Beyond Pop: The Extremes of 1970s Britain

Written by Jack Bennett.

The music of the 1970s reflected the extreme divisions and polarisations within Britain, revealing the intersection of popular culture, politics and economics. What emerged during this decade was a cyclical process of adoption and outpacing regarding cultural trends. The idealised utopianism adopted by the youth of the 1960s receded with the appearance of hard-edged styles, which was then reversed during the 1970s, seeing the emergence of hyper-Mod working-class cool in the form of skinheads, building upon the earlier Teds and Mods. While the influence of glam rock introduced a resurgent androgyny to the streets of Britain, challenge and usurpation of style and cultural pre-eminence became the defining factor of the decade. Nowhere is this better presented than in the punk movement. The music of the 1970s mirrored these cultural and stylistic fluctuations: this can be seen in the way Soul picked up in Northern clubs from Wigan to Blackpool to Manchester; the struggle between the concept albums of the art-house bands and the arrival of punkier noises from New York in the mid-seventies and the dance crazes that ebb and flow in popularity. Musical styles begin to break up and head in many directions in this period, coexisting as rival subcultures across the country. These changes were fundamentally driven by the traversing of tumultuous, uneven and complex socio-political landscapes.

Currents of popular music transformed during this decade, both through revolutionary change and continuation. Notably, despite the rise of new styles such as reggae and ska, this did not result in the demise of rock ‘n’ roll nor Motown. The Rolling Stones and Yes carried on, oblivious to the arrival of the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Within this melting pot of musical and stylistic chaos during the 1970s, it is important to emphasise that the life it lived and its soundtrack are not quite the same. For instance, between the early fifties music characterised by Lonnie Donegan and the mid-seventies’ stylings of Led Zeppelin, real disposable income exactly doubled. Yet from 1974 until the end of 1978, living standards actually went into decline, marking an end to the long working-class boom. It was this dissolution of the previously upheld Post-War Consensus which had committed consecutive Prime Ministers and leading parties to the maintenance of low unemployment and social welfare support. By the 1970s, as a consequence of economic instability and pressures such as the OPEC oil crisis of 1973 (which resulted in nation-wide strikes and a three-day working week), the nation was plunged into darkness.

This darkness subverted the earlier optimism under which British pop was invented – between 1958 to 1968 – when the economy was undergoing rapid expansionism. The changing mood entering the 1970s was caused by increasing unemployment, as the total number of Britons out of work passed 1 million by April 1975. There was a general attitude that a blanket of bleakness had been cast over the nation, and socio-cultural realist escapism was sought as a remedy. This second phase involved the sci-fi ambiguities and glamour of Bowie, the gothic, mystical hokum of the heavy rock bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, and the druggy obscurities of Yes. The second half of the seventies were the years of deep political disillusion, strains which seemed to threaten to tear the unity of the UK: Irish terrorism on the mainland, a rise in racial tension, and widespread industrial mayhem. Most notable of these socially, politically and economically calamitous and transformative events was the Winter of Discontent in 1978. Due to widespread industrial unrest and strike action bringing the nation to its knees, The Sun reported the tumultuous events and portrayed Prime Minister James Callaghan’s intransigence towards the situation through the headline “Crisis? What Crisis?”. The optimism which had helped fuel popular culture suddenly began to run dry. What emerged was a darker, nightmarish inversion of the optimism and vibrancy that embraced the music and culture of the 1960s.

A darker, nightmarish inversion which was expressed most notably through punk. This creatively explosive, politically astute cultural and musical movement offered an anti-establishmentarian, liberating assault on mainstream decencies grounded in the philosophy of nihilism. One of the most iconic bands of this movement, The Sex Pistols, following their formation most explicitly positioned themselves as the antagonists of The Beatles. As a result, music became a source of power in the battle with authority and repression, expressing the self-loathing and pessimistic attitude of the decade. In response to the punk aesthetic and attitude there developed a seeping moral panic within Britain. Surrounding the growth in prolific, confrontational, violence and controversial actions – punk and the Sex Pistols in particular became a publicity engine attacking the established rock pantheon and encapsulating the emotion of the decade. The press and politics only served to further these already ingrained opinions. From concerts known for their wild and uncontrollable crowds, to juvenile political attacks in songs such as ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and, in the year of the Silver Jubilee, ‘God Save the Queen’. Punk became a vehicle of expressing opposition to the social and political net which enmeshed the nation during the 1970s.

Yet punk was the first revival of fast, belligerent popular music to concern itself with the politics of the country, and this was the first time since the brief ‘street fighting man’ posturing of the late sixties when mainstream society needed to notice rock. On the other side of the political divide was an eruption of racist, skinhead rock, and an interest in the far-right political orientation. Among the rock stars who seemed to flirt with these ideas were Eric Clapton, who said in 1976 that ‘Powell is the only bloke who’s telling the truth, for the good of the country’ – referring to the infamous 1968 Rivers of Blood speech made by the Conservative MP Enoch Powell. As well as David Bowie, who spoke of Hitler as being the first superstar, musing that perhaps he would make a good Hitler himself. These notions were a far cry from the 1960s utopian optimism in the future for Britain and the youth culture. Reacting to the surrounding mood, Rock Against Racism was formed in August 1976, helping create the wider Anti-Nazi League a year later. Punk bands were at the forefront of the RAR movement, including above all The Clash and The Jam. ‘Black’ music such as reggae, ska and soul, with strong roots in the Caribbean immigrant populations throughout Britain as well as African American influences, became a major cultural force, crossing racial divisions and promoting decisive turn against the rearing head of a racist demagogue in the music culture of Britain. Ska revival bands such as the Specials and the reggae-influenced The Police and UB40 had a greater impact than typical ‘popular music’. The seventies produced, in the middle of visions of social breakdown, a musical revival which revived the ‘lost generation’. This effectively marginalised the racist skinhead bands and youth culture which was strongly related to the National Front at this time and were renowned for violent, racially motivated attacks across the country, pushing them out of the social and musical environment of Britain. As one cultural critic of the time put it, ‘A lifestyle – urban, mixed, music-loving, modern and creative – had survived, despite being under threat’. Despite the era-defining social, political and economic struggles of the 1970s, music became an expression of cultural values and movements. The radical nature of generational transformation in the 1970s produced a new youth culture that was increasingly splintering during this period.

