LGBTQ Monuments and Memorials as Sites of Memory

Below is a transcript and the slides for the paper I gave at the European Social Science History Conference (ESSHC) in April 2016. I’ve been meaning to share it (and actually post something on the blog) for far too long. I’d be interested to hear about best practice in sharing presentations and talks – do post in the comments / tweet if you have any advice.

Imagine that you are standing in Sackville Park, a small park in Manchester, North-West England. You are facing the Alan Turing Memorial, which commemorates the computer scientist and mathematician convicted of gross indecency in 1952. After following instructions written nearby, your smart phone begins to ring. ‘Incoming Call: Alan Turing’. The voice of ‘Alan Turing’ – with fictional words – speaks to you:

The Talking Statues Project, which presented this interpretation of Turing’s voice to ‘bring life’ to and animate this memorial highlights the functionality of monuments. We use monuments and we reuse them for our own purposes as much as we use them to remember the past, or a figure or event from the past. They are an interpretation of the past that changes, evolves, and adapts.

Monuments transcend time; they represent the past, are of their time, and can present a message to the future. Monuments are not just physical representations of an event or person from the past, but they are, to quote Pierre Nora, lieux de memoire, or sites of memory. They are places ‘where memory crystallizes and secretes itself’.[1] Nora argued that sites of memory must at once be material, symbolic and functional – all of which monuments have the capacity to be. Monuments represent a usable past; they serve a function, a purpose we – academics, publics, politicians and communities – use for different meanings.[2]

I will discuss the role of monuments to same-sex love and lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) communities to analyse how they are used to represent the past and reflect on the present. I’m going to focus on four examples in order to highlight the different ways that monuments are used to represent same-sex love: monuments to Alan Turing and Oscar Wilde, the ‘Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime’ in Berlin and the ‘Homomonument’ in Amsterdam.

 

The Alan Turing Memorial in Manchester is what Laura Doan has called a ‘quintessential example of a “site of memory”’ that uses collective remembrance to consolidate contemporary LGBTQ community identity and remember the past.[3] It uses multiple symbols to inform the passer-by of Turing’s place in history and his place in popular consciousness today. It commemorates and mythologises Turing, and has become a site where people can meet together to remember Turing: his work, his legacy, his place in the history of same-sex love, his arrest for ‘gross indecency’ and his death.

Past and present blur in several elements of the memorial, but particularly so in the commemorative plaque at Turing’s feet. It describes him as ‘Father of Computer Science, Mathematician, Logician, Wartime Codebreaker, Victim of Prejudice’. These are descriptors we speak about Turing with today, not necessarily what he would have been referred to, or saw himself as, during his lifetime.

In the commemoration of Turing’s life, the more recent view that he was a ‘Victim of Prejudice’ highlights how we use monuments to tell our modern story, a moment frozen in the 21st century, rather than a moment in Turing’s life. The way that the Turing monument is used by visitors and passersby also highlights how monuments can blur lines between past, present and future. On the anniversary of Turing’s birth, his death and during Pride celebrations in Manchester, flowers are placed in his arms and around him.

The Turing monument is a place where people can come together to collectively remember Turing, and remember those who, like Turing, have and continue to face prejudice because of their sexuality. Monuments can go through many phases of function, each of which say something about the past and the present. Leaving flowers for Turing and his memorial is also a symbol, like the plaque, of our view of him as a victim and a martyr.

Moving on to another monument to a historic figure recognised as ‘LGBTQ’, the Oscar Wilde memorial tomb has seen a number of stages of life that tell us much about the way monuments are used. The images shown here reflect two quite recent stages in the monument’s life. They reflect a period in Wilde’s afterlife where he has been remembered as an adored wit, and a martyr.

The tomb, designed by Jacob Epstein, is in the shape of a sphinx, and has courted controversy since its beginning. One of the reasons for controversy in the monument’s past was the large genitals of the sphinx. They have been covered in plaster, hidden by a plaque, revealed, chipped away, and finally in 2000 were replaced by prosthetic genitals, in a ceremony rather brilliantly called ‘Re-Membering Wilde’.

Ceremonies have long been a significant part of this monument, and bring attention to how we use and reuse the past for our own purposes. Early rituals at the tomb can be seen as acts of pilgrimage to a queer martyr, carried out by queer men during the 1950s and early 1960s. Giles Robertson claimed that the sphinx’s ‘pendulous testicles’ were more polished than the rest of the tomb, which he believed was because of the touching of them by queer admirers of Wilde, ‘in worship and reverence to those parts of Oscar Wilde for which they believe he was martyred.’[4]

More recent rituals have not been any less controversial; the tomb has been covered with kisses and graffiti, with letters and flowers left for Oscar on a regular basis. This ritual – or form of vandalism, depending on how you view it – has grown to become part of this monument to Wilde. It is as much about a modern adoration of Oscar the wit, Oscar the martyr, as it is about the man who once lived.

The very personal acts of commemoration, carried out by individuals, on a public stage reveal the way monuments transcend past and present, the remembered and their mourners – or indeed, admirers. The Oscar Wilde tomb and the way visitors have interacted with it suggest a desire to connect with the past on both a personal and collective stage.

Another monument to Wilde stands as an example of a different kind of functionality. While public interaction and rituals at his tomb have grown rather organically through visitors, ‘A Conversation with Oscar Wilde’, located in London’s Charing Cross, is not complete unless visitors interact with it. Like his tomb, the monument by Maggi Hambling has been defaced and vandalized – on this occasion with his cigarette being removed several times. Like the Alan Turing memorial, flowers are often left in Wilde’s cigarette-less hand.

