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February is LGBTQ+ History Month. And it’s about education. I could stop there, but it’d make for a rather disappointing read. So, let’s continue; what does LGBTQ+ History Month mean to me?
History – transcending culture, geography, and period – is full of important LGBTQ+ figures. From people like the Elagabalus to Alan Turing; from King James to Anne Lister. Many (such as Anne Lister and Alan Turing) have had their contributions to history overlooked, and even now, we’re learning more about them. They had, for a long time, been “written out” of the history books because of who they were. Even more have had their life stories warped to fit a more “palatable” conservative worldview. Elagabalus will likely forever be known as the boy who invented the whoopee cushion (a rather dubious claim), rather than the openly transgender woman who ruled the Roman Empire. King James will likely always be known as the king who sponsored an English translation of the Bible and hunted witches, rather than the gender-nonconforming, bisexual monarch of Great Britain.
Of course – the reasons for the overwriting and rewriting of history to remove LGBTQ+ people from records or change who they appear to be to make them fit a more limited worldview – are mainly cultural. The late-18th through 20th centuries brought major cultural shifts around the world; Britain is an excellent example of that.
The Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries gave Britain’s impoverished working classes the hope of social mobility; causing people to move into cities and towns with the promise of good work, a stable income, and a bright future. However, this change didn’t reduce poverty, so much as it concentrated it into overcrowded, densely populated cities. Whilst there were more jobs in the cities, and the work was – for the most part – easier than rural life beforehand, Britain’s industrial economy was deeply entrenched in classism. With a growth of concentrated and impoverished communities unable to support themselves in cities, many turned to religion as a source of hope. It is no coincidence that The Industrial Revolution met with the advent of mass preaching and large-scale evangelism in British Christianity, as the population both grew and turned to religion, Britain’s largest religion grew with it.
However, the religious movements which benefited most from Britain’s industrialisation, much like many other social movements of the time, were generally socially conservative. Victorian Britain was a land of laissez-faire policy; capitalism thriving with little governmental regulation, and care for communities left to charity. A knock-on effect of this was that attitudes towards gender and sexuality – for the most part – stagnated. We wouldn’t see any progress towards gender and sexual liberation in Britain until the Women’s Suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th century.
As generations throughout the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries were either uneducated or miseducated on LGBTQ+ people due to archaic societal attitudes towards gender and sexuality, to be an LGBTQ+ person increasingly meant to stand out and face both persecution and prosecution. In fact, it wasn’t until 1967 that “homosexual acts” between consenting males became legal in England and Wales. A result of these archaic attitudes was a backlash against the movements of minority groups towards liberation in the 1970s through 90s, spurred on by media misinformation and fear around the AIDS crisis of the 80s.
One such backlash was the 1988 introduction of the infamous “Section 28” of the Local Government Act. Section 28 prevented local authorities from teaching young people about LGBTQ+ relationships and history. More specifically, they weren’t allowed to “intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or to “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” This wasn’t repealed until 2003 in England and Wales. As a result, we now have a generation of people who are educators who were themselves educated under a system that prevented them from learning about LGBTQ+ people, relationships, and history. So, it’s no surprise that the 2003 repeal of the act had little effect on the quality of Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) the average student has had since then. In fact, inclusive RSE wasn’t even a requirement in schools in England until 2019.
I didn’t learn about LGBTQ+ history growing up. I didn’t even know anyone openly LGBTQ+ until college. At no point in my education were LGBTQ+ topics brought up. I feel like I learned nothing of my own history or culture until I took it upon myself to learn whilst at college and University.
In fact, until I took it upon myself to learn more in my later teenage years, all I’d been taught about LGBTQ+ people came from the faith community I was brought up in. That gay people are “sinful” and some have AIDS, but can be redeemed (or “fixed”) through prayer. As someone who is neither cisgender nor heterosexual being taught nothing but this dangerously inaccurate, hateful rhetoric caused me a lot of harm. I have no doubt the pain and harm this caused me is something I’ll have to work through for years to come.
I think it needs saying at this point that the conservative religious community in which I grew up is a fringe group, and you shouldn’t judge all religious or faith-based groups based on my experience. However, it is unfortunately not enough of a fringe group for my experiences to be particularly uncommon.
Thankfully, due to the sheer number of LGBTQ+ activists and educators working to reclaim our history, LGBTQ+ communities and educators thrive in online spaces. These spaces have given me the opportunity to learn about my own community and history over the past 5 years or so. I dare say this is quite a common experience for many LGBTQ+ children and young adults.
What does LGBTQ+ History Month mean to me? I am a part of a community who’ve revolutionised the world. But we’ve been systematically silenced, criminalised, persecuted, and hidden for centuries. LGBTQ+ History Month is a chance to combat that. A chance to teach our history in the hope of a brighter future. LGBTQ+ History Month is a national event where we can celebrate our culture, our identity, and our history. By celebrating these things publicly and proudly, we lay a foundation on which to push for further liberation.