Pride in construction: LGBT history in our buildings
The built environment around us isn’t only where we live, work, sleep, talk – and do just about everything that humans do.
It’s also where our ancestors lived, breathed, and played. Buildings are the most prominent records of human history that we have. Every building has a story, though some have been told more often and more thoroughly than others.
Revealing hidden histories
A relatively overlooked group of histories, for example, belongs to LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual transgender) communities. This is a something that’s being corrected by Historic England, a public body that looks after and champions the nation’s historic environment.
With the help of the general public, they are documenting and uncovering significant locations in LGBT heritage – even those that are important for the personal reasons of perhaps only one or two individuals.
Some of them are the homes of famous people, such as Oscar Wilde’s house in London – which was one of six buildings that were given special status by Historic England this year, the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967.
The listed buildings include the home of Anne Lister (1791–1840) at Shibden Hall, Halifax, who is often regarded as ‘the first modern lesbian’. She chronicled her relationships with other women in lengthy diaries, written in a secret code that was only cracked in the 1980s.
Mockingly called ‘Gentleman Jack’ by locals because of her black and masculine attire, she openly courted her female lovers, and visited and identified with two other well-known lesbians of the time, the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby.
Butler and Ponsonby had fled Ireland and their families, who threatened to force them into unwanted marriages. Instead, they eloped and fulfilled their wish to spend their lives together in North Wales at a small cottage called Plas Newydd.
They enhanced the building over the 50 years they lived there, adding Gothic adornments, oak panels, stained glass, a library and picturesque gardens. Lister admired their work and added a Gothic tower and library to Shibden Hall – what some see as examples of LGBT architecture, balancing respectability with the need for self-expression.
Outraging and fascinating public opinion in equal measure, Butler and Ponsonby eventually became accepted. Many of the period’s most famous names visited them, including William Wordsworth, the Duke of Wellington, Sir Walter Scott – while King George III granted a pension to support them. Their house is now a Grade II* listed museum.
It’s important not just to remember who lived where, but that buildings throughout history have been designed and built by LGBT people too. However, whether there’s such a thing as ‘LGBT architecture’ – styles and designs that directly reflect the sexuality of the architects is up for debate.
Flamboyant concoctions such as Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, designed by Horace Walpole, and William Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey, the remains of which stand in Wiltshire, are notable for their exuberance and whimsy.
But to highlight these could play to stereotypes and overlook a huge body of more restrained work by countless other LGBT architects and designers.
Deep and lasting influence
Early gay rights pioneer, Edward Carpenter (1844–1929), for example, lived openly with his partner and designed a modest house in rural Derbyshire that championed the good and simple life, and wholesome activities such as crafts and market gardening.
His philosophy deeply influenced his close friend Sir Raymond Unwin (1863–1940), who took inspiration from him in his designs for Letchworth Garden City and Hampstead Garden Suburb, shaping the garden city movement.
He also lobbied strongly for adequate working-class housing with homes that could be built quickly and cheaply, with gardens, privacy and adequate space – principles which proved to be hugely influential for British housing between the wars.
LGBT in the workplace
Construction today embraces diversity and LGBT equality, with strategies and policies in place to encourage an inclusive workforce, and equal and supportive workplaces.
Employers stand to gain when their people feel comfortable to be themselves. Fairer, more inclusive working environments make good business sense, by increasing job satisfaction, productivity, staff retention, recruitment options and brand reputation.