The sculptor explained that it is ‘completed when a member of the public, a passer-by choses to sit down and have a chat with him’.[5] It is down to the passer-by to make this functional. Each interaction with the monument is a form of commemoration and a conversation between past and present.

Before I turn to two examples of LGBTQ group commemoration I first need to address the glaring problem of these monuments. Wilde and Turing are recognizable names, famous figures, and they were well educated, white, cisgender men. They have each been commemorated across several public sites, in the UK and internationally. Women, people of colour, disabled people and less educated people rarely have the kind of public acknowledgement that Turing and Wilde do; unfortunately, the landscape of monuments is overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly white.

There have been some attempts to be more inclusive in some group commemorations of LGBTQ history. These monuments aim not to represent individuals, or even one event, but recognize and commemorate those who have faced prejudice because of their sexuality or gender identity in the past.

The ‘Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted Under the National Socialist Regime’ has directly addressed the inclusion of women, and in doing so has blurred boundaries between past and present, what is being commemorated and who is carrying out the commemoration. The monument was unveiled in 2008, and initially showed a video on loop of two men kissing. In 2012, the video was changed as part of a plan to keep updating and changing the video. This video, titled the ‘Neverending Kiss’ included a number of same-sex couples, including women and mixed race couples.

The organisers and film makers were criticized for including women, with some critics suggesting that it implied women suffered as much as men because of their sexuality during the Holocaust. The panel next to the monument addresses the historical context of men and women during this time, explaining that although same-sex acts between women were not banned in Germany, women who loved women lived in fear and were under ‘constant pressure to hide their sexuality.

The aim of this monument is not just to remember those who were persecuted under the Nazi regime, but also to create ‘a lasting symbol of opposition’ to intolerance and homophobia. In doing so, it clearly shows how monuments transcend boundaries between the past and the present.

 

Similarly, the Homomonument in Amsterdam aims to blur boundaries of time. It does so even more directly than the Berlin monument, and aims in its material design to represent past, present and future. It consists of three pink triangles, connected to make one large triangle. The pink triangle, a symbol that men identified as homosexual during the Holocaust were forced to wear, is both a symbol of lives lost, and a symbol of hope, of reclaiming a past for present means. Each triangle serves a different function, represents a different time, and makes use of different spaces. One is raised, and acts as a podium for speeches, another is flat and shows lines from a poem, ‘such an endless desire for friendship’, and another forms a set of stairs leading down to the canal.

The aims of the monument are made clear in a plaque, which explains that the monument ‘Commemorates all women and men ever oppressed and persecuted because of their homosexuality. Supports the International Lesbian and Gay Movement in their struggle against contempt, discrimination and oppression. Demonstrates that we are not alone. Calls for Permanent Vigilance.’ It adds that ‘Past, Present and Future are represented in the 3 triangles in this Square.’

In representing past, present and future, the Homomonument aims to be constantly in use. It is a self-declared ‘living monument’.[6] It has different purposes for different days, and is able to evolve and adapt. As a ‘living monument’ it is used for official and unofficial events. On Remembrance of the Dead Day, it is a site used to commemorate LGBTQ people who died during WWII, in a day of solemn remembrance and commemoration. The following day, Liberation Day, and on Queen’s Day, the Homomonument plays host to celebrations and parties. It is both a site for commemoration and celebration. It can also be used for personal reflection, and flowers are often left in remembrance of a loved one on an anniversary. The design of the Homomonument as a site of personal and group remembrance aims to provide visitors with the ‘sense that they are not alone.’[7] This site then not only represents same-sex love and LGBTQ communities in history, but acts as a collective and functional site for communities today, and in the future.

Monuments have a crucial role to play as sites of memory: as places of remembrance and as material sites that can evolve to current and future needs. These few examples highlight the multiple functions of monuments as pieces of public art, as places for celebration, places for commemoration, places to be together or to reflect individually. They are sites of memory that use their material designs, symbolic motifs and multi-functions to speak to the past, present and future, and in different ways represent LGBTQ histories and heritage.

[1] Pierre Nora, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire’ in Representations 26, (1989), 7-24, <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2928520> [accessed 02 August 2015] (p. 7).

[2] Ludmilla Jordanova, History in Practice, 2nd Edition, (London: Hodder Arnold, 2006), p, 126.

[3] Laura Doan, On the Entanglement of Queer Memory and History: The Case of Alan Turing, online video recording of event at University of Southampton 13 February 2014, University of Southampton, <http://www.southampton.ac.uk/assets/imported/transforms/site/event/UsefulDownloads_Download/3D796409431C4375A7B905C9B36E0AEC/stonewall_lecture_13-2-14-hd+720p.mp4> [accessed 04 August 2015].

[4] Giles Robertson in conversation with Michael Pennington, as cited in Michael Pennington, An Angel for a Martyr: Jacob Epstein’s tomb for Oscar Wilde, (Reading: Whiteknights Press, 1987), p. 61.

[5] BBC, ‘Importance of Being Recognised’, BBC News, 30 November 1998, <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/224541.stm>, [accessed 03 August 2015].

[6] Homomonument, ANBI, <http://homomonument.nl/anbi.php> [accessed 19 August 2015].

[7] Pink Point and Homomonument Foundation, Homomonument in the Centre of Amsterdam, tourist information leaflet available from the Pink Point, located next to the ‘Homomonument’.

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3 thoughts on “LGBTQ Monuments and Memorials as Sites of Memory

  1. Pingback: Nursing Clio Sunday Morning Medicine

  2. So glad I got to read this Claire. Thanks for sharing. I’ll be interested too to learn about best practice for posting talks, but this seemed to work really well.

  3. Pingback: ‘Outcasts Always Mourn’: Rituals at Père Lachaise Cemetery | exploring public histories

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