WHAT IS LGBTQIA+ HISTORY MONTH?
If the highlight of your February was not championing the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, (LGBTQIA+) then I encourage you to do two things right away. Mark it in the diary for 2021 and allow me to run you through some notable events and individuals that have a significant place in Britain’s history.
Before we jump in, you may be asking what is LGBTQIA+ History Month and why do we care? Simply put, it is a dedicated month every year to promote equality by raising awareness, celebrating important contributions by this complex collection of people who are alienated in British society. Equality that is at the heart of feminism; championing difference. Difference of sexuality, gender identity and expression.
The UK is not alone in promoting this; Hungary, Canada, the US and Australia endorse it in October. Berlin support it in June under a different name; Queer History Month. It takes place in February in the UK because it falls around an important event, the 2003 abolition of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. This was a law introduced during Margaret Thatcher’s leadership that essentially required local authorities and schools not to “promote homosexuality“. Which in practice “meant that teachers were prohibited from discussing even the possibility of same-sex relationships with students.” The law