New Welsh Review
Queer Wales: The History, Culture and Politics of Queer Life in Wales
Huw Osborne (ed)
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Jane Docherty reviews Queer Wales: The History, Culture and Politics of Queer Life in Wales, a collection of essays edited by Huw Osborne. Published by University of Wales Press. New Welsh Review’s Multimedia programme is sponsored by Aberystwyth University.
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Today I’m going to talk about Queer Wales: the history, culture and politics of queer life in Wales, published by University of Wales Press. When I was first asked to review this book, I wasn’t sure if I was the right person, because I am a straight woman. Would I be able to bring the right level of insight to the review? In the end, I was quite happy to do it because the book makes a strong case for broader recognition of the role that LGBTQ people play in Wales throughout its history and in the present day.
This book is a collection of twelve essays about the intersection of queerness and Welshness. Most of the essays are scholarly, and the collection reads almost like a conference proceedings. Indeed, many essays were presented at a range of different conferences. While this enriches the variety of readings, it is also obvious that the essays were not all written for the same audience.
The definition of queerness also changes from one article to the next. I found it confusing that the first article is about a Welsh woman who is described as queer because her husband abandoned her. She finds herself in mid-life with no husband and no children, so she turns to a non-traditional occupation for woman, poetry. To my mind, this may make her a proto-feminist but there was no evidence in the article that she was gay or writing about gay issues. In Andrew Webb’s essay later on, queerness is defined more broadly as non-normative identities, so perhaps that is the definition that applies here.
The essays range from literary criticism, case studies of individuals in Welsh history, personal narratives, statistical analysis of the incidence of hate crimes, discussion of queerness in Welsh media, sociology of lesbian mothers in contemporary Wales, longitudinal studies of changing attitudes in Wales, and more.
The essays are grouped into four clusters, which may not fully serve to contain them. The first three are historical – Queer past before 1900, after 1900, and post-devolution. The last pair of articles are about performing contemporary queer Wales. However, perhaps it is suitable that the articles don’t stay tidily within the confines of their categories – some in the after 1900 section spill over into earlier or later periods, etc.
While the subtitle of the book speaks of history, culture, and politics, there is a strong weighting towards literature, both queer Welsh people who write literature and depictions of Welsh queerness in literature.
It is interesting that this book focusses not just on queerness, but queer Wales. How do these two things come together? The most sociological articles primarily use Wales as a geographical boundary, and the point is made that the LGBTQ experience here is not unique. However, there are also specific explorations of complex conditions in Wales that, at certain times in history, made it harder for LGBTQ people to live here and at other times perhaps created a more progressive and integrated environment. The third aspect where Wales and queerness converge is in the trope of liminality. Several of the articles make a case that queerness and Welshness both exist as ‘other’, and Wales could be seen as a safe haven on the boundary.
On the other hand, the sociological studies of modern Wales do show the challenges for queers even up to the present day. The overwhelming impression that this book left with me is that there is a need for LGBTQ people to see themselves reflected in the culture and not feel they are or must become invisible. The hate crimes and incidence of non-acceptance that cause people to hide their identity are still very high – to be honest, this made me quite sad to read.
I think this book will be welcomed an educated audience, especially those interested in literary studies, because so many of the case studies are about Welsh writers. For an LGBTQ audience, they will see their rich history across Wales. In particular, though, it is very suitable for a broad general audience, who may gain a fuller picture of what it means to be queer in Wales, and an insight into a life that they may not have experienced personally. I do recommend this book.