Queer Rural Connections: queer history and belonging in the countryside

This summer, The MERL will host the Queer Rural Connections live promenade show and documentary film, which will share the stories and experiences of queer rural people. Below, Timothy Allsop, writer, actor, and director, tells us about the ideas behind the project, what he hopes it will achieve, and the challenges he has faced so far.

I remember going to museums such as the Museum of East Anglian Life as a child in the 1980s and 90s, and although I could understand that the farming equipment and photos were part of my grandparents’ experiences of working on the land, I never saw anything that talked about being gay in the countryside. With Section 28 coming into effect, a law prohibiting any kind of queer education, this is not a surprise. But even when I think about Suffolk more generally at this time, it never felt like a gay place to me.

When I was a teenager, it seemed like moving to the city was the natural thing to do as a gay man, because the city was where I saw all the gay bars and communities. It was where what little of gay history I knew about seemed to happen. Whether it was Oscar Wilde, the history of Soho, Bloomsbury or the myriad of gay venues that existed in the later 90s and early noughties, the city was the place to be.

The idea that the countryside is not a place for queer people seems to persist, partly because we see such a vibrant culture in major metropolitan areas, but also because the history of the countryside has largely been projected through a heterosexual lens.

The gently rolling Suffolk countryside, P FW PH2/S90/2. Queer Rural Connections will challenge the persistent idea that 'the countryside is not a place for queer people'.
The gently rolling Suffolk countryside, P FW PH2/S90/2. Queer Rural Connections will challenge the persistent idea that ‘the countryside is not a place for queer people’.

Queer Rural Connections

But in helping to promote more visibility of queer people in the countryside, I have begun work on a project called Queer Rural Connections, which will bring together interviews with LGBTQIA+ people living and working in the countryside. The project will tell their stories in a live show and film, alongside projects that are working to uncover queer rural histories.

As part of this project, I have teamed up with The MERL, The Museum of East Anglian Life, Dr Kira Allmann at the University of Oxford and several other partners. We will give audiences the chance to hear lots of different queer rural experiences and give a queer audience a chance to explore these museums from a different perspective.

For me, the historical aspect of the project is central, because it makes us question our assumptions that the rural space has always been a straight space. It also allows us rural queers to feel more rooted in our rural surroundings – to feel as though we can belong.

Yet, the process of revealing queer history comes with a set of challenges. There are anachronisms and ethical issues in trying to talk about the identities of historical figures retrospectively who would not have used the same terms and language we now use.

Still, that does not mean we should avoid highlighting cases where there is a clear interest for a queer audience. We don’t necessarily have to label something as queer for it to resonate with us.

The problem really lies in trying to uncover these stories. One of the issues with many archives is that the cataloguing bias of previous generations has meant that LGBTQIA+ histories may have been disregarded or lost.

Lady Eve Balfour, in polo neck and blazer, standing in a garden
Lady Evelyn (Eve) Balfour was a founding figure in the organic movement and co-founder of the Soil Association. For 50 years, Balfour lived with Kathleen Carnley (1889-1976) in Haughley, Suffolk. As part of the MERL’s ‘Explore Your Archive’ project in 2016, local students researched Eve Balfour’s life and achievements.

Uncovering Queer Rural Histories

However, as part of my interviews, I have discovered there are a number of captivating projects taking place across the UK. The Suffolk Archives, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the University of Suffolk and local LGBTQIA+ organisations, set up Pride in Suffolk’s Past, an investigative project with the aim of uncovering queer rural histories.

The project recruited twelve volunteers to uncover many stories of LGBTQIA+ people making lives for themselves in rural areas. Some of these stories go back into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, Nina Layard from Ipswich, a pioneering archaeologist and one of the first women to enter the Society of Antiquaries, who lived with her partner Mary.

As with a lot of history, there is also the problem that we don’t have anywhere near all the information that we would like. This has presented me with some ethical considerations as I bring some of these historical characters to life. There are some moments we can root firmly in source material, but as a dramatist there is also a degree of imagination that comes into play. In dramatizing scenes from Nina and Mary’s life, I am making a feature of the historical gaps – playing around with the assumptions we might make about characters and then offering alternative possibilities.

Another project I am working with is Broken Futures, which SupportU, a Reading-based LGBTQ support service, is running with The MERL. It records the lives of men who were prosecuted under pre-1967 legislation. Many of these stories are by their nature upsetting because of the persecution of the time.

In watching Channel 4’s It’s A Sin recently, it is undeniable that much of LGBTQIA+ history is traumatic and triggering. We have to grapple with the pain, but this is also an important part of encouraging us all to question the dominant narratives in our history and the way we engage with them.

‘The project aims to challenge the idea that being queer means being urban.’

The way we think about our history also reveals how we think about the present. That is why I am integrating historical stories alongside contemporary testimony and more recent history. There are many positive rural queer stories and examples of queer people who have successfully made (and who continue to make) a life for themselves in rural areas.

One example of this is Richard, who spoke about his experiences of being a gay farmer in Farmer’s Weekly in 2017. Richard went on to establish the Rainbow Garden Party in North Norfolk, which was attended by over 3000 people.

This summer, both The MERL and the Museum of East Anglian Life will host a promenade show alongside the documentary film, which will shine a light on these queer rural stories and histories, and touch on issues such as coming out or the decline in queer spaces. We will be using a mix of exhibition and outdoor spaces to allow a COVID-safe experience, while allowing audiences to interact with live actors.

The project aims to challenge the idea that being queer means being urban. Of course, this project is for the queer community, but I also think it is for the rural community more generally. Many of the issues of rural neglect, including the cut in public services, the loss of pubs and the shift away from working on the land have implications for all of us who live and work in rural places.

Queer Rural Connections is kindly supported by Arts Council England and TORCH as part of the Humanities Cultural Programme. You can follow all of the latest news about these projects on Twitter.

Timothy Allsop is an actor, writer and director who trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and read History at Balliol College, Oxford. His published work includes Open (Nick Hern Books), The Smog and The Grist Anthology of New Writing. He is the winner of The Michael Bryant Verse Speaking Award and has performed at the National Theatre and Globe. His TV and film appearances include Detectorists (BBC) and The Mummy. Read more of Tim’s work at Medium.

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