Latest Faculty of Information News

Queer in the 1860s: New “Discovery Station” reveals hidden history

Submitted on Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Black Creek Pioneer Village has developed a new interactive “discovery station” that invites visitors to step into the 1860s and learn about the city’s 19th century queer community. Developed in partnership with Master of Museum Studies students, Pride in the Past uncovers a part of history that was once, by necessity, hidden.

The team of Museum Studies students collaborated with Black Creek Pioneer Village for their Capstone Projects course, an opportunity to apply their skills and knowledge in the field. Inspired by The Village’s other interactive discovery stations, Ruth Bryce, Yuxin Chen, Zihan Cui and Paige Smith created a reimagined pigeon-hole desk. Visitors are encouraged to open drawers to reveal letters, comics and pictures with information on how queer people in the 19th century built and identified community, expressed their feelings and formed relationships. Older audiences also can learn about how queer acts and identities were policed in the 1800s. The Village’s costumed educators are on site to answer questions, using information gathered by the student team.

The Pride in the Past discovery station, a reimagined pigeonhole desk.

The Pride in the Past discovery station opens later this year at Black Creek Pioneer Village

While visitors need only open a drawer or ask a question to learn more, the students’ research process was much less straightforward. “Queer history is incredibly difficult to research,” says Smith. “Because it was necessary at the time to keep these things hidden, it means that it’s now very difficult for us to find ‘proof’ of queer activities and of specific people being queer.”

In the 1860s, the period in which the authentically recreated village is set, it was illegal to be queer. In fact, Canada decriminalized homosexuality less than 60 years ago, in 1969. Over the years, the ways in which homosexuality was deemed illegal changed, from sodomy laws, which policed the acts themselves, to gross indecency statutes, which policed queer identities as a whole.

“The ramifications were quite a bit harsher for men,” says Smith. “Police really cracked down on queer male spaces like cruising grounds and clubs.” Accusations of homosexuality were viewed as a stain on your reputation that, at the very least, could ruin your political or career aspirations. The most common punishments were imprisonment and hard labour. English playwright, novelist and poet Oscar Wilde received two years of hard labour after the details of his affair with a male aristocrat were made public, while English mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing accepted chemical castration as an alternative to prison.

Another reason it is hard to find evidence of queer community in the 1800s is that the language used today to describe our identities was not available then. “We were very conscious that applying modern labels to people from the past can be problematic,” says Smith, who went on to explain that sometimes working-class women in relationships with one another would move to a new town, with one dressing as a man to maintain the illusion of a heterosexual relationship. “Would you call that person a trans man? Would they have identified with that term if they were brought into the future? It’s very hard to say.”

Struggling to find enough evidence to support specific examples of queer individuals in Canada, the students expanded their search to the U.S. and U.K where they found two women they featured in the exhibit. American actress Charlotte Cushman had relationships with women that were verified through letters. She also displayed a level of gender nonconformity, often playing male roles. A photo in the exhibit shows Cushman dressed as Romeo in a production of Romeo and Juliet. She fell in love with the actress playing Juliet and they ran off to Paris together, where homosexuality had been decriminalized since 1791.

Also featured in the exhibit is Anne Lister. Dubbed “the first modern lesbian,” she was an English woman from a landowning family who meticulously recorded her life in extensive diaries which were partially written in code. They reveal that she had several relationships with women, some of which she considered equivalent to marriages. Gentleman Jack, a historical drama television series based on her collected diaries was released in 2019.

Museum Studies students Zihan Cui, Ruth Bryce, Paige Smith and Yuxin Chen were mentored by Black Creek Pioneer Village’s Wendy Rowney and Steven Kellier

Pride in the Past is one step in Black Creek Pioneer Village’s ongoing efforts to change the narrative or “restory” traditional perceptions of settlers. Recognizing that for too long The Village had focused on settlers of European descent, in 2017 the site began collaborating with equity-deserving communities to ensure their stories – from their perspectives and in their words – were shared with visitors to The Village.

“It’s so important to tell these stories so we can help a queer person coming through Black Creek Pioneer Village to see themselves in the story and connect with history,” says Smith, who identifies as a queer woman. “Even though it’s difficult to find evidence, it doesn’t mean that queer people didn’t exist here. It doesn’t mean there wasn’t a vibrant queer scene.”

Pride in the Past opens this later this year at Black Creek Pioneer Village. The MMSt students developed the discovery station as part of their Museum Studies Capstone Projects course under the mentorship of Wendy Rowney, Black Creek Pioneer Village Senior Manager, Community Outreach & Education, Steven Kellier, former Supervisor, Community Outreach & Education and Assistant Professor Maggie Hutcheson.

Filed under: