I didn’t seriously think about my gender identity, actually really questioning my gender, until I was in my late 30s. I came out as gender non-conforming at age 39, and as trans at age 40. And because I realised I was a trans woman, that therefore made me lesbian too. So for the first 39 or so years of my life, I thought of myself as a cis-het male; and then from age 40-ish onwards, I’ve been a trans lesbian.
Basically, I’m still very new to all things LGBT, and I have no choice but to admit it, I’m ignorant of so much of LGBT history. To a large extent, LGBT history is really only learned by LGBT people – or perhaps those close to someone LGBT, a family member maybe. None of which was the case for me. I’m very much late to the party, so to speak.
Some of the bigger themes of history are easier to pick up on, of course – that sex between men was previously criminalised, and now isn’t; the general advance of LGBT rights. But therein lies the trap: for those who’ve only recently started paying attention (such as myself), it’s very easy not to see the wider historical context into which we fit. And it’s all too easy to look at the last few years and think: We’re increasingly visible, and representation and acceptance by society is improving. Life is good. And it is good, but let’s not get complacent.
Recently, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, the BBC has been showing a series of programmes under the banner Gay Britannia (disclosure: I work for the BBC). While the content has been criticised has being too gay-centric instead of balanced LGBT – there’s an interview there with the head of PinkNews, where he praises Little Britain, for crying out loud – I nevertheless gave some some of the programmes a watch.
Against The Law is a film about life as a gay man in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the law, the press and society persecuted anyone it suspected of being homosexual. Broadly speaking I suppose I was already aware of most of this, but seeing it dramatised brings it into sharp focus; and in particular I wasn’t aware of some of the ways in which they tried to “treat” homosexuality. Quite an eye-opener, actually.
The other programme I watched was Prejudice and Pride: The People’s History of LGBTQ Britain, an assembled narrative using news archive, interviews, and highly personal artefacts and stories. After the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in the 60s, this programme goes on to tell stories of seeing lesbianism represented in fiction, of gay communes and nightclubs, of having a gay bar where, for the first time, the windows weren’t blacked out, being visible, not being ashamed. And of HIV/AIDS, and of Section 28.
Some of the stories very much rang true for me – but two in particular, I’d like to talk about further.
1987; the UK government launched its AIDS awareness campaign via TV and cinema and a leaflet to every household in the land. The slogan: “Don’t Die Of Ignorance”, with AIDS represented as terrifying grey monolith, like a headstone, slamming into the ground. I was 14, and went to a boys’ school. I fancied girls, at least in theory – but I was way too socially withdrawn for sex with another person to be anything but a distant thought. Sex, and therefore HIV/AIDS, was something that happened to other people. So now, 30 years later, watching this programme as people relate tales of lost loved ones, of memorials, of a great coming-together of people in shared grief and solidarity – that was all new to me, something which I’d not really thought about before.
Likewise Section 28, wherein homophobia was once again enshrined in the law, banning the “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities. Now this was very much during my lifetime (1988-2003; when I was ages 15-30). But still, it was something that affected other people, because I was “straight”, I wasn’t gay. And I shudder to think what language I would have used at the time to describe what I would now call “cis”. Again, I found it quite an eye-opener to see how the government enacted this law, and the chilling effect it had on queer people, on teachers, on anyone working in local authorities. How LGBTQ people united to fight this threat, in many ways which I don’t remember – and a couple which I do [1, 2]; and how this led to the formation of Stonewall.
I’d imagine it’s very different for people who realised they were trans much sooner (even if they didn’t come out, or perhaps didn’t even fully understand or have the language), or for people who already identified as something other than heterosexual. If you already knew you were LGBT back when these events were occurring, you’d have a very different take on it, I assume – it’d be part of your life too.
If we weren’t still fighting the same oppressions then perhaps there’d be less need to learn our history. I hated history at school; the last history test I ever took was at age 13, about Mussolini and Italian Fascism. I scored 3/25. To a large extent I saw history as an irrelevance, but knowledge of history is useful in that it helps us to interpret the events of the present, and to guide and shape the future. I’m struggling to think of ways in which what I learned about the Saxons and the structure of their settlements is particularly relevant to my daily life; but with the current struggles against nazism, fascism and the far-right, the Mussolini example, above, is perhaps apt.
Likewise, as minority groups LGBT people continue to have to fight back against oppression. Whether it’s verbal or physical abuse by those around us; or discrimination in the school or workplace; or the publication and broadcast of homophobic and transphobic content; or the questioning, the promotion of fear, the othering of us by those in power; and of course all those fights and more faced by those overseas, including criminalisation, violence, imprisonment, and death.
Being more aware of our history helps us fight all this, not least by helping us to see the injustices in the first place – but also to be more aware of the very possibility of erosion, of regression of those hard-won rights. I wrote above about how it’s easy to look at just the last few years and think that visibility is increasing, acceptance is improving, life is good – but the recent rise of the far-right and its resultant increase in hate crime shows that our gains are fragile, and can be lost, and by being more aware of our shared community history, we can be more aware of the threats against us today, and better placed to fight them.
The news these days isn’t a barrel of laughs; it’s depressing, it’s wearing, is tiring. It’s OK not to engage. It takes strength, which we can draw from each other, but do not feel obligated to take part. Do whatever’s right for you. But if you do find yourself wanting to fight back, you could perhaps do worse than take time out to go and learn some more of our shared history.
Cover image: a still from “Prejudice and Pride” by BBC / 7Wonder Productions, under fair use