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New Islington Museum exhibition celebrates 50th anniversary of Sexual Offences Act

Joe Orton (L) and Kenneth Halliwell in Duncan Terrace, c 1967

Joe Orton (L) and Kenneth Halliwell in Duncan Terrace, c 1967

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Islington Museum’s new free exhibition celebrates the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, and commemorates the 50th anniversary of the deaths of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell.

Up Against It: Islington 1967, which runs from 22 July until 21 October 2017 at Islington Museum, 245 St John Street, EC1V 4NB, explores the lives of well-known members of the local gay community before and after the passing of the Act on 27 July that year. It also commemorates the 50th anniversary of the deaths of playwright Joe Orton and his partner and collage artist Kenneth Halliwell, two weeks later on 9 August. At the time of his murder by Halliwell, Orton was working on a screenplay for The Beatles called Up Against It, a title that reflects the challenges for the LGBT+ community up to the present day.

Through the stories of well-known gay men living in Islington before and after the act, which decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men aged 21 years or over, Up Against It: Islington 1967 seeks to reflect the experience of males who could not declare their love freely, and the difference the ‘67 act made to them.

Stories featured include those of Oscar Wilde, imprisoned at Holloway and Pentonville prisons; composer Benjamin Britten who shared an Islington studio with his partner; Bob Crossman – the country’s first gay mayor; and Baron Chris Smith of Finsbury, who was the first MP to announce he was gay.

Cllr Kaya Comer-Schwartz, Islington Council’s executive member for community development, said: “The act was a milestone in LGBT+ legislation, not least in Islington where it helped to improve the lives of many members of its gay community, who had already made Islington their home.

“Work to achieve total acceptance and full equality throughout wider society continues, and the borough is proud to be in the forefront of LGBT+ rights campaigning, as well as being a spiritual home to the LGBT+ community and activists.

“This excellent exhibition gives an insight into what was achieved, how far we have come and how much more still needs to be done.”

Only a few years after the 1967 Act was passed a number of organisations chose Islington as their base to carry on the foundation it had laid down. These included the Gay Liberation Front, London Friend and London Gay Switchboard. Highbury Fields, the borough’s largest open space, was also the location of the capital’s first gay public protest in 1970.

Among gay couples making their home in Islington in the years before 1967 was writer Joe Orton and his partner and artist Kenneth Halliwell. Theirs was perhaps the borough’s most famous or, even, infamous partnership. Orton and Halliwell enjoyed living and working in Islington, an area which was to influence Orton’s writings. Sadly, only two weeks after the Sexual Offences Act was passed, Halliwell murdered Orton and committed suicide.

Collaged public library book covers created by Halliwell and Orton between 1959 and 1962 – an act of artistic rebellion which led to them both being sent to prison at the time - a Halliwell collage and the artist’s newly acquired World of Cats screen will be on display together for the first time.

The new exhibition comes less than a fortnight after Islington Council announced that it is to create a major new archive of the borough’s LGBT+ history, thanks to an award of £329,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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Chris Roe, Senior Media Officer
Tel: 020 7527 8751 
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Highbury Fields in the 1970s

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