Amplifying the stories of queer artists: LGBT+ History Month

February is the joyous month to celebrate LGBT+ history across the UK. This annual-month long celebration aims to educate and amplify the historic milestones from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.

Visual artists from our Biography Collection

This year we are excited to shine the light on LGBT+ visual artists from our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library, which contains many fascinating books exploring the lives of LGBT+ artists, some household names like David Hockney, Gwen John, Francis Bacon and Maggie Hambling, and others far less well known. For this blog post our colleague, Claudia, will be focusing on two very different 20th century artists, from very different backgrounds, whose sexuality and the obstacles society put in their way informed their lives and art.

Romaine Brooks was an American heiress who moved to Paris in the 1890s, while still in her teens, to develop her career as a painter. Having the financial means to avoid the poor areas frequented by struggling garret-dwelling artists, she set up home in the fashionable 16th arondissement, and painted portraits of aristocrats – some of whom, including the Princesse de Polignac, became her lovers.


Copyright: © Photo RMN – Droits réservés

Brooks had previously lived in England, and a spell in St Ives saw her refining her palette from the bright, strong tones of her earlier work, to the muted greys which became her trademark. Brooks favoured masculine attire, cutting a glamorous and elegant figure in austerely tailored coats, wing collars, top hats and a short haircut (long before the shocking “Eton crop” became fashionable for “flappers” in the 1920s). Many of her portraits of women show their subjects in similar outfits, providing a rich record of women subverting the rigidly gendered clothing of the time and signalling their sexual preferences.

Brooks had a 50 year relationship with the writer Natalie Barney, whose salon in the rue Jacob spanned six decades. Brooks was one of a circle of women who were determined to live as their true selves in the face of prejudice, and created great artistic records of the lives of their peers.


Beauford Delaney | Whitney Museum of American Art

Beauford Delaney also made the journey from America to Paris, but sixty years after Brooks did, and in middle age. By this time, he was an established painter, having made his name with his haunting modernist depictions of the homeless and disenfranchised in Depression era New York City.

A native of Tennessee, whose mother had been born enslaved, Delaney began painting at an early age (as did his brother Joseph, who also became a professional artist). His period in New York City coincided with The Harlem Renaissance, a huge flowering of African American art, music and literature, and he was active in radical politics. James Baldwin wrote movingly of Delaney as his “spiritual father”, “the first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist”.

After Delaney’s death, Baldwin wrote: “He has been menaced more than any other man I know by his social circumstances and also by all the emotional and psychological stratagems he has been forced to use to survive; and, more than any other man I know, he has transcended both the inner and outer darkness.”

Implicit in these words is Baldwin’s recognition of Delaney’s struggle as a fellow black gay man – although a prominent member of gay Bohemian circles which were carving a place in the arts and society, Delaney struggled with the shadow cast by the homophobia of the time and of the church teaching of his youth. His mental health deteriorated, partly as a result of the pressures of negotiating his sexuality in a hostile society. His work is inflected with the vision of the raw and tender vision of the outsider, the artist seeking to elevate the humane truths of existence above the violence and cruelty of exclusion.

Books we love…

…Writers we love!

Binyavanga Wainaina

This week on our blog, Reece from Victoria Library has reviewed the life and work of Kenyan author and gay rights activist Binyavanga Wainaina, over to Reece to tell us more….

“I’m not even sure I want to use the term ‘coming out’”.

Kenyan novelist and Journalist Binyavanga Wainaina, explained that publicly announcing his sexuality did not at all feel like he was stepping out of the darkness and into the light. Instead, it felt as if he was encountering more obstacles and more barriers to social situations. “What is my urinal policy? Do you chat casually with the person next to you as would be the case before?”. He jokingly poses these questions but alludes to a wider notion that there were still hurdles he had to climb because of his sexuality, he alternatively prefers the term “Gay in public”.

Binyavanga’s somewhat unique interpretation of his self-discovery is highly representative of his writing style and career as an author. His satirical collection of essays titled ‘How to write about Africa’ was a powerful attack on the way Non-African writers perceive Africa, deciding to celebrate the richness in culture as opposed to a “dearth” in resources. Binyavanga wanted to challenge popular perceptions of identity, culture and belonging. His fluid and poetic style earned him the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002, one of the highest achievements in African writing.

Binyavanga was also an experimental writer. During a period in his life where he suffered from depression – he tried what he called “scribble fiction” a way in which he could liberate himself from the struggles of living through his sexual identity. He often wrote piece after piece criticising Kenyan Pentecostal churches and their approach to relationships, it is thus easy to observe how he became sceptical towards religion. But towards the end of his life he did acquire an interest into Pre-colonial Kenyan spirituality. His very first published novel – which was thought to be lost – called ‘Binguni!’ was a story about an African afterlife, featuring a queer prophet and other various entities from the internet world, questioning and enlightening his audience about the prospect of a liberal paradise.

His writing, his identity and his approach to life all flew in the face of contemporary Kenya that was enacting legislation to further criminalise homosexuality. He passed away at the age of 48 after suffering from a stroke in 2019. From starting out as a freelance food and travel writer to being listed in TIME’s 100 most influential people in 2014, his influence on the world of literature and activism can not be understated. Binyavanga Wainaina is undoubtedly a figure worth researching during this PRIDE month and beyond.

“The problem here is that I am a writer. And although, like many, I go to sleep at night fantasizing about fame, fortune and credibility, the thing that is most valuable in my trade is to try, all the time, to keep myself loose, independent and creative… it would be an act of great fraudulence for me to accept the trite idea that I am “going to significantly impact world affairs”

Binyavanga Wainaina’s books can be borrowed for free through our library catalogue – https://trib.ent.sirsidynix.net.uk/client/en_GB/rbkc/search/results?qu=Binyavanga+Wainaina&te=

Why not check one out today?!

Pride and Intersectionality

pride womenIntersectionality is a crucial part of LGBTQ+ identity which has often been overlooked. The experiences of black members of the LGBTQ+ community are often cast aside, or homogenised within a very white understanding of what being LGBTQ+ means. Furthermore, black people who identify as LGBTQ+ often experience racism from within the community, and as a result often feel excluded from a supposedly diverse group.

W.E.B. DuBois coined the phrase ‘double consciousness’ to refer to the experience of being African-American, to simultaneously belong and be excluded from both Africa and America. This principle can be applied to being both black and LGBTQ+; some people who are black and LGBTQ+ may suffer from a crisis of identity and belonging which neither heterosexual black people or white LGBTQ+ people can fully relate to. Continue reading “Pride and Intersectionality”

Pride Month in Lockdown

June 1st marks the beginning of Pride Month in the USA and UK, but this year we’re all celebrating Pride in a slightly different way. There will be no march at Trafalgar Square, no rainbow freebies thrown from floats, and certainly no parties afterwards. However, some believe that this may provide an opportunity to return to the true meaning of Pride, away from the commercialisation which has coloured so many Pride events in recent years. Below, we’ve included some ideas to celebrate pride in lockdown and we hope you will celebrate with us virtually this year. Continue reading “Pride Month in Lockdown”