For Geoff Eley, the decade was the storm centre of a change in the narrative of post-war national identity, destabilised by the 1960s and rendered more aggressively patriotic by the New Right. Defined by an internal chronology of escalating problems. Lynne Segal counters this preconceived narrative, arguing that during the 1970s major strides and flourishment occurred in relation to homosexual rights, anti-racist and feminist movements. For example, in 1975-76, while embroiled in rampant inflation around 25%, legislation was enacted on equal pay, sexual discrimination, race relations, domestic violence, and consumer rights. This demonstrates the ambiguity and fracture of the decade, which for many saw liberation and power rather than just crisis and decline. A decade of grit and glamour.


Image source: Patrick Sawer, ‘’We ran the NF out of town’: how Rock Against Racism made Britain better’, The Telegraph, 27 April 2018,, accessed on 8 February 2020. 

Black, Lawrence. “An Enlightening Decade? New Histories of 1970s’ Britain.” International Labor and Working-Class History, no. 82 (2012): 174-86. 

Marr, Andrew. A History of Modern Britain, London: Pan Macmillan (Reprints edition), 2009. 

British Culture and Society in the 1970s: The Lost Decade Edited by Laurel Forster and Sue Harper, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 

War & Peace: Art in Ducal Milan

Written by Joshua Al-Najar.

Art was a key tool for renaissance cities to disseminate ideas and fashion an identity in a pluralistic, competitive society. Scholarship has tended to focus on the programmes undertaken in republics, such as Florence and Venice – perhaps less considered is how dynastic systems were able to deploy the Renaissance’s lessons in the form of state art. One prominent example is Milan, a duchy, where humanism, classical learning and heritage guided the patronage of art to strengthen the authority of the ruling duke. This was a response to the perceived vulnerabilities of this approach to rule. 

Authority and status were conveyed using classical learning in the art of ducal Milan with deeply distinct motives. Where republican regimes used themes tied to civic humanism, the Dukes of Milan deployed the lessons of antiquity in the creation of ‘renaissance magnificence’. This concept was ultimately rooted in individualistic veneration and regarded the act of conspicuous spending on elaborate works as a display of virtue; as such, patronage of sumptuous artworks could be used to the heighten the status of the individual patron, as well as being considered to ‘better’ the city generally. Jane Black identifies the root of this rationale in the neo-Platonic tradition, where outward beauty was thought to reflect inward virtue. This concept could be suited to regimes such as the Duchy of Milan, where power was concentrated in an individual, dynastic ruler, rather than a faceless office.

Louis Green diverts from the work of Black, by suggesting that the emergence of renaissance magnificence was not linked to the typically accepted neo-Platonic tradition. Instead, he points to a political, Aristotelian-style explanation as demonstrated by Azzone Viscont’s attempts to display authority in 14th century Milan. Azzone, one of the last tyrant strongmen, had rapidly assembled a series of territories in northern Italy that lacked cultural continuity; one method by which this could be achieved was a programme of artistic works that centred around Visconti’s unifying role as ruler, and patron. The success of Visconti’s magnificence was memorialised by his theological adviser, Galvano Fiamma, who recorded in his Opusculum de rebus gestis ab azone, Luchino et Johanne Viceomitibus (1334-5) that:

Azzo Visconti, considering himself to have made peace with the church and to be freed from all his enemies, resolved in his heartto make his house glorious, for the Philosopher says in the fourth book of the Ethics, that it is a work of magnificence to construct a dignified house.

Fiamma clearly outlines the political advantages to a ruler who was willing to invest in lavish surroundings. In addition, his reference to Aristotle’s Ethics mounts support for the explanation of magnificence advised by Green.

Visconti put renaissance magnificence into practice, as he embarked upon an extensive programme of artistic patronage that celebrated the Duke on an individual basis. As part of the rejuvenation, the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin was renovated in gold and blue enamel detailing, as well as an enormous, elaborate tomb for himself (Fig. I). However, it was in the secular space of the Ducal Palace that Visconti sought to heighten his status in overt terms.  In the main hall of the re-purposed Palazzo del Broletto Vecchio, Visconti commissioned a series of paintings – of which no extant examples survive – that are believed to have been the work of Giotto di Bondone. The works are thematically linked to concepts of war, strength and military success; these would have been ideal themes for a strong-arm ruler, such as Visconti, to emphasise in artistic works. Personally, Visconti had numerous military successes, and had regained many territories that his grandfather Matteo I Visconti had lost in the Late-Mediaeval period. Therefore, pictorial references to war would have reminded beholders of Azzone’s numerous successes.  Visconti appears physically in the painting too, alongside historical nation-builders, such as Charlemagne and Aeneas. By juxtaposing himself with the legendary Trojan, Visconti incorporates himself into the ranks of an ancient, heroic tradition as well as displaying the classical refinement of his court. 

