Culture: Visual Arts

Singing the Changes: 30 Years of The Pink Singers

The Pink Singers

A lovingly curated exhibition celebrating Europe’s longest-running LGBT choir, The Pink Singers, shows just how far LGBT people have come, but reminds us that we mustn’t rest on our laurels, says Alex Hopkins

Many people thought that they would never see the day that gay marriage would become a reality in the UK. This has certainly been an oft repeated comment on social media in the days after the Same Sex Couples bill was passed on 17 July.

Looking back at the tide of prejudice that LGBT people have faced from mainstream society it’s understandable that some felt this way. Our legacy is one of persecution, but also of courageous resistance. Singing the Changes: 30 Years of The Pink Singers, a new and timely exhibition at King’s Place, charts this inspirational story.

The Pink Singers have always been much more than just a choir – they are integrally related to our struggle for freedom and respect. Now Europe’s longest-running LGBT choir, they were formed on 7 April 1983 in defiant protest against a slew of draconian anti-gay measures. Today they are as active as ever – a mixed four-part, community choir made up of over 80 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people from a diverse range of backgrounds, united by a passion for singing great choral music.

This lovingly curated exhibition documents the major legislative changes in LGBT rights over the last 30 years, with an eclectic display of archive photographs, posters and newspaper cuttings.  A video plays on a loop featuring the choir in full-swing at one of their two main annual London concerts.

The group were formed only 16 years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality through the sexual offences act of 1967. It’s astonishing to be reminded that it was not until 1980 and 1982 respectively that homosexuality was decriminalised in Scotland and Ireland. No other human rights cause has made such great progress in such a relatively short space of time.

The choir’s sign-up sheet for their first rehearsal at Ovalhouse theatre takes central place, with many of the attendees writing ‘political’ in the ‘voice’ column – such was the anger and need for action at this time.  Nearby sits a copy of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, alongside images of Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing – brave martyrs of the gay cause.

The AIDS epidemic is highlighted with a quotation from US activist Vito Russo, who compares the 80s and 90s with ‘living through a war which is happening only for people who happen to be in the trenches.’ A box below contains the Anti-retroviral drugs that have saved thousands of lives, and forever altered the way we tackle what was once a death sentence. A note stating that one in seven people on the gay scene are now HIV positive and that infection rates continue to climb, however, points to the considerable challenges that still exist.

The tootheless legislative bile of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative administration features prominently, with wall space devoted to Section 28, which banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools. The front cover of the Danish school book  ‘Jenny Lived with Eric  and Martin’, which initiated the debate that led to the local government act is included, but most disturbing of all is the full-page advert taken out in the Sun newspaper which reads:  ‘My name is Betty Sheridan. I live in Haringey. I’m married with two children. And I’m scared. If you vote LABOUR they’ll go on teaching my kids about  GAYS & LESBIANS instead of giving them proper lessons.’ It’s utterly chilling.

Yet this is far from a bleak exhibition. Oppression is counterpointed with the inventive ways that LGBT people have fought back, refusing to be silenced and demonised. Images of the diverse range of divas (Mae West, Tracy Chapman, KD Lang) who have inspired us point to how sexual outsiders have mined popular culture for even the most tentative kind of validation.

The most interesting area consists of vox pops, written on pink notes and pinned to the wall, in which visitors are invited to share their coming out stories. Entitled ‘Fairy Tales and Horror stories’, these disparate experiences speak of the rite that every queer person must go through. The overriding message is positive – one of survival – with one individual stating that they came out by putting themselves into a relationship on Facebook. It points to the new ways that we can communicate with one another as we employ the fierce, limitless voice that modern technology offers us, breaking down barriers and rupturing the isolation so many LGBT people have felt.

A photograph of Ian Baynham, the man who was killed in Trafalgar Square in 2009, sits in the last section of the exhibition, near artefacts relating to the 1999 bombing of Soho’s Admiral Duncan pub. All rights can be taken away and hatred will always exist. In the words of Peter Tatchell, in an interview with Beige recently, ‘the price of queer freedom is eternal vigilance.’

In the days following same sex marriage becoming legal in the UK, people have wondered what the next step will be for LGBT rights. The answer lies in a world map on the wall in this show which pinpoints the many countries where people are still killed solely on the basis of their sexuality. The Pink Singers have consistently taken their concerts to Europe, while supporting other LGBT choirs across the world. This, too, is where our priorities should now be.

It’s debateable whether there is, or has ever been a ‘gay community’ in London. Is this just lazy collectivism? Now that we have equal marriage is there less reason for solidarity? After all, isn’t our sexuality the only thing we have in common? If this is the case then this exhibition suggests that this, alone, is enough and is always worth fighting for – the right to be ourselves and love those we choose, without fear. Ultimately, all any of us want is to find a place that we can call home. For over 30 years The Pink Singers has allowed people to do just this.

Singing the Changes: 30 Years of The Pink Singers is at The Guardian, King’s Place, London, N1 9AG, until 18 August.

The Pink Singers performed at the annual LGBT Downing Street reception on 24 July.





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