Over the past few years, particularly considering the centenary of women’s suffrage in 1918 and the global wave of race riots in 1919, as well as the more recent reflections prompted by Black Lives Matter, there has been much discussion about the diversity of past and present. This has coincided with the arrival of Welsh queer history as a subject of formal study and publication: Huw Osborne’s Queer Wales appeared in 2016, Norena Shopland’s Forbidden Lives in 2017, and my own book A Little Gay History of Wales in the final months of 2019. Valuable heritage work has been undertaken by museums, too, as well as by Pride Cymru, often with the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund. This renaissance of research and recovery nevertheless exposes some of the limitations of sources, of memory, and of understanding.
Abdulla Taslameden (Glamorgan Archives, Police Register)
Abdulla Taslameden arrived in Cardiff in the summer of 1918 on board a cargo vessel laden with supplies from the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Abdulla was twenty two and was in the city for a short period of downtime before heading off to sea once more. As he walked around Butetown and parts of the city centre that August, Abdulla happened across a local man of Irish parentage and twice his age called George Halloran. They cruised each other and went off somewhere to have sex – possibly even back to George’s house in Adamsdown.
Not long afterwards, the city police came to arrest Abdulla. He was charged with ‘feloniously commit[ting] and perpetrat[ing] the abominable crime of buggery’. At the police station his photograph, fingerprints and various personal details were entered into official registers. Every physical and cultural attribute was collated from eye colour to religion to the presence of any tattoos to whether he could read or write. Some of those registers and those photographs, together with court and prison documents, all survive. They illustrate in a single instant the diversity of Wales’s queer history. They pose questions of relationships and of the intersections between homosex, queerness, class, ethnicity, and race. They show us lives akin to our own.
Abdulla was a Muslim, probably from Yemen, a man of colour, and he worked as a fireman (or stoker) in the merchant navy which serviced the British Empire. His job was hot, sweaty, and physically demanding. The engine room itself was a homoerotic space full of half-naked male bodies. Despite its importance to the ship – literally shovelling coal into the engines – the fireman’s job was subject to significant racial discrimination. The nice work on board merchant vessels, from the officers to the stewards to the barbers, was all done by white Europeans. George, for example, was employed as a ship’s steward. Desire between seamen was common enough that it became a queer stereotype, like hairdressing or working in the theatre.
This story has no happy ending. Abdulla was found guilty and sentenced to twelve months hard labour, George was not subject to any criminal proceedings. This was partly the result of who was thought to be the ‘victim’, but the case was undoubtedly framed by the city’s prevailing colour bar and the widespread racial prejudice of its officials. Not long after Abdulla’s release from prison, George was himself arrested, charged and sent down for neglecting his wife, Annie and their children.
George Halloran (TNA, Merchant Navy Card)
Abdulla and George were amongst several men unlucky enough to be caught and then charged with either ‘gross indecency’ (which was easier for the police to prosecute) or the more serious charge of ‘buggery’. Unlucky, of course, because far more homosex was had, in Cardiff and elsewhere, than was ever subjected to court cases and prison sentences. From the historian’s point of view that is a frustration because it reduces the number of individual stories that can be told. Moreover, the historic legality of homosex between women means that crime records are useful, chiefly, for recovering the lives of queer men.
This raises the question of how to recover the diversity of our queer past. The nearer our research brings us to our own times, the more opportunities there are for recovery through memoir, correspondence, oral history and photographs. With that broader range of sources comes the necessary confrontation with lives which continued to be affected by racism, by gender discrimination, by class, and by emigration. Queer people were more likely to leave Wales for places perceived to be more open and tolerant, ‘accepting’ in the old-fashioned sense, most obviously London.
Venues which attracted a queer crowd were occasionally reported to the Race Relations Board or to the press in the late-1960s and early 1970s for operating a colour bar. Likewise, one of the first queer nightclubs in Wales was assuredly ‘men only’, a mixture of drink and misogyny that the organised women’s movement of the period knew to avoid and made sure was advertised far and wide. How do we come to terms with that problematic past as a community, even as we develop a richer sense of it?
I would argue that it is important to identify both. The nightclub was a statement of presence in the aftermath of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which merits its inclusion in any history of Cardiff’s queer past, but it was also an exclusionary environment particularly for women. This was the typical history of queer spaces all over the world, and to some extent remains the case, and so to find traces in Wales is unsurprising. But evidence is the key, particularly evidence which goes beyond individual memory or anecdote. Those together bring out of the chaos of the past both subject and context.
Louis Perlin (Glamorgan Archives, Police Register)
Take the case of ‘Cheers Drive’, the proposed name for a short lane at Cardiff’s new bus station complex. A worthy proposal, you might think. Yet go back a century and there were houses on that site. In one of them, one afternoon, a Jewish man called Louis Perlin and an Irishman called Daniel Sullivan were hooking up. They’d met on St Mary Street and gone off to Daniel’s room. Louis was later arrested, found not guilty of gross indecency in court, but was nevertheless ordered by the judge to leave the country. An unwanted immigrant. Louis had arrived in Britain a few years before, having escaped the pogroms raging in the Lithuanian Pale where he was born. He worked in Cardiff as a tailor. His deportation threw his life into chaos: he criss-crossed the Atlantic seeking a place of refuge before eventually settling in Liverpool and taking on a different identity.
What if, then, instead of playing up to ‘Welshy’ stereotypes of our own, we thought more soberly about the history which surrounds us, or about the queer heritage which is so often hidden in plain sight and which serves as a constant reminder that our community is, was, and always shall be diverse? What if we were confronted with the faces of those arrested? What if we moved from the ‘crime’ to establish something for the rest of their lives, too? To do that, we will have to take Welsh history out into the world. For some of the individuals in the records this will not be easy, transcription of names is itself a minefield of error, but for others it will be more straightforward – revealing lives as they were.
Abdulla Taslameden disappeared from the records after he left prison. Where he went, we do not know. Did he have sex with other men, was his life a happy one, again we are left wondering. George Halloran, on the other hand, we know went to Australia, to America, to Belize, to Cuba, to Nicaragua, and to the furthest reaches of the Russian Empire. Yet, the same questions may be asked of his life, too. How queer was it? We shall probably never know the answer. What remains are the documented Welsh elements of their story, which tantalise and fascinate in equal measure. This, in the end, in the absence of lords and ladies, of privilege and status, is the real history of Queer Wales.