This process continued under the patronage of Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1444-76), who embellished his own personal status in the renovation of the Castello di Pavia. Though it would later be destroyed by the French in the early 16th century, numerous literary records attest to the various paintings that adorned the castle. Stefano Breventano, a Milanese chronicler, recorded that the palace was ‘the loveliest building that could be seen in those days’. A series of frescoes designed for the galleries of the Piano Nobile show conformity with typical, princely activity: the Duke taking petitioners; the duke and duchess engaging in falconry; and lastly, the duke effortlessly killing a stag during a hunt. The last of these scenes demonstrate the Duke’s engagement with what would later be called sprezzatura, by Baldissare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1528). The duke’s effortless demeanour whilst showing great skill is an attempt to convince the beholder of his individual supremacy.

However, behind this veneer of princely status was an unpopular, tentative leader. Galeazzo Maria Sforza had shown little authority within diplomatic and military spheres, and thus, attempted to create a commanding figure in visual art. Sforza attempted to assert his authority and amplify his status by giving his rule a veneer of legitimacy; technically, the Sforzas had conquered Milan in the 1450s. In his attempts to legitimise his regime, Sforza tried to provide visual links to the preceding Visconti line.

Unlike at Venice, where historical reference was made to the city’s achievements as a whole, Sforza continued the artistic legacy of the Viscontis in an attempt at dynastic continuity. This attempt is reflected in a letter from the Ducal secretary, Cicco Simmonetta dated from August 1469, that details a number of restorative works to be undertaken by Bonifacio Bembo. Cicco commented on the ‘maintenance of the old paintings’, as Bembo was instructed to carefully conserve the decorative panels from the era of the Visconti (Fig. II). This included numerous tissone, with a flaming branch and bucket that had served as an emblem for Filippo Maria Visconti – who happened to be Sforza’s maternal grandfather. Evelyn Welch has suggested that Sforza sought to extol his links to the previous regime by carefully conserving its symbols and iconography. The tisonne was incorporated into the decoration of the ducal apartments. Welch understates the significance of this move – in this period, nominally private rooms such as bedrooms would have essentially functioned as public spaces, receiving petitioners and housing illustrious guests. Therefore, providing pictorial reference to these links would aid in the transition of power to the Sforza regime and make up for deficiencies elsewhere. Sforza juxtaposed these images with that of his personal court, in an attempt to bond the two. Ultimately, Sforza’s attempt to generate authority through artistic continuity failed: Breventano remarked that he was a “lustful, unpopular duke” which may go some way in explaining his assassination in 1476 by a group of Milanese officials.

Milan was a city where heritage, antiquity and mythmaking were crucial in artistic patronage. Ultimately, this was geared towards the specific anxieties that accompanied a dynastic regime, where power was concentrated in the individual.


A black and white photo of a building

Description automatically generated
Figure I : Reconstruction of the Tomb of Azzone Visconti by G. Giulini.

A double photo of a building

Description automatically generated
Figure II: Restored section of decorative panels (1468-9), Castello di Pavia, Pavia.

Source: Green, L., ʻGalvano Fiamma, Azzone Visconti and the Revival of the Classical Theory of Magnificenceʼ, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 53 (1990), 10.

Source: Evelyn Samuels Welch, ʻGaleazzo Maria Sforza and the Castello di Pavia, 1469ʼ, Art Bulletin, 71 (1989), 361. 


Black, Jane. Absolutism in Renaissance Milan : Plenitude of Power under the Visconti and the Sforza, 1329-1535. Oxford, [England] ; New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Dooley, Brendan. “M Onica A Zzolini . The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan.” The American Historical Review 119, no. 3 (2014): 1004-005.

Green, L., ʻGalvano Fiamma, Azzone Visconti and the Revival of the Classical Theory of Magnificenceʼ, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 53 (1990).

Norbert Hulse & Wolfgang Wolters, The Art of Renaissance Venicearchitecture, sculpture and painting (1990).

Richardson, Carol M., and Open University. Locating Renaissance Art. Renaissance Art Reconsidered; v. 2. New Haven [Conn.] ; London: Yale University Press in Association with The Open University, 2007.

Ruggiero, Guido, and Wiley InterScience. A Companion to the Worlds of the Renaissance. Blackwell Companions to History. Malden, MA ; Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2007.

Evelyn Samuels Welch, ʻGaleazzo Maria Sforza and the Castello di Pavia, 1469ʼ, Art Bulletin, 71 (1989), pp. 352-75.

Welch, Evelyn S. Art and Authority in Renaissance Milan. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1995.


Written by Tristan Craig.

Ever since an Italian plumber called Mario entered the world of computer entertainment in 1981 on a never-ending plight to rescue Princess Peach, the damsel-in-distress trope became the driving narrative for the majority of video games in the early days of their development. Just as Perseus slew the beast that threatened his beloved Andromeda, it fell to the might of the male protagonist – who, in his first appearance, was a carpenter referred to as ‘Jumpman’ – to rescue his girlfriend: the somewhat less imaginatively named ‘Lady’. A simple plot device catering to a predominantly white-heterosexual-male market, Super Mario Bros. sold over 40 million copies upon its release in 1985, reviving the home computer following the crash of 1983 and paving the way for the platform format.

This was a format which sold a very large number of games, but which offered remarkably little in the way of representation beyond the white-heterosexual-male binary. As homophobia swelled in the wake of the AIDS epidemic of the same decade, LGBTQ+ inclusion was profoundly absent from the video game industry and those who did feature either did so in a pejorative or peripheral manner. 1986’s text adventure Moonmist is commonly cited as the first to include any illusion to a queer character. Vivien Pentreath, an artist struggling to cope in the aftermath of the suicide of her female lover, Dierdre, is thought to be the first lesbian character to feature in a video game, however at no point is her sexuality explicitly stated. The only reference to her sexual identity is a note in one of four possible endings stating that ‘Vivien was intensely attached to Dierdre’ and that she was jealous of the latter’s heterosexual marriage. It is also worth noting that in this story arch, Vivien emerges as the villain in an otherwise tertiary role.

Whilst the inclusion of non-heterosexual characters was particularly rare, transgender identities were almost non-existent. Following the massive success of Super Mario Bros., Nintendo continued to develop games starring their eponymous hero. The second release in the series, which arrived on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988, introduced a character named Birdo: a pink creature of indeterminate species and gender. Birdo arrived in the United States with a manual entry which read ‘He thinks he is a girl and he spits eggs from his mouth. He’d rather be called “birdetta”’. The game itself provided no further backstory nor allusions of any kind to Birdo’s gender identity, consigning it to a problematically worded blurb in a guide. Future iterations of the game removed any illusion to the concept of Birdo being anything other than a cisgender female – although a 2008 Japan-only release called Captain Rainbow would revisit her canon, in one country at least. 

As the larger development companies continued to indulge the majority of their market, the release of HyperCard software for the Macintosh in 1987 allowed independent designers to produce their own software with ease. The first fully LGBTQ+ game, written in HyperCard, subsequently emerged in 1989; Caper in the Castro follows a lesbian private investigator called ‘Tracker McDyke’ as she attempts to find her kidnapped drag queen friend. Released as charityware, a note from creator C.M. Ralph as the game is launched states she ‘wrote this game as a labor of [her] love for the Gay and Lesbian community’ and asks the player to make a donation to an AIDS charity of their choice. The game would be picked up by Heizer Software where it enjoyed success – albeit as the renamed and fully ‘straightwashed’ Murder on Main Street.

The 1990s began making somewhat more progressive steps away from the standard format. 1996 saw the introduction of a female protagonist in the guise of archaeologist Lara Croft. The Tomb Raider series of games broke away from the male dominated lead, yet Croft was lauded and criticised in equal measure for being both a highly intelligent and hypersexualised lead. Her inception, although hugely impactful to the video game market, was once again aimed primarily at a male target audience. But the late 1990s managed to provide a landmark for LGBTQ+ inclusion. Black Isle Studios’ Fallout 2, released in 1998, contained the first same-sex marriage in a video game – 6 years before the first US state would legalise them. Fast forward to the 2000s and the landscape is certainly more diverse. Advances in the technical capabilities of home computing and the subsequent rise of the roleplaying game has allowed players to craft their own identity, free from being forced down a singular heterosexual mode of gameplay. And yet, it is hard to deny the imbalance, particularly in representing gender identities beyond the male-female binary. 

So how colourful does the future of gaming look for the LGBTQ+ community? May 2020 is set to welcome to highly anticipated sequel to Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us who first introduced the post-apocalyptic world of Joel and Ellie in 2013. This time, our attention will be turned to Ellie – an openly lesbian protagonist. Following on from DLC, Left Behind features fourteen-year-old Ellie sharing a short but tender kiss with best friend Riley – developers have chosen to fully actualise the sexual identity of their protagonist. But development companies have a long way to go if they want to fully include representation of a large proportion of their demographic, as 2014 documentary Gaming in Colour explored. As 2020 celebrates the 40th anniversary of an Italian plumber and his relentless quest to save his princess, perhaps we ought to reflect not only on how far the video gaming industry has come but on how much further it could and ought to go.


‘Caper in the Castro: Internet Archive’, (accessed 15.02.20) (note: you call play an online emulation of the game at this link)

‘Censored or Celebrated (Flouting Margins: Part 2)’, (accessed 14.02.20)

‘LGBTQ Video Game Archive’, (accessed 14.02.20)

New York and the LGBTQ+ Community over a Century

Written by: Lewis Twiby.

The anonymity of big cities allows persecuted sub-cultures and identities to find room to exist. London, Berlin, and Paris are just three examples of cities with flourishing LGBTQ+ communities. In the United States, New York was one of the major sites for gay liberation. Throughout the twentieth century a flourishing and diverse LGBTQ+ community emerged where class, race, gender, and sexuality intersected, paving the way for the gay rights movement to emerge. This article aims to show a snapshot into this diverse movement over a period of a century, from around 1890 to 1990, and how LGBTQ+ culture emerged in New York.

George Chauncey argues that the emergence of a, principally, homosexual subculture began emerging in New York in the 1890s when Columbia Hall was reported as the ‘principal resort in New York for degenerates.’ An unfortunate trend in history is the marginalisation of those who are not included in the standard hegemonic order – whether by class, race, or any other reason. In the Euro-American mindset – something which was also forced on many cultures worldwide thanks to colonialism – same-sex relations, non-binary genders, and non-conforming gender roles were treated as ‘degeneracy’ or a mental illness. In the 1870s a ‘map’ was printed warning Latin American businessmen visiting New York of the type of ‘degenerates’ they could encounter including prostitutes, shoeshine boys, and a ‘fairy’. Other than the standard demonisation of those left excluded from the Gilded Era economic expansion, it shows the distrust of LGBTQ+ individuals. The term ‘fairy’ was widely used as a way to further demean male homosexuals, especially by drawing images of femininity. An investigator – homosexuality was classed as ‘indecent’ and consequently illegal – alleged that patrons to the Columbia Hall ‘are called Princess this and Lady So and So’. Misogyny and homophobia went hand-in-hand.

The working-class slums of New York, such as the Bowery, offered young men and women an ability to socialise outside more traditional bourgeois family units which emerged in the late-nineteenth century. ‘Scandalous shows’ aimed at titillating consumers soon evolved into bars and clubs where people were free to experiment with same-sex relations, or opportunities to challenge gender identities. As often what occurs in marginalised communities a new lexicon started emerging. Seeing an increase in use during the 1920s, ‘gay’ started being used as a way for homosexual men to recognise one another – by calling themselves ‘gay’ they could secretly identify other homosexuals, and those involved in the community. However, there was not one ‘gay community’ in New York. Gender and racial segregation harshly split the community, and among white men there were those who wanted to be distanced from ‘fairies’ – those who cross-dressed or were gender non-conforming.

During the 1920s and 1930s, encouraged by an air of secrecy fostered by Prohibition, New York developed two major gay enclaves: Greenwich Village and Harlem. Greenwich Village originated as a refuge for rich New Yorkers to escape the bustle of the city, but as the city expanded the rich moved out and impoverished migrants, mainly Italian, moved in. The ‘Village’ became known for its bohemian character as its quiet location and cheap housing invited in New York’s artists and writers. This bohemian character fostered an atmosphere of single-living and eccentricity allowing the LGBTQ+ community to live openly. The Village was known as the place for ‘long-haired men’ and ‘short-haired women’, and even radical challenges to society. Famous anarchist Emma Goldman would visit the Village in the 1920s and make speeches demanding gay rights. However, there was a limit to this freedom. Racism excluded gay African Americans and Puerto Ricans from the Village until after the Second World War. Following the First World War 6 million African Americans moved from the US South to escape economic poverty and intense racism. Due to Northern segregation they were forced to form their own communities, and one of these was Harlem.

1920s Harlem is best known for the Harlem Renaissance – a period of cultural revival where resident African Americans produced a wide variety of literature, poetry, art, and music. For example, jazz and blues properly emerged during this period. Part of the Harlem Renaissance saw the emergence of a gay enclave. Part of this was racialised – white artists declared that Harlem was ‘wide open…Oh, much more! Much More!’, in the words of artist Edouard Roditi, as they could enter these spaces openly. LGBTQ+ African Americans, who had to live in Harlem, could not have this luxury, but they made it their home regardless. The Hamilton Lodge ball attracted hundreds of drag queens, and their performances attracted thousands of spectators – many of them were black or Latino. From this the ‘ball culture’ emerged and subtly made an impact on white beauty standards. Contouring was originally used by drag queens in Harlem to emphasise their cheekbones to look more stereotypically feminine. LGBTQ+ people further shaped the Harlem Renaissance: the ‘Queen of the Blues’ Bessie Smith was openly bisexual, one of the creators of jazz poetry was Langston Hughes has been seen as possibly homosexual or asexual, and singer Ethel Waters went into a lesbian relationship.

It is important to not understate the levels of discrimination and outright oppression New York’s LGBTQ+ community faced. Gay clubs were often given discriminatory names, the Hamilton Lodge was called the ‘faggot club’, and LGBTQ+ people were regularly referred to as degenerates. In 1924, the play God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch opened on Broadway for the first time, and the theatre owner and the actors were charged with obscenity as it played with themes of lesbian identity. During Prohibition, speakeasies did give a new community the ability to experiment with their sexuality, while at the same time opening new excuses for the police to raid gay clubs. In 1940, New York allowed police to use a Prohibition-era law to continue raiding gay clubs until the 1960s. Post-war, issues even get worse. Joseph McCarthy said the homosexuals were communist sympathisers, or could be used by them, beginning the ‘Lavender Scare’ to go alongside the Red Scare – 420 government employees were fired between 1947 and 1950 for suspected homosexuality. The resurgence of conservative values – a view that society should be Christian, white, middle-class, and in heterosexual nuclear families – meant that any deviation from this was viewed as ‘un-American’. Gay bars across Harlem and the Village were raided, and the police at times sexually assaulted lesbians and trans-individuals to ‘prove’ their gender.

Meanwhile, the 1960s saw times of great changes. As women and African Americans began fighting for their rights, LGBTQ+ communities also started fighting for their rights. The first gay rights movements were formed in the 1950s, notably the Daughters of Blitis and Mattachine Society, and largely campaigned for rights in Washington. A slow rights movement started building up, but their only biggest achievement was in 1967 when ‘sip-ins’ forced New York bars to allow homosexuals to have drinks. The ball scene was still thriving and was growing. RuPaul Charles and Lady Bunny moved to New York and became famous for their presence in the ball scene, and Marsha P. Johnson viewed the Village as a ‘dream’. Johnson had moved to New York for the anonymity – as a poor, African-American, homosexual, and gender non-conforming individual she saw many layers of intersecting oppression. One of the key places to be for the gay community was the Stonewall Inn. Stonewall was owned by the mafia and only made it a gay club as they knew the LGBTQ+ would not report them to the police with homosexuality still being illegal in New York. An unexpected police raid would spark the key event in American LGBTQ+ rights.

On June 28, 1969 police raided the bar and began assaulting patrons who appeared gender non-conforming. When one was being arrested a riot broke out – in popular memory Marsha P. Johnson ‘threw the first brick at Stonewall’. Singing We Shall Overcome and chanting Gay Power, the patrons started fighting off police, and by the time backup arrived a crowd of over a hundred people had arrived to support the patrons. Sylvia Rivera, a Latino trans-woman and close friend of Johnson, later remembered that: ‘You’ve been treating us like shit all these years? Uh-uh. Now it’s our turn!… It was one of the greatest moments in my life.’  It is important to note that many of those involved were African American or Latino, and many were trans or non-conforming, as years of oppression based on race, gender, and class gave them the urge to say ‘no’. Elizabeth Armstrong and Suzanna Crage have argued that a big reason why Stonewall, and not of the other clashes with police, became the spark of the gay revolution was thanks to the first Gay Pride event. A bisexual woman, Brenda Howard, saw the impact Stonewall had and used the first anniversary of the riot to host the first Gay Pride event, and solidify the legacy of Stonewall.

