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A patchwork of queer experiences

When three people got together in the Red Deer to talk about Sheffield’s LGBT+ history, they didn’t really have a plan. A few years on, Steel City Queer History has a zine, a website, delivers talks and has exciting plans for the future.

Sandra Baker Donnelly, Chris Mowat and Mark Pendleton don’t hold to the idea that history is only about public figures and the happenings of the 18th century. Instead, they relish the stories about your first night out at Climax or that time you sang at Sheffield Pride.

At their first meeting in 2018, the trio decided to make a zine to give out at Sheffield Pride in 2019. They have run community events, including an interactive map to mark significant spots in Sheffield and, as a lockdown activity, they created a website to collect and share people’s stories of Sheffield’s queer history.

Steel City Queer History

Sandra Baker Donnelly, Chris Mowat and Mark Pendleton from Steel City Queer History

Steel City Queer History

Normally keen on oral histories, Baker Donnelly, an administrator, has found that the website almost runs itself, as people can submit their own stories and memories. She and Mowat, a university teacher, are keen for LGBT+ people in Sheffield to think about their own place in the city’s queer history.

“The website is a way of getting people thinking about what is history, and their own place, their own part of being part of Sheffield and being part of queer life and queer history," Chris Mowat says.

“What I find most fascinating about these sorts of stories is the mundane, the small events. I love that”.

Big events in queer history are really important, they acknowledge, but “I actually love the stories of people's first time out in a gay bar.

“It's not so much that there's one particular story that stands out, but just the collection of those stories of tiny moments for me really is what stands out together as a group, and what makes it so interesting.”

Baker Donnelly talks of building up a wider view of the Sheffield scene.

“It's really difficult to hold up one individual and say, Oh, this is an example of queer history. It's more like building a little patchwork together of all those experiences, which makes up a picture of that whole scene in that time.”

Around the time of the birth of Steel City Queer History, the team worked with Museums Sheffield on Proud!, an exhibition on Sheffield’s LGBT history in Weston Park Museum.

Keen to ask LGBT people themselves how they wanted their history represented, Museums Sheffield exhibited objects that summed up the city’s queer history, including Baker Donnelly’s wedding invitation. She sees this as significant, especially for her son, who is being brought up with two mums.

“To be able to take my son there and for him to quite literally see history represented - because there's a copy of my wedding invitation in there, and his little naming day invitations - so he's literally in that exhibition.

“The museum made sure there were books as well around for kids to read, like children's LGBT books like And Tango Makes Three and The Red Crayon, which is absolutely beautiful. They did so much with it to make it accessible and to reach out to the community, to make sure that the community is represented. They're also really unapologetic about it.”

Mowat says that for young LGBT people to be able to see themselves in an exhibition is meaningful because, although schools are different to when they were at school, and Section 28 is no more, there can be a lack of portrayals of day-to-day queer life.

Mowat was glad that the organisation did not want to impose their own view of history onto the group.

“I think their rationale was that they didn't want to be an institution, coming in telling how queer history should be written, but rather, they made it a community conversation.”

So what’s next?

Mowat told Now Then with excitement that they are putting together plans for some self-guided walking tours of Sheffield, when it is safe, so that people can visit significant places in Sheffield’s queer history.

Baker Donnelly’s wife has recently learned film making, so this may involve videos of the Steel City Queer History team standing at the different places people report about and telling the stories they have learned.

Mowat thinks of the tours as “a way that we can interact with the city and allow people to, either in a group or individually, interact with those everyday stories, not just reading about them but being there in the street.

They are also still keen for people to submit their own stories to the website. Whereas people might think ,'Well, I don’t know anything about what happened to gay people in 1794,' they tend not to imagine that their stories of clubbing in the 80s are also Sheffield’s queer history."

“People think, I haven't done anything interesting," Baker Donnelly says, "I think people measure their experiences and what they've done in their lives against these big stories that we've got of queer history, like Stonewall or Oscar Wilde, because that's how it's been told.

“Up until this point, it’s been these big things like Edward Carpenter and people who've got big stories. When actually, everyday experiences are the things that we are interested in the most. People have achieved more than they think.”

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