Heritage, Diversity, the Personal and the Political

Historic England’s Pride of Place initiative has led me to go back over the value of diversity in heritage and the relations between the personal and the political.

In 1980, when I was 14, my older brother brought home a new friend named Lawren Maben. He was one of my brother’s new friends, the ones calling themselves Punks. Living in the conservative town of Guelph in southern Ontario, I found them all exciting. Pushing back against the unofficial uniform of jeans and Heavy Metal t-shirts, these friends styled themselves on a movement that had only just arrived in our neck of the woods though it was already past peak in England.

Middle class suburban teenagers dressing in torn clothes with safety pin earrings and blue hair may not have been the revolution that the original punks were looking for, but it was a bombshell in our community. In a school where being called ‘different’ was an insult, declaring that difference was exciting and brave. A wave of bullying followed and the school dealt with it by declaring a dress code that was aimed at ‘the punks’. If everyone is the same then there will be unity, reasoned the school (without much evidence it has to be said).

But Lawren was also the first of our friends to push back against another norm by ‘coming out’. Sexuality wasn’t something that the school could control through a dress code and the bullying became increasingly violent. When another friend, Scott, responded to the aggressive question ‘Are you gay?’ with a simple ‘yes’, the school was talking about it for weeks; though nobody commented when he wore make-up to cover the bruises from another ‘provocation’.

This was my introduction to the concept of diversity, a world where ‘different’ could be good, but retained an edge of danger. I loved it, and I loved Lawren in particular. He spent a lot of time at our house and had a particularly good relationship with our mother. When I was 16 he had started Art College in Toronto and suggested that I study at the SEED Alternative School, around the corner from where he was living. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SEED_Alternative_School

Lawren moved on to an art career in New York and then London. My brother stayed in touch despite moving to Tokyo himself. We were shocked and hit quite hard to hear that Lawren had died in 1994. After moving to Britain I often thought of him when walking in Russell Square, where he had asked to have his ashes scattered. I knew he had run a gallery called Milch near there, but knew very little about it.

When the Pride of Place initiative was launched, with its crowd sourced map, there was some discussion of how tangible and intangible heritage intersect at Russell Square – a popular place for ‘cottaging’ until the bushes were cut to remove privacy. So I was reminded of Lawren and thought of his connections to the place.

Before adding his connection to the crowd sourced map I went looking to see what I could find about him on the web (which hadn’t taken off by the time he died). First I came across this film at the BFI http://explore.bfi.org.uk/4ce2b7e1ecc1c The synopsis reads:

An interview with Lawren Maben, a `middle-class Canadian skinhead’ who has run an alternative art gallery since 1989, funded through his own prostitution. Intercut with erotic fantasy scenes, Maben `talks freely about his clients/punters, his massive consumption of alcohol and drugs, his SM sex, his fantasies and aspirations, and his virulent hatred for everything and everyone that dare to stand in his way’.

This book on the Young British Art movement is far from charitable about him, but it describes his energy so well that it made me feel nostalgic for my time with him as a teenager. So I have spent the morning crawling through my loft, unsuccessfully looking for a picture of him from that time.

So much for the personal, how is it political and why is Pride of Place more than a self indulgent exercise or advocacy for those who contribute?

For me, it’s the same as when I was 14. Honoring diversity. Acknowledging that unity doesn’t stem from conformity. Heritage is often viewed as a process of selecting ‘the best’ from our past so that we can all draw together with a sense of pride. That kind of pride reminds me of the ‘spirit’ assemblies that my school with its blame the victim dress code would engage in. I prefer the pride that comes from acknowledging and celebrating difference.

Lawren wasn’t a perfect person. He led a difficult life and he died young. But it was the life he wanted, and he bowed to no one. I’m glad that there’s a project which can celebrate the places that were important to him as part of our heritage.

You can contribute to the Pride of Place project, add places to its interactive map. Its about sharing, remembering and celebrating, not protecting or saving. So even if its already gone, that place that’s important in your LGBTQ heritage can inspire others.

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