When first approaching the task of compiling research for the Rainbow Trail I was both very excited and equally daunted. I joined the project for the chance to engage with LGBTQIA+ (from here on ‘queer’ for clarity) history in a way I have been unable to before. The ways in which queer history is discussed has often felt to be marginalising on the few occasions it has been treated as ‘relevant’ to my experiences of mainstream academia at all. On a personal level, the idea of being able to simply talk about queer figures and theories in culture without having to justify my wish to do so was remarkably liberating and I of course jumped at the chance.
The daunting element of the project perhaps ties closely to this sense of marginalisation. Researching queer history and culture can be a careful and at times incredibly frustrating process of uncovering and reinterpreting narratives that in many cases have been left unexplored, or even actively obscured or manipulated to fit a cis/heteronormative social structure (that is, the normalisation of cisgender, heterosexual, heteromantic identity and the resulting ‘othering’ of queer identities). As a person of multiple identifiers under the vast queer umbrella I felt an initial multidirectional pull to somehow represent all of the aspects of my own marginalised communities. In particular, the underrepresentation of trans and/or gender nonconforming people both historically and in the present day compelled me as a trans person to somehow represent the millennia of our diverse existences.
Predictably, all this proved far too much to attempt to fit into a single project, let alone a singular object to be found within the university archives and the under-reporting of trans lives made locating such potential items a difficult task. Moreover, it became clear to me that the attempt of a single person to represent a community in this way is not only incredibly difficult, but also disastrously reductive.
Instead, I refocused my attention on delving into the history that spoke to me on a personal level, rather than attempting to warp any one figure or item into speaking for the whole of our diversity. It was at this point that my eventual object choice leapt out at my from the walls of the Barber Institute, a completely unpredicted experience: The portrait of Alexander caught my eye and I felt compelled to include him in the trail. I hope that everyone viewing the objects and reading about their history and meanings will find a similarly personal experience as it is the singular and deeply personal identities and experiences that ultimately make up the wide and incredible diversity of queer identity.