she is hosting this weekend as part of Pride 365 – Hackney’s year-long celebration of the borough’s LGBTQI+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex) community.

Nelly Power. Picture: intothelimelight.orgNelly Power. Picture: intothelimelight.org

The camp, curious and courageous queer people who have influenced Hackney’s history will be explored in a walking tour as part of the Hackney Pride 365 Festival.

Hackney Museum has commissioned Queer Tours of London to put together the historical snapshot.

This weekend, part-time drag king Nell James Grace will be looking at performance, rebellion and resistance in her fun and fascinating LGBTQI+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex) history tour, which is just as much about participation as learning.

She told the Gazette: “Tours can sometimes sound a little bit dry where people are dragged around and you are told information you are supposed to absorb.

“Ours are a little bit different.

The image of two lovers on the side of a queer safe house in Dalston Lane, painted by graffiti artist Stik to commemorate the eviction of squatters on Valentine's Day 2011. It was demolished earlier this year. Picture: Dan BeecroftThe image of two lovers on the side of a queer safe house in Dalston Lane, painted by graffiti artist Stik to commemorate the eviction of squatters on Valentine's Day 2011. It was demolished earlier this year. Picture: Dan Beecroft

“One of the things I particularly enjoy is it’s more of a conversation.

“We say every street has a secret and a song to sing where it comes to queer history. Most people don’t know their queer history. They haven’t had it covered in schools.

“That history of resistance is the backdrop to our LGBTQI identity now and the things that are going on in the world.”

Nell is a trade union organiser and community campaigner.

Tongue-in-cheek lesbian beauty contests, transgender nuns on the 55 bus, fascist rallies in Ridley Road and gay cabaret during the Blitz are some of the topics covered on the “leisurely mince” down to Dalston.

Kat Kai Kol-Kes and Nell James Grace at the grave of Nelly Power in Abney Park Cemetery. Picture: Polly HancockKat Kai Kol-Kes and Nell James Grace at the grave of Nelly Power in Abney Park Cemetery. Picture: Polly Hancock

Also included is the role the queer squats in Dalston Lane – where street artist Stik would later spend time – played in the poll tax riots in 1990.

And Nell will share a personal story: how her great-grandmother was imprisoned and force fed as a Suffragette.

Much of the tour delves into Hackney’s “wonderfully, deliciously rich and diverse” performance background and culture, and Nell will explore the links between old and new cabaret spaces.

Along the way they will look at the grave of Nelly Power, a drag king buried in Abney Park, who was a famous figure on the music hall scene and originally from Southampton.

Nell said: “In those days she would have been called as male impersonator. She was one of the women who would play the boys’ roles. There are lots of gorgeous pictures of her and she was married to a man and we are assuming she’s heterosexual. But that history of gender bending and exploration is part of what we are going to talk about.

Nelly Power. Picture: intothelimelight.orgNelly Power. Picture: intothelimelight.org

“The Glory [Haggerston pub in Kingsland Road] is leading the way now in the drag queen and king scene.”

Also on the agenda is the 1994 media furore when Jane Brown – the head teacher of Kingsmead primary school, who is also a lesbian – refused cheap tickets for her pupils to see the Royal Ballet’s production of Romeo and Juliet, because Shakespeare’s story was “entirely about heterosexual love”.

Nell said: “She didn’t feel it was appropriate for all the children to see this very limited version of adult relationships. She was rejecting some of the stereotypes around typical straight teenage love. It was exciting she took such a stand.

“Some parents said she should be sacked, and putting that in context there was still section 28, a piece of legislation brought in by Thatcher to say teachers couldn’t mention anything

about homosexuality in education.

"Most people don’t know their queer history. They haven’t had it covered in schools"

Nell James Grace

“But 150 parents came and escorted her. There was this

line that they preferred a ‘pink head’ and it was her own private life.”

The tour also sets out to dispel some of the “misconceptions and myths” around whether the queer community in Hackney is something that has suddenly emerged over the past few years.

Nell said: “I think there has been a perception it has purely been associated with regeneration and social cleansing and that’s really not the case. A big part of what we are saying is queer people have been part of the Hackney community since the year dot, including part of the BME community and immigrants. It’s maybe been a bit hidden but we are hoping to lift the lid on that.”

She continued: “Dalston has in ways started to accept and embrace its drag neighbours but homophobia is still alive and unwell. Queer history isn’t something that’s buried and gone. There are things that people need to be aware of and more importantly involved in.”

To join the two-hour walk meet at Stoke Newington Town Hall on Saturday or July 1 at 2pm. Email info@queertoursoflondon.com.

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