2 February 2021
Today is the first day of LGBTQ+ History Month. It’s a time to reflect on the contributions that queer people made to our society. It is a time to remember the LGBTQ+ people who were either written out of history altogether or had their sexuality and/or gender identity erased when their deeds were written down.
The problem is that history is not just written by the victors, but also by those who hold power. Historically, in terms of Britain, this has been heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, white men. This means that they can celebrate cracking the Nazi code and then just sweep Alan Turing’s sexuality under the rug.
Even for those queer British people who we do have definitive historical records for, most of them are rich, white men because people were already recording their lives. In fact, most of the time when we have records about queer people who were not rich and white, it’s because those records are police or court documents that relate to their punishment for “homosexual acts”. (Imagine, if the only document left behind to mark your existence was a court judgement sentencing you to death for being you.)
As a result of this poor record keeping, many people today will warn you about reading between the lines and imposing a “modern” viewpoint on historical people, especially using language they wouldn’t have used themselves. Now, they have a point, but there’s never a conversation about when we mistakenly identify people as straight or cis, language which people would also not have had access to hundreds of years ago.
This allows homophobes and transphobes to claim that queer people never existed before an arbitrary date, which changes all the time to suit their narrative and the time that they lived in. The fact is that queer people have always been here and will always be here, no matter how you feel about it. Facts don’t care about your feelings. (See, we can use that too.)
So why should we celebrate LGBTQ+ history month? What’s the point? Who cares if Emily Dickenson or King James I were queer?
Well, I care. And it’s not really about them or how they would have identified if they lived today. It’s about queer people in Britain now and how the erasure of LGBTQ+ history affects them. Unlike other marginalised groups, like ethnic and religious minorities, queer people are often not raised by queer people, so our histories are not passed down through the family unit.
The shrouding of queer history in darkness is not an accident. It was deliberate. Now, I don’t pretend to know the motivations of every single person who’s ever done this, but I will make an educated guess based on 30 years as a queer person. Those in power didn’t want to share the glory with people they considered beneath them or allow future generations to see queer people as vital to the human race, so they either ignored their contributions, attributed them to someone else, or hid their sexuality and/or gender identity.
Why do I say this? Well, I base it on a delightful clause in the Local Government Act 1988, known as Section 28. This clause, finally struck down in February 2003 (and why we celebrate LGBTQ+ History month in February), banned the “promotion of homosexuality” or “distribution of materials that promoted homosexuality”.
Yes, the promotion of homosexuality. Like how I might try a new soda if I see an advert on the TV and I might kiss a girl if I watch Orange is the New Black. That’s how sexuality works, ya’ll.
While this applied to all local government institutions, I’d argue it was most strongly felt by those in school at any point during those 15 years. (And after, because even when the law changed, many teachers had that ingrained within them.) Anyone born from 1973 until 1998 in the UK went to school under the rules for at least some point of their education. Anyone born from 1984-1987 spent the entire of their school lives with those rules in place.
That is millions of queer people who went to school and were deprived not only of seeing themselves represented in their lessons, but were also deprived of PHSE lessons that were relevant to them. (Side note: Imagine being the kind of politician who, at the height of the AIDS crisis, decided to outlaw giving proper sex education to young queer kids.) It’s also tens of thousands of teachers and school staff forced to closet themselves in order to keep their jobs.
So, the reason to celebrate LGBTQ+ history has less to do with me wanting to tell you all about the real-life lady behind Gentleman Jack and more to do with helping queer people, especially children, see that they are not alone. That they have a place in the world. That there are others like them who have helped construct the world that we live in today. That no matter what homophobes or transphobes tell them, they are loved and they are wanted, just as they are.
(It also helps if cis-straight kids are taught that queer people are, you know, humans so that they don’t inadvertently grow up with homophobic or transphobic views.)
You can educate yourself more about LGBTQ+ history, using resources available at lgbtplushistorymonth.co.uk, and share what you find on social media. Books can be found at your local library (or via the app until lockdown ends) or through your local independent bookshop.
If you’re home-schooling, you can use this February to focus in on queer historical figures or even the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the UK.
And you can support the queer community now and in the future by showing your support for a legal ban on “conversion therapy”, a practice that is harmful to the individual and the wider community, in addition to being a massive scam because YOU CAN’T CHANGE YOUR SEXUALITY AND/OR GENDER IDENTITY. This ban has the support of Boris Johnson, religious leaders from every major faith in the UK, and was part of the Government’s LGBT Action Plan in 2018. The ban should come into force now before any more people are harmed by it.
These actions will help to improve the lives of queer people in Britain, both now and in the future. I know that times are difficult right now, but it is so much harder for queer people locked down with unsupportive families. And you have the power to help improve the lives of queer people in the years, decades, and centuries to come.
Emma Murphy, Equality and Diversity Officer for Portsmouth Green Party