OUTing the Past 2018 Gazetted Presenter Spotlight: Helen Graham

This year, the Festival Comms Team has reached out to all OUTing the Past 2018 gazetted presenters, whose presentations you may see at upcoming celebrations. In order to provide a platform for their invaluable work, presenters were asked a series a questions to acquaint you with their previous and current projects.

Helen Graham was kind enough to share:


I’m currently writing a book in which Bill Aalto figures as one of five protagonists. It’s a collective, interwoven biography which seeks to present for a popular audience a different take on the conflicts of the 1930s in Europe, as well as those of World War 2 and its aftermath.

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Fighting the war, breaking the mould: a ‘life’ of Bill Aalto, international brigadier and writer (1915-1958).

This is a story that’s not been told before to a popular audience in the UK. Bill Aalto’s resonant and and intense brief life (1915-1958) spanned the turbulent mid-twentieth century, and offers compelling insights into how social change/’history’ happens as real lives collide with extreme events.

Bill was an intelligent, street-wise working class Finnish-American boy from the Bronx who liked boys, and who became a Republican guerrilla soldier, and a poet, in the war in Spain (1936-9). Afterwards he was burned and betrayed by his international brigadier comrades, and persecuted by the US Cold-War state in a series of episodes where politics and sexuality collided head-on. Bill’s response was ‘simply’ to walk away from his previous life, but without rejecting or mythologising it. He roamed around newly-liberated Europe and then fought McCarthyism back ‘home’ where he counted both WH Auden and James Baldwin as his friends. He crossed worlds, making a singular journey of the spirit and mind, remaking himself in the course of a short ‘life’. Many of the questions he asked, especially about sexuality, had their roots in the seismic effects of war. These questions would become second nature to many from the 1960s on. But Bill was asking them, and living them out, in the 1940s and in some dramatic ways – especially in his refusal to accept the rigid conventions of ‘public’ and ‘private’ as then constructed. His extraordinary life and thinking ought one day to be a feature film!


Be sure to follow @LGBTHM during the Festival for more information, and check out our national media partner, The Canary.

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