By Emily Bryant
With LGBTQ+ History Month upon us, myself and my fellow members of the community can take time to commemorate those who helped shape the culture that we know and love today. Since 2003, LGBTQ+ people have been able to use the whole month of February to learn about and honour figures and events of queer history. Such celebrations, however, are not present everywhere in our society. Sue Sanders herself, co-founder of this annual celebration, stated to the BBC in 2019 that we need the month because “[w]e have a history and we have been denied it”.
“[w]e have a history and we have been denied it” -Sue Sanders, co-founder of LGBTQ+ history month
Dismissals of our history became increasingly obvious within our schools. It was only in September of 2020 that the government ruled that education about LGBTQ+ relationships was compulsory in primary schools. This ruling came as a welcome change of pace following major protests over education on LGBT+ relationships in a Birmingham school in 2019. LGBTQ+ history and sexual education is still largely absent from British education systems. Events such as the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and the development of laws regarding queer people in the 20th and 21st centuries remained omitted from school syllabuses by law until the early 2000s, and ever since implementing it into education has been a slow process. This continues a cycle of misinformation about queer people, as many only have social stigmas and uninformed rumours to guide them (for example, the stigma around gay people and AIDS).
Growing up as non-heterosexual and gender questioning, I definitely noticed this absence in my life. My lack of awareness of LGBTQ+ history and people was isolating; I never heard about people who were like me apart from those in my friend group. And, from my experience, this was similar for lots of LGBTQ+ people growing up in my generation. We craved real life representation, seeking connection to something, or someone, to prove that we weren’t alone in the world. Had I learned in school about the bravery of those involved in the Stonewall Riots, I would have known that there were people like me who fought for the right to live proudly as themselves. Had I known about Stonewall UK’s ‘Gay, let’s get over it’ campaign against homophobia in schools, I would have known that the slurs myself and my friends were called by other students weren’t normal and it needed to be stopped. Restricting young people’s awareness of such things merely encourages damaging behaviours and discrimination against queer youth. As such, it limits the tolerance and acceptance of young people as they age, as they have had no source of education informing them that such behaviour was not acceptable.
In addition to the deliberate ignoring of our history, there is also a lack of knowledge around LGBTQ+ role models for young people. Considering I studied the Second World War at least three times, I was surprised that I only heard about British Nazi codebreaker and gay man Alan Turing in the film The Imitation Game from 2014. Similarly, I only learned about trans figures like American activist Marsha P. Johnson in early 2020 during the Black Lives Matter movement, despite the fact that there was a trans student at my school. These historical people, who were relevant to my studies and school life, were not taught about during my secondary education. This exclusion isn’t exclusive to historical people; modern LGBTQ+ figures like boxer Nicola Adams, actor Elliot Page (who came out as lesbian while I was in school) or founder of the Black Pride movement Phyll Opoku-Gyimah were conveniently left out of any and all lessons and class discussions. Throughout my time in school, people and historical figures who were LGBTQ+ were ignored or brushed off as there being ‘not enough evidence’ for it.
Such an attitude, which is perpetuated in schools across the country, continues to limit young people’s understanding of themselves and the world around them. Lack of awareness of those you relate to, I have found, only encourages the feeling of isolation and loneliness. Providing young people with education about a diverse array of role models, not just those who fit the heteronormative social mould, aids them in discovering and learning about the diversity of the world. This education benefits not just LGBTQ+ people; in my experience, non-queer people being taught about those unlike them in a factual, non-biased manner helps improve their tolerance and acceptance. More importantly, learning about people like this reminds us that being who we are is okay. If I had been more aware of queer role models, I believe myself and my LGBTQ+ friends could have found people to look up to that we identified with. In addition, the pressure to conform to the heteronormative mould would not have impacted us as heavily as it did and we could have been more comfortable with ourselves much earlier in life.
“it’s great that we’re more visible, but who is visible?” – Sue Sanders
The lack of education on LGBTQ+ history and role models in schools is precisely the reason we need LGBTQ+ History Month. It provides a space for queer people, young and old, to learn about and celebrate their history that schools did not provide. While schools have made some movement to being more accepting, there is still a long journey ahead before queer people are represented fully within our education systems. As such, LGBTQ+ History Month reminds us that diverse queer people have always been there and emphasises to queer youth that they are not alone. Sanders notes in her interview “it’s great that we’re more visible, but who is visible?”, which highlights the need for more visibility for diverse LGBTQ+ voices. While there is still a long way to go, perhaps one day queer people and history will be as ingrained in society as what is considered world history.