LGBTQ+ History Month

Viki Browne, Artistic Director, celebrates one of her LGBTQ+ heroes, Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf is one of my queer feminist icons. I first read her 1929 book, ‘A Room Of One’s Own’, when I was 16. She wrote about the creative power of women, lesbian relationships and gender fluidity in a way I (and probably most of the readers in the 1920’s) had never experienced before.

In ‘A Room of Ones Own’ she wrote about lesbian relationships by creating a fictional novel; ‘the very next words I read were these – ‘Chloe liked Olivia …’ Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.’ 
In writing this Virginia publicly acknowledged the presence of lesbian relationships in society, and managed to escape censorship, which, in 1929, was totally radical!

She was married to husband Leonard Woolf who was a printer, and worked alongside Virginia to publish her books. Throughout her life she exchanged letters with Vita Sackville-West, with whom she had a long standing love affair. Vita was the inspiration for one of her most famous characters, the title character of her book Orlando (1928).

A few months before Orlando was published, Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel; The Well of Loneliness was declared obscene, and all copies were ordered by court to be destroyed.  Yet Virginia was able to swerve censorship and publish, a subversive lesbian love story because of how cleverly it was told. The character Orlando loves women, and changes sex from male to female on their 30th Birthday and as a female continues to love women more than they ever did as a man!

‘As all Orlando’s loves had been women, now, through the culpable laggardry of the human frame to adapt itself to convention, though she herself was a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man.’ 

Virginia Woolf, Orlando.

Virginia uses Orlando’s change in sex as a tool to challenge the norm (heterosexuality) and to help readers to understand lesbian experience without overtly telling a lesbian story, in doing so she also escapes censorship. Above all, Orlando is most likely an elongated love letter to Vita. On the day of its publication, Vita received the book, and the original manuscript with her initials on the spine.

Virginia wrote about gender fluidity and same sex relationships in a way I had never experienced before and she helped me understand that gender was a social construct.

Today I wish to celebrate her as queer feminist icon and trans ally. I am still deeply interested in the performance of gender identities and did a workshop series with Many Minds on sex and gender as well as continuing to explore this in my solo performance practice. I love the way ‘A Room of One’s Own’ campaigns for women’s right to creative expression in the same way that we at Many Minds campaign for increased access to the arts for those of us that identify with experiences of mental ill health. Virginia, was a voice-hearer and struggled with depression throughout her life, but with support she was able to write incredible books that still touch our lives today. I hope that Many Minds can continue to create safe and accessible spaces for LGBTQ+ people to express themselves and explore their creativity through performance and may have a few future LGBTQ+ icons in our midst.