This Pride month we take a look at why we should care about LGBT history. Alex Hopkins explores how our past can reveal how we are today – and what we should look out for in the future.


Courage is everything

The heroes and heroines of LGBT history were bold and fearless. The quest for equality and the freedom to love those you choose came with many battles over adversity. 

We can only achieve justice by being consistently outspoken. By refusing to be intimidated - and there are so many examples from the past. The writer, James Baldwin, suffered unspeakable discrimination on multiple fronts: virulent racism and homophobia.

And yet how well Baldwin understood that learning about our past can transform our future; and give us the inner strength to survive. “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read,” said the author of Giovanni’s Room. By immersing ourselves in our heritage, we can feel a little less alone.


The tyranny of the closet

Silence fuels homophobia. Oppression and victimisation are the bedfellows of denial. The monumental figures of LGBT history have voiced their true identities without fear. Crucially, they did this in the face of tyranny which threatened to destroy them.

But gay rights have been hard won by defying the greatest tyranny of them all: the tyranny of the closet. “Burst down those closet doors and once and for all, and stand up and start to fight,” said Harvey Milk. “Coming out is the most political thing you can do.” It still is. And everyone has that power. LGBT history shows us that our survival rests upon lifelong coming out.

Harvey Milk at Gay Pride San Jose, June 1978. 
Harvey Milk (left) at Gay Pride San Jose, USA, June 1978, via Wikimedia Commons.

Defy convention: create your own story

LGBT history and the journey towards gay rights, across the world, teaches us to define ourselves. We create our own identities and authentic lives, by defining ourselves against all that we know is wrong.

And so, in the words of the playwright Harvey Fierstein, “Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life; define yourself.”


Never rest on your laurels

To take the gay rights we have won for granted is lethal. All gay rights can be taken away. Most recently, we can look at the Trump presidency – and, in just one instance, the proposed ban on transgender people in the military.

But possibly the greatest example in LGBT history is Germany’s Weimar Republic. Pre-Nazi Berlin was a hotbed of sexual dissidence. Just look at Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories – and the musical Cabaret. Berlin was a mecca for gay people, crossdressers and trans men and women.

In 1919, Dr Magnus Hirschfeld opened the Institute for Sexual Science, pioneering sexology. Some of the first sex-reassignment surgeries followed. But after Hitler came to power in 1933, Hirschfeld was held up as a symbol of all that was decadent, all that would be wiped out.  In the words of human rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, “the price of queer freedom is eternal vigilance”.

Protesters against the criminalisation of LGBT rights in Commonwealth countries
Protesters against the criminalisation of LGBT rights in Commonwealth countries.  Image: Alisdare Hickson. Flickr Creative Commons License

Warnings and complacency

Nazi Germany again. And Vladimir Putin’s Russia. A case of history repeating itself. In 2014, Putin’s Russia hosted The Olympics in Sochi and all the while the rumblings of homophobia continued across Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East – and in particular, in Russia.

Turning back time to 1936 another powerful European nation hosted an Olympics: Germany. It, too, had laws in place allowing the persecution of Jews and homosexuals. Additionally, it wanted the world to see it as a benign host to a celebration of the Olympic spirit. And the world’s complacent on that occasion foreshadowed the genocide that was to come. LGBT history has shown us, so painfully, that we turn away at our peril.


Education is everything

LGBT history shows us that education fuels the march towards gay rights. Attitudes can change, but only when addressed from a grass-roots level. It begins with educating the next generation. Gay rights start in schools.

The year 2018 saw the 30th anniversary of the UK government passing Section 28 - a vile, insidious piece of legislation that prohibited schools from “promoting homosexuality”.  Its toxic legacy of internalised-homophobia and the host of mental health issues that come with that remains evident today. Winning gay rights means challenging the establishment from the outset. We must be consistent and fearless in doing so. The seeds of prejudice must be identified early – and stamped out.


A better tomorrow for gay rights

Only by learning about the struggle and devastation and by celebrating the triumphs of our collective yesteryears can we brace ourselves for the realities of the modern world.

If we fail to appreciate what LGBT history has to teach us about society’s attitudes toward LGBT people, we will never understand how we got where we are now. More importantly, we will never truly understand what more needs to be achieved.

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Cover photo: Ted Eytan Equality March 2017, Washington, DC USA. Flickr Creative Commons License




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