For LGBT+ History month, I have been asked to review the National Portrait Gallery’s catalogue and pick out sitters that I would like to write about. I imagined having the place to myself, excitably wondering the empty halls after hours on the hunt for just the right subjects. Needless to say, the reality was a virtual perusal, but one that I still feel grateful to have been able to undertake.
The National Portrait Gallery and I share a home, but despite growing up in the same place, I didn’t visit the Gallery until well into my 20s. This failure cannot be attributed to ambivalence, or indeed to indifference, but to ignorance of the Gallery’s very existence. My limited experience of museums from childhood were of buildings filled with pictures of old people, in old clothes from olden days and if not with old people, then with ancient objects. None of which spoke to me or in which I could see anything of myself or my history.
This is all to say that, much of what I saw was interesting but it felt to me like there was something missing. As if people and objects and history must have been tucked away out of sight, like the part of London where I was raised, from which ornate buildings like the National Portrait Gallery were not visible.
So, my first visit to it was somewhat transformative. It is my favourite museum and in fact one of my favourite places in London. Portraits are not just images, they are stories. Heart-breaking and triumphant, colourful and grey.
And these images bring about visibility. For this reason, I have decided to celebrate the black and brown strands of our rainbow coloured queer community. We so often break things down into silos of gender, and race and sexuality. But lives rarely fit neatly into distinct categories and the better for it they are in my view. I hope this limited series is an example of why.
Berto Pasuka by Angus McBean,1940s © National Portrait Gallery, London
During a recent episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK, the drag queens (who must partake in a series of challenges before one is crowned the winner) were set a task to emulate British gay icons. In a touching but despairing exchange, two black contestants struggled to find examples of people of colour and both eventually chose Naomi Campbell for their runway look.
It is important to note that the two queens were not to blame for this. The absence of British queer icons of colour from the forefront of their minds was not because of an absence of them from our history, but because they are almost invisible in our curriculum, in our books and on our TV screens. For this reason, my first selection is Berto Pasuka who, in 1946 (a year after the end of WWII and two years before the Windrush ship docked in Essex), co-founded ‘Les Ballets Nègres’, Europe’s first black dance company.
Berto moved to London from Jamaica in 1939, at the age of 28, and with the dance company went on to perform in sell-out tours across the UK and Europe as well as having shows broadcast on the BBC. The dance company was ground breaking in its approach, rejecting the traditional rules of performance in favour of more expressive, more human dance. The company folded in 1953 because of a lack of support for its work but a lasting impact remains, with a tribute to ‘Les Ballets Nègres’ performed at the Royal Festival Hall in 1999 by classically trained black dancers.
James Baldwin by Mark Gerson, July 1971 © Mark Gerson / National Portrait Gallery, London
“Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced”, James wrote in a New York Times article of January 1962. James was a writer and social critic with an unrivalled ability to articulately address themes of racism, homophobia and class.
As well as playing an important part in the American civil rights movement, his writing continues to inspire millions of storytellers (including this one) and activists today. James believed that the work of a writer was to “tell as much truth as one can bear, and then a little more”. He is a titan of literature and his courage in telling stories deemed ‘controversial’ is testimony to his commitment to personal truth in a world that conditioned him, and continues to condition people like him, instead to lie about who they are.
Vikram Seth by Julian Anderson, 30 March 2009 © Julian Anderson
Perhaps best known for his seminal novel A Suitable Boy, Vikram is a multi-award-winning writer of literature, poetry and non-fiction. In 2006, he led the campaign against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a law against homosexuality originally introduced by the British during their occupation of India. Thanks to activists, including Vikram, the law was ruled unconstitutional as applied to the gay community, with the justices describing it as ‘indefensible’. In cultures ridden with shame around queerness, Vikram’s courage in standing up and fighting for what is right when there is so much to lose from doing so is an inspiration.
Speaking out isn’t just about bravery though, it is also about showing others what is possible, it is about embodying the hope that so many are bereft of. To return to and end with the power of his writing, in the poem ‘Dubios’ he neatly addresses the question of deviance from the ‘norm’ and asks “In the strict ranks of Gay and Straight, What is my status: Stray? Or Great?”.
Nicola Adams by Kate Peters, 2012 © Kate Peters
I must confess immediately that I know almost nothing about boxing. What I do know is that Nicola is one of the best in the world at it, with two gold medals and a world championship title under her boxing belt. Little known is that, when Nicola first got involved in the sport, women’s boxing was prohibited, with the ban lifted only in 1996. “Women have had to fight for everything” Nicola said and she is no exception to this, becoming the first woman ever to win a gold medal for boxing at the 2012 London Olympic Games, and the first woman to win two gold medals for it in Rio four years later. But the ‘firsts’ did not stop there. In 2020, she became one half of the first same-sex couple to participate in ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. The significance of a same-sex couple beaming into the homes of millions of people on a Saturday evening cannot be overstated. In her own words, “someone has to take that first step and make that change”.