Hester has been singing with the Pink Singers for a number of years and is a key member of the team working on our Singing the Changes exhibition, opening this week. In discussion with fellow choir member Ben, Hester explains her involvement in the exhibition and talks about her experiences with the choir.
Singing the Changes contains loads of amazing images from the choir archive, and also from the press archives of LGBT events and protests in the last 30 years. Have you got a favourite?
It’s extremely difficult to pick favourites from such a wealth of fascinating documents and memorabilia. Some of my favourites are the photos of Pink Singers performing in dustbin liners and assorted hats, in 1986. 27 years later, we still have the same willingness to experiment and risk looking silly in the cause of entertaining our audiences.
Perhaps my serious favourite is the press release put out by the European Lesbian and Gay Festival of Song in 1988, stating their support for the Pink Singers, who were facing the ‘anti-homosexual laws of the Thatcher government’: Section 28. It is very heartening to see evidence of the way ten other gay choirs spoke out in solidarity with the UK gay community at a very difficult time.
Could you tell me what the exhibition is about?
It is a celebration of 30 years of the Pink Singers and an exploration of the changing lives of gay people in London from the 1980s and 1990s onwards. Gay history isn’t taught in schools, and has not been passed to children by their parents, so it’s important for organisations like ours to share their stories.
How did the idea for the exhibition come about?
We realised what an important milestone our 30th anniversary was going to be: we were the first gay choir in the UK and we are the longest-running mixed gay choir in Europe. A lot has changed for the gay community during the time the Pinkies have been singing and we wanted to mark the occasion appropriately, looking back at how far we’ve come, the fun we’ve had and the difficulties we’ve faced.
Has it been tricky to document the history of the Pink Singers?
It has been a lot of work, by many dedicated choir members, but once you start looking, there are all sorts of ways to record our history. The filmed interviews with choir members were carried out especially for the exhibition and they’re fascinating personal stories, covering all sorts of things not documented elsewhere; they are not just about singing, but about coming out, exploring the gay scene and all aspects of LGBT experience. The choir’s early history was well covered in documents deposited at the LSE’s collection in the Hall Carpenter Archive. They were donated by one of our early conductors, Robert Hugill, and consist of hundreds of items, from concert flyers and programmes, to handwritten lists of members, letters and sheet music for a song adapted to give it a gay theme. Long-serving members of the Pink Singers have also donated artefacts, programmes and other items, then there are press reports, costumes and audio recordings to build up the picture.
Aside from putting together the exhibition, you’re an active member of the choir. Have you worked on projects like this before? How has it felt working on something that forms a part of your own experience?
I’ve never done anything like this before! Some of the work has played to my strengths and some has involved venturing quite a long way out of my comfort zone: I loved pretending to be an academic at the LSE Archive, compiling an inventory of the Pinkie materials held there (I’m a librarian and history graduate), but interviewing one of the choir’s conductors on film was quite scary.
I’m so pleased to have been involved in the whole process though; I have learnt a lot about gay history that I didn’t know and have found it completely fascinating.
Why did you originally join the choir?
I wanted to meet other gay people who loved music – and more people around my own age; previously I had spent a lot of time going to social groups, and a lesbian walking group, where I had tended to meet women who were a lot older than me.
Are you in the choir for the same reasons now?
I still enjoy meeting new members each season, but the choir turned out to offer a huge amount more than I expected. It has transformed my social life, for the better, taken me all over Europe and the UK, and even shown me that I can enjoy dancing! We are in some ways like a huge, supportive, varied family – I’m so lucky to be part of it. We know how to have fun and there’s nothing like the buzz you get from singing with other people. If I’d known about the choreography I’d never have joined, but it’s such a quintessential part of a Pinkie performance, and so entertaining for the audience, that I quite enjoy it now.
Some of the interviews included within the exhibition are strikingly powerful and I’ve been surprised to hear how far LGBT rights have come in the last 30 years. Clearly we’ve still got some way to go and just watching the news in the last few weeks shows that even in mainland Europe, the advancement of LGBT civil rights has the potential to cause dissent. Can exhibitions like this help inform and educate?
Yes, it is so important that our past is not forgotten, so that we don’t take our current situation for granted: the political and social climate can change to our detriment as well as to our benefit, as demonstrated by Section 28 and the hostility provoked in some quarters by the emergence of AIDS. The exhibition is also communicating the message that the gay community is a wonderful, varied, supportive network of amazing individuals who know how to have a good time, whether by singing or just by partying! In this respect, it is playing a similar role to the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign.
The results of Hester and her fellow curators efforts can been seen at ‘Singing the changes’.
Timeline datestamp: 14 June 2013