In the aftermath of Stonewall the gay rights movement started in earnest. For the first time gay rights moved away from Washington and into New York – many of those who took part in Stonewall would go on to create new rights movements. Deeply inspired by the Black Panthers the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed to directly fight homophobia in society. Like the Black Panthers they viewed capitalist society as reinforcing discrimination, and vowed to fight capitalism, the nuclear family, and traditional gender roles. As a way to become increasingly diverse a lesbian chapter was formed, called the Lavender Scare, and Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera formed STAR, (Street Transvestive Action Revolutionaries), for impoverished trans and non-conforming young people. These movements were an incredible break with the past as they directly forced gay rights into the open. Directly calling themselves ‘gay’, now firmly associated with homosexuality, was an open challenge to the taboo over homosexuality.

Resistance continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s despite some monumental successes – namely having LGBTQ+ identity no longer being classified as a mental illness in 1973 and lifting the ban on homosexuality in New York in the early-1980s. Homophobia did not end here, and there were still immense challenges to overcome. A resurgence of conservatism under Richard Nixon would become amplified by Ronald Reagan’s emphasis on ‘family values’ which continued the demonisation of LGBTQ+ identity. When the AIDS crisis broke out, as it largely affected poor and non-white LGBTQ+ communities, the government did nothing to help and even cut funding to finding a cure. The shadow of the AIDS crisis still hangs over the LGBTQ+ community – the continued popularity of the musical Rent, despite its problematic treatment of non-white and LGBTQ+ characters, highlights this by having a major trans-character die due to AIDS. Tragically, Marsha P. Johnson was murdered in 1992, and a mixture of transphobia, homophobia, and racism meant that the NYPD refused to investigate – her murder remains unsolved. 

During the dark years of the late-1970s and the 1980s the LGBTQ+ community continued to fight on. In 1985 black feminist Audre Lorde released her pamphlet I Am Your Sister calling for white feminists and male African American activists to understand the intersection of homophobia, racism, and misogyny proudly ending the text ‘I am a Black Lesbian, and I am Your Sister’. The ball scene in black and Latino communities remained strong, and the documentary Paris is Burning brought them to attention. Highlighting drag queens overcoming poverty and discrimination, tragically a trans-woman interviewed was murdered during filming, it gives an insight into the ball scene of the late-1980s. Although controversial as the interviewer, a white woman, never appears and the profits were never given to the community, it helped propel ball culture to mainstream eyes. Several phrases, especially thanks to their regular usage in the reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race, have since become part of wider, straight, lexicon including ‘voguing’, ‘reading’, and ‘shade’.

New York is one of the most diverse cities in the world, and the LGBTQ+ community still is a key part of this. Since 2013, the Republican party and some sections of the Democrats have been embracing homophobia, and since 2016 have been openly advocating for transphobic policies. These policies are naturally disheartening – decades of fighting appear to have been destroyed within just a few years. However, by looking at New York’s LGBTQ+ community fight for rights despite intense oppression over a century, it gives hope for the future. No matter how dark the future gets, there will always be a Marsha P. Johnson to fight back.


Armstrong, E. and Crage, S., ‘Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth’, American Sociological Review, 71:5, (2006), 724-751

Chauncey, G., Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, (New York, NY: 1994)

Duberman, M., Stonewall, (New York, NY: 1994)

Eisenbach, D., Gay Power: An American Revolution, (New York, NY: 2006)

Livingstone, J., Paris is Burning, (1990)

Lorde, A., I Am Your Sister, (New York, NY: 1985)

Shikusawa, N., ‘The Lavender Scare and Empire: Rethinking Cold War Antigay Politics’, Diplomatic History, 36:4, (2012), 723-752

Stein, M., (ed.), The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History, (New York, NY: 2019)


Mapping the Medieval World

Written by: Tristan Craig.

Engraved on a clay tablet and labelled with cuneiform script, the sixth century BCE Babylonian Imago Mundi or ‘image of the world’ is one of the oldest examples of cartography known to exist. Its depiction of the Mesopotamian Empire, with land and ocean masses carefully rendered on its surface, illustrates both the interest in geographical enquiry and limitations of global exploration for this ancient civilisation. This small tablet, having suffered a great amount of damage in the last three millennia, also exemplifies the complexities of attempting to understand an archaic worldview. By the Middle Ages, cartographic practices showed increasing scope and refinement due to expansions in world trade, however there remained a large disparity between maps which attempted to depict an accurate world view and those which served a predominantly ecclesiastical purpose. 

Image result for imago mundi"
Imago Mundi

Whilst the modern geographic map attempts to render topographical features in a manner as accurate as possible, cartography in the Middle Ages was less concerned with depicting physical space as it was abstract beliefs. As Christianity gained traction in the West, so too did ways of glorifying the omnipresence of God, with mappae mundi (‘world maps’) created to centralise the church on a global plane. The T-O format of map production – so called because of the T shaped bodies of water intersecting the landmasses of a disc shaped earth – was popular in the medieval period. In a tradition which originated toward the end of the Roman Empire, these depict a tripartite Earth with the continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa divided accordingly. Little was known of the antipodean landscape, presumed habitable only by beasts and monstrous creatures. The only completely surviving example of this medieval mapping tradition is the late thirteenth-century Hereford Map, named after the cathedral in which it is interred. With Jerusalem placed prominently in the centre and the biblical land of Paradise in the northernmost reaches, the emphasis in this mappa mundi is on the placement of Christianity in the medieval world. Whilst the inclusion of landmarks and terrain suggests at least some knowledge of global geography, its primary function as tool for teaching Christian doctrine is evidenced by its centring of the faith.

Image result for hereford map"
Hereford Map

Despite their commonality, the tripartite map was not the sole format used in the Middle Ages, however; beyond the realm of Christianity, cartographic practice on occasion showed a far greater attention to geographical precision. Bearing a closer resemblance to the modern atlas, Moroccan cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi created a series of illustrations under the patronage of King Roger II of Sicily which, when combined, formed an entire world view. The resulting world map and accompanying text was entitled the Nuzhat al-mushtāq fī ikhtirāq al-āfāq or Tabula Rogeriana (‘Map of Roger’) and, despite being created over a century prior to the Hereford Map, is remarkable in its accuracy. Drawing upon his own journey from North Africa to the Mediterranean, evidence shows that al-Idrisi was well versed in creating portolan charts – maps depicting sailing directions and naval trade routes – and his seafaring knowledge is clearly represented in the Tabula Rogeriana. Each important town or city is indicated by a brown circle, the majority of which are located along the Arabian Peninsula and southern Europe in correlation with al-Idrisi’s own travels. 

Particularly striking is the south-up presentation of the map which was common in early Islamic cartography, before what is now considered ‘north’ became the accepted standard. The dichotomy between north and south, and their representation in early maps, is indicative of the role the map played in representing religious and political power struggles. Similarly, the prominence of the Italian peninsula in the Tabula Rogeriana, with its multitude of coastal trading hubs, may have been included to appease the commissioner of the work: the King of Sicily. To that end, the map also serves to tell us a great deal about the relationship between al-Idrisi and Roger II, a Muslim Arab scholar and a Christian monarch, in actualising this geographical work. Muhammad al-Idrisi himself hailed from Moroccan nobility with his aristocratic lineage having the potential to benefit the expansive aspirations of the Sicilian king. Incidentally, the map includes little about inland territories, further suggesting its purpose as a type of portolan chart. That it was created over a period of fifteen years, with frequent discussion held over its accuracy, denotes the attention to detail paid by al-Idrisi – in sharp contrast to the far more symbolic Hereford Map.

Tabula Rogeriana

Developing a nuanced understanding of the work rests largely on interpretation of the extant copies, however al-Idrisi’s map falls foul of a problem commonly facing medievalists. Unfortunately, as with the majority of manuscripts from the High Middle Ages, the original book containing al-Idrisi’s maps and an engraved silver disc commissioned by Roger II have since been lost. Two extant manuscript copies of the Tabula Rogeriana are currently housed in the Bodleian Library, one of which dates from 1553 CE and contains his complete work. More recently, a 1929 facsimile was created by Konrad Miller to depict how al-Idrisi’s original illustrations would have looked when combined to create an entire world view as intended. Even when objects – such as the sixth century BCE Imago Mundi – have survived millennia, their condition can present a plethora of problems, from analysing the map to ensuring its subsequent preservation. The intricate mappae mundi of the High Medieval Period existed as unique works of art. Fortunately, the existence of manuscript copies of al-Idrisi’s map allow the modern historian to view it how it would have appeared in lieu of the original.

As navigational tools, medieval maps are largely limited in their accuracy. Although global knowledge expanded as trade routes increased throughout the period, the influence of both ecclesiastical and secular politics infiltrated the development of map making. From the power of religious veneration to the prominence of mercantile activity in particular territories, maps tell us as much about the personal beliefs of the individual creating them as they do geographical information. Perhaps the most striking revelation of Muhammad al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana is not just in his accurate depicting of physical space but in the extent of global travel and cultural exchange in the twelfth century. It is vital that the modern historian observe the medieval map not just as an artefact judged on what it renders but as a product of an individual and the society in which they lived.


Ahmad, S. Maqbul. “Cartography of al-Sharīf al-Idrīsī,” in The History of Cartography Vol. 2 Book 1: Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies, ed. J.B. Harley and David Woodward (Chicago, 1992).

Black, Jeremy. Maps and Politics (London, 2000).

Edson, Evelyn. The World Map, 1300-1492: The Persistence of Tradition and Transformation (Baltimore, 2011).

Hartnell, Jack. Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages (London, 2018).

Vernet-Ginés, J. “The Maghreb Chart in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana,” Imago Mundi 16 (1962): 1-16.

Maroon State: Slave community and resistance in Palmares, Brazil

Written by: Jack Bennett.

The emergence of Palmares, a quilombo – or community of self-liberated slaves – as a political and social reality in the Brazilian heartland between 1605 and 1695, posed a threat to the colonial order in the region through overt, subversive resistance. This alternative African state faced numerous military campaigns against it and remained unrecognised by Portuguese and Dutch colonial authorities throughout the seventeenth century. This was due to the colonial perspective that Palmares posed a corrupting threat to order and stability, with multiple alliances forming between the Crowns of Portugal, the Netherlands, and slave traders in an attempt to suppress and destroy the community. The quilombo was led by Ganga Zumba, and oversaw the emergence of a proto-metropole which had a sophisticated legal and bureaucratic structure and a population of some ten thousand formerly enslaved people. This removal of colonial bondage allowed for an element of autonomous freedom, in an Atlantic World of colonial domination, control, and slave trading. 

