The Importance of an Inclusive LGBT+ History Month
And, just like that, I realised that what I was feeling was an accumulation of frustration, fear and determination. I am in my thirties and had never once had this level of clarity about the importance of the sacrifices, passion and sheer determination of those incredible people who made real change.
By Kirsty Smith
Despite being openly out as a lesbian for over a decade, I only heard about the UK’s LGBT+ History Month a few years ago, and it’s only recently that I stopped to really think about its importance.
First organised in the UK in 2005, post abolition of Section 28, teachers Sue Sanders and Paul Patrick wanted to encourage learning about LGBT+ history and to celebrate the LGBT+ people that have made a difference.
This year, I was asked to prepare a blog and short virtual event at work, with a focus on lesbian history. I wanted to show videos of those lesbians who were an important part of the gay and lesbian liberation movement in the UK. I trawled YouTube and, whilst there was a plethora of videos about the changes that have occurred in the UK over the past 60 years, they focused primarily on progress for white gay men. Videos I found about the formation of the UK charity, Stonewall, focused predominantly on Sir Ian McKellen. I managed to find some videos about Lisa Power, a co-founder, but only because I specifically knew to search for her.
The experiences and journeys of white gay men in the UK are of course valid and should be documented, remembered and celebrated. Yet, it somehow felt as though the experiences and journeys of my lesbian siblings (and indeed the wider LGBT+ community) were so much harder to find and learn about.
As I searched, a weird feeling rose within me. I stumbled across a short BBC News piece which included this response from Sue Sanders on why we need LGBT+ History Month:
“We need it because the ignorance is profound. And the ignorance has been deliberately done. We have a history, but we have been denied it. It’s great that we have got the laws in place. It’s great that we’re more visible. But who is visible? It’s white gay men. If you’re black, if you’re lesbian, if you’re bisexual or if you’re trans, we have a lot of work yet to do.”
And, just like that, I realised that what I was feeling was an accumulation of frustration, fear and determination. I am in my thirties and had never once had this level of clarity about the importance of the sacrifices, passion and sheer determination of those incredible people who made real change. They made it possible for me to live openly as a lesbian, and even to marry my wife. I am frustrated at the absence of readily available information and fear that parts of our history are already lost. These people deserve to be talked about and to have their lives recognised. This is why it’s so important to look back as well as forward.
Now I’m not saying that information about the lives of LGBT+ people over the past few decades or even past few hundred years is not available – that would be absurd. However, I do think that the information is less accessible and often you need to know what you are searching for to find it. It got me thinking about how we actually learn about LGBT+ history.
We soak up information from the influences around us – our families and friends, education and what we see on the TV and social media. We can explore areas of interest through literature, museums, galleries and the like. But is LGBT+ history part of that?
I heard recently that in some schools, LGBT+ history is starting to be taught, which is really encouraging and great to hear for the younger generation. But for those of us who were educated during Section 28 times and prior, this was entirely absent from our studies.
Over recent years we have certainly seen an increase in LGBT+ representation within films, TV shows and documentaries, though certainly not always positive. Those which provide an insight into LGBT+ history, when done well, are welcome. Such as Pride, Netflix’s documentary, Disclosure, and Channel 4’s It’s a Sin. I fell in love with the courageous Anne Lister in Sally Wainwright’s ‘Gentleman Jack’ – all thanks to Anne laying her life out in the finest detail within her diaries nearly 200 years ago.
To me, literature is something which preserves history. Through the Leeds LGBT+ Book Club, it has been exciting to see the incredible range of LGBT+ literature available, to read stories which provide an insight into LGBT+ lives and to expand my reading horizons through recommendations and discussions. In recent years, we have also seen an increase in the number of LGBT+ bookshops, making this literature more accessible.
There is no denying that the LGBT+ community has more visibility in the present day, and I think that, in some respects, representation within the world of film, TV and social media is improving. And that really is something to celebrate, even though we still have a long way to go.
So my determined resolution to myself this LGBT+ History Month is to proactively seek knowledge of all things LGBT+ history based, to share the stories and experiences I find and to do so every month – whether that’s telling friends about a documentary I’ve watched, a person I’ve researched or a book that I’ve read. If we all do this, we will all be sharing in claiming our past, celebrating our present and shaping our future.
Kirsty is the secretary of Leeds LGBT+ Book Club and co-organiser of our Literature Festival.