LGBT+ History Month

Bayard Rustin

Happy LGBT+ History Month!

LGBT+ History Month is an occasion very close to my heart. As a young boy growing up in the north of England, I experienced extreme homophobic abuse, name calling and bullying at primary and middle school. I didn’t even know what homosexuality was. No positive role models were provided at school, home or society. Homosexuals and lesbians were treated with disdain, ridicule and something to be laughed at on television.

I did not know anything about gay history or the amazing people who have contributed spectacular developments in science, health, creativity, art, literature and many other fields across the world.

I had no idea that gay people were persecuted by the Nazis and that persecution in many countries continues today. In many Commonwealth countries homosexuality continues to be illegal, ironically a legacy of British colonialism.

Being gay was still illegal when I was five years old. It was not decriminalised in England until 1967. Jump forward to the 1980’s and my early twenties were a terrible time for me to come out. AIDS was also across the press with vile and fear inducing tabloid headlines. Homophobia and violence against Gay men was horrendous. I even did a self-defence course called Survive the Streets as I feared for my safety on the streets of London.

As a gay man in his sixth decade I wholeheartedly celebrate LGBT+ History Month taking place every February. For me it is a chance think about and learn even more about those who have impacted on the history of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people in the UK and across the world.

Over the years, I have explored the history of this global community which has provided an opportunity for me to identify and focus on some often-overlooked identities, and reminding me we are always stronger, better and prouder together.

In many ways, now is the best of times to be part of the LGBT+ community in the UK. When I came out in 1984, aged 22 it was a difficult period in my life. A few years later they were welcoming of me and my partner to spend Christmas with them. They often stayed with us in our home too. Over the next few decades, the relationship between my parents and myself grew stronger and closer since I could be open, honest and proud to be the gay son they had raised.

I look back to those earlier difficult and emotional days and think of the impact it had on my parents too. On reflection I have empathy with their initial disappointment, real fears for me and have some understanding of the perceived ‘loss’ of their only son and the hopes they had for grandchildren.

Section 28 of the Local Government Act  was enacted in May 1988. This helped no one at all and was a blight on the lives of many people. It was brought in to "prohibit the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities". That's local councils - the organisations responsible for things like social care, rubbish collection and schools.

The law was partly inspired by a 1983 story book called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, which aimed to give children information about different types of family relationships.

Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said at the time: "Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life".

There were mass protests by LGBT+ campaigners and many of my friends had the courage to take part and fight for our rights. The law was stopped in Scotland in 2000 and in the rest of the United Kingdom in 2003.

An equal age of consent was finally secured in 2001 across England, Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland’s age of consent was set at 16 in 2008, in line with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Not a single person in any of the countries of the United Kingdom was prosecuted under Clause 28. It certainly hampered HIV prevention efforts and this bad policy led to a lack of public education which had consequences for everyone.

As a young gay man, I could never have imagined that one day it would become quite ordinary to see same-sex couples holding hands in public. In the UK we now celebrate civil partnership and marriage between two people of the same sex. Same sex couples can raise children and have a family of their own. This is something that me and my then long term partner could not dare to dream of for us as a young gay couple.

For those who are Transgender it is becoming more mainstream, greatly helped by high profile soaps featuring characters Trans characters. But there is still more to do to educate people about Trans issues.

And yet, we are reminded that we can never be complacent. A few years ago I experienced homophobic abuse on a London Bus. When the police were called they were very supportive. The officers dealt with the crime professionally and respectfully. I urge people to always report hate crime to the police.

In recent months have seen divisive arguments about the role of LGBT+ teaching in children's education, and a survey released last month suggests that more than two-thirds of LGBT+ people in the UK have been sexually harassed at work. LGBT+ people can also face an increased risk of mental health problems.

Ignorance is no bliss. There is still more to fight for and campaign together to achieve true equality. This can be achieved through education and information.

During my work on World AIDS Day at National AIDS Trust   and Time to Change  at Mind I became aware of the mental issues experienced by people from the LGBT+ community. Over 1 in 3 people experience mental health issues. This is not because they are LGBT+ but because of the stigma and discrimination they may experience in their lives.

The lack of appropriate mental health services was also a concern to me and through my work I was able to raise awareness of the need for improved LGBT mental health services in addition to tackling prejudice.

I produced events and activities around the county at various Pride events culminating in a massive event at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

I am particularly proud of an LGBT suicide prevent conference which resulted in the establishment of the national MindTrans helpline staffed by Trans people. The line operates Mondays and Fridays 8pm-midnight on 0300 330 5468.

It’s important for all of us and especially those who follow to know where LGBT+ people have come from to appreciate where we are now and how far we still need to go to get unity, a sense of belonging and equity for all.

There have been many extraordinary people through history have battled for gay rights. I want to highlight a couple of my favourite and amazing people.

One is Bayard Rustin. You probably have not heard of him, but you will soon. I have it on good authority that Dustin Lance Black (married to Tom Daly) and President Barack Obama are writing a screenplay for a Hollywood biopic about Bayard Rustin.

Dustin Lance Black won the Oscar for best screenplay for the movie Milk. It tells the life and murder of Harvey Milk the American politician and the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.  

But back to Bayard Rustin who was a close advisor to Martin Luther King, and an openly gay activist.

He was a key organiser of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King gave his historic ‘I have a dream’ speech.

Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner for the last decade of his life, has said that he was “someone who was working to expand our democratic freedoms and increase our civil liberties and our individual freedoms”.

In 1948, Rustin served time in prison for refusing to go to war. His prison records describe him as an “admitted homosexual” – one reason, perhaps, why Rustin hasn’t received the same recognition as others in the civil rights movement.

Another favourite and this blog would not be complete without paying tribute to Peter Tatchell. As a campaigner for human rights we can all learn from his courage, passion and compassion.

Peter really is one of the great campaigners for LGBT+ rights. I have known him for several decades and I know he will be embarrassed if he finds out that he features in this blog. But don’t take my word for it, as Netflix has produced a remarkable documentary about his life and work: Hating Peter Tatchell

You can also read about his extraordinary contribution to LGBT+ history in this tribute from Pink News.