I was never taught queer history at school. There was not a single mention of any queer historical figures, events or themes in the entire six years of my secondary school history education which, on reflection, I find totally bewildering. It was deemed necessary for us to memorise the specific agricultural methods of Scottish rural farmers in the 19th century and we covered the world wars about thirteen times, yet queer history never made it into the classroom, which begs the question: why?
The finger of blame can certainly be pointed at the 1988 Local Government Act, which contained the infamous Section 28. It banned the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools, to ensure that British children received a “sound start in life” and were instilled with “traditional moral values” (to quote a certain Maggie T). The aforementioned phrases were repeatedly used to justify the policy, and to shirk away from addressing the critics who called it out for what it was: straight-up homophobia. Pun intended.
The vagueness of the legal language used was pernicious in itself; what does the “promotion of homosexuality” even mean? The ambiguity meant that the vast majority of teachers, scared of violating the law, felt unable to discuss homosexuality in the classroom, period. Imagine accidentally implying to children that queerness is even remotely acceptable! God forbid!
After twelve years of state-sanctioned LGBT repression, Section 28 was finally abolished in Scotland in 2000, thanks to what was then the brand-new devolved government, and England and Wales followed suit in 2003 after eventually overcoming considerable resistance from conservative peers in the unelected House of Lords. However, the sad reality is that the ghosts of Section 28 never really buggered off, and its legacy is still reflected in both the current school curriculum and the general public’s limited knowledge of queer history. Nowadays, the obstacle may not be conscious homophobia or an overt reluctance to teach queer history per se, but more a lack of awareness that such queer history actually exists and is sumptuously rich in fascinating narratives.
The idea of celebrating an LGBT History Month originated in the USA in 1994, but it wasn’t until 2005 that a UK equivalent came into being. Sue Sanders and Paul Patrick organised the UK’s first LGBT History Month as part of the Schools Out UK project; an initiative that was established with the core aim of educating young people about LGBT+ issues that had previously been banned from the curriculum. They chose the month of February to mark the anniversary of the 2003 abolition of Section 28. Over 150 events took place across the country, which far exceeded the organisers’ modest expectations of 15 to 20 events. The brand has steadily grown year after year since then and has risen to achieve a decent amount of mainstream societal recognition, although there is certainly room for it to grow further.
Queer history is a history of marginalised individuals and communities, and stories about those who have been historically excluded: both by society and by the archives.
I found this out first-hand last semester when I was scouring the university’s digital archives for any old photos of the St Andrews GaySoc (a society which later evolved into Saints LGBT+). Alas, no such photos could be found.
Archival photographs capture what people judge to be important moments. Moments important enough both to have been captured in the first place and to not have been discarded in the decades since. In order to be photographed, one must be visible. It is difficult to be photographed when residing in the shadows.
This is why LGBT History Month matters. It brings LGBT history out of the shadows, out of the niche webpages that you would only find if you were prepared to do some serious digging, and into a spotlight that makes queer stories visible to a wider audience.
We need to expand our knowledge of well-known historical queer figures like Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. We need to learn about grassroots queer activists, both past and present, such as Alan Horsfall, Mark Ashton, Peter Tatchell and Phyll Opoku-Gyimah (to name but a few) who have thus far enjoyed significantly less recognition than their admirable efforts merit. We need to learn about transgender pioneers like Roberta Cowell, April Ashley, and Sir Ewan Forbes. We need to learn about both the lows and the highs experienced by queer people from the past and reject the oversimplified notion that “things were terrible back then, but they are much better now.” Indeed, it is quite staggering just how much queer history is out there once one is made aware that such history does, in fact, exist.
Queer history is not just for the queer community. Just like black history is not just for the black community, religious history is not just for monks, and military history is not just for army veterans and teenagers who stomp about a muddy field every now and again as part of the Cadets. Everybody should learn about LGBT history, and LGBT History Month is quite simply the ideal time to start!