Crucially, what the emergence of Palmares reveals is the importance of Afro-Brazilian solidarity and resistance in identity formation, fights for independence and liberty, and the development of an anti-racist and anti-colonial dogma. With fifteen thousand slaves arriving in Brazil from Angola between 1620 and 1623, Thornton (1998) argues that African culture and kinship was not a fixed system, but one of multiple possibilities, continuing, accommodating and adapting to rapid change under colonial rule in Latin America. This was achieved through the transferal of a variety of African social and political forms across the Atlantic, that allowed for the assimilation of different African ethnicities and groups into socio-economic communities of predominantly former enslaved Africans that would endure under colonial pressures for almost a century. Moreover, Mintz and Price (1992) argue that when this heterogeneous population became a homogenous enslaved African population, differences in status overlapped with differences in culture, bridged by the shared condition of enslavement, facilitating the creation of new institutions; a culture defined by constant internal and external dynamism. This highlights the importance of change rather than simple, passive or static processes of cultural retention between Africa and the Americas. 

These rustic black republics reveal the dream of a social order founded on fraternal equality, and for this reason are incorporated into the revolutionary tradition of the Brazilian people. Parallels can be illustrated between defensive and insular African communities resisting the actions of slave traders, and formerly enslaved quilombo communities resisting colonial power in Brazil. For instance, infra-structurally, Palmares utilised the pitfalls and caltrops found in Buraco de Tatu as people from Angola used palisades. During the seventeenth century, the territory the Portuguese called Angola was disrupted by factors that included: the pressure of the Portuguese slave trade and occupation of the coast; the collapse of states such as the Kingdom of the Kongo to the north; and invasions, principally from the northeast. The people of central Angola responded by coalescing under the name Imbangala. Interestingly, the nascent Imbangala states gathered together diverse groups of people in a community without lineage. Since these communities existed in conditions of military conflict and political upheaval, they found in the institution of the Kilombo a unifying structure suitable for a people under constant military alert – these entrenched Angolan wars fed the Brazilian slave trade. This determined a distinctly African polity in Brazil, defined by confederation, tributary relations, and cross-lineage relations. The flexibility of the institution of the Kilombo as a mechanism for integrating a community without institutionalised lineage engaged in warfare and self-defence, as was Palmares, explains why some adaptation of the Imbangala institution would thrive in Brazil, even if only a minority of Palmares’s inhabitants were actually of Imbangala origin.

Military threats, challenges, and incursions shaped the very existence of Palmares during this period. Following a large influx of enslaved people during the 1630s as a consequence of the Dutch invasion of north-eastern Brazil, campaigns were led by slave traders and royally commissioned mercenaries to quash the proto-state of formerly enslaved people. Under this Dutch dominion and even after the Portuguese reconquest of Pernambuco by 1654, Palmares experienced a series of unsuccessful incursions and colonial attempts at dissolution. From the first large scale expeditionary force led by Captain Joao Blaer, in 1645, to over twenty assaults against Palmares between 1654 and 1678. All of which proved unsuccessful due to the vitality and defensive capabilities of the community of formerly enslaved people. The final campaigns against Palmares, however, including those of Domingos Jorge Velho, 1692 to 1694, brought about the destruction of Palmares. In the internecine peace, Palmarinos traded with their Portuguese neighbours, exchanging foodstuffs and crafts for arms, munitions, and salt. The trade with Palmares was such that many colonials opposed war with the Palmarinos, and in the 1670s there was widespread opinion that establishing peace was the best way to achieve stability in the colony. The threat posed to the stability of plantation slave labour resulted in Carrilho’s campaign of 1676-1677 and great devastation. In 1678, Ganga Zumba, tired of war, accepted the peace terms from the Governor of Pernambuco, which affirmed his sovereignty over his people on the condition that he return any fugitive slaves and move his people from Palmares to the Cucai Valley. Then in 1680, the military leader of Palmare, Zumbi, led a coup and proceeded to rule the quilombo with dictatorial authority until the destruction of Palmares in 1694. This perpetual state of instability and warfare defined the lifestyles of formerly enslaved people and the formation of Palmares as a persistent source of resistance in the Atlantic sphere of imperial dominance, an early indicator of future upheavals to come. 

Ultimately, the Central African solution of the Kilombo was a remodelled and transplanted socio-political construct, created through the forced transportation of enslaved Africans during the seventeenth century, and re-imposed within the Brazilian colonial order, in order to serve maroon communities. The Palmares of Brazil developed into a Creole society. Critically, this process of hybridisation facilitated the emergence of communities and new identities in colonial Latin America, which remained intrinsically connected to the enslavement of Africans and their forced transportation within the Atlantic triangulation of human and product commodification. Through the process, comrades (or malungos) from diverse ethnic backgrounds were united in the common cause of self-determination and independence from brutal repression and labour. Fundamentally, this was not achieved on the basis of lineage, but for the purposes of commodity production, raiding, and self-defence. Therefore, the persistence and adaptation of African cultural elements such as the Kilombo to the Brazilian context, in fact, demonstrates the continuity of African and African Diasporic cultures in the process of New World transculturation and the development of resistance and revolution. 


Image source: “Zumbi dos Palmares: An African warrior in Brazil – The legend of the nation’s greatest black leader continues to be a topic of debate and in spiration.” Black Women of Brazil. August 18, 2014. Accessed April 10, 2017.

Anderson, R. “The Quilombo of Palmares: A New Overview of a Maroon State in Seventeenth-Century Brazil,” Journal of Latin American Studies 3 (1996): 545-566.

Anonymous, “The War against Palmares,” in The Brazil Reader: History, Culture, Politics, eds. John J. Crocitti and Robert M. Levine (Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).  

Kent, R. “Palmares: An African State in Brazil,” The Journal of African History, 2 (1965): 161-175.

Mintz, Sidney and Price, Richard, The Birth of African American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992).

Thornton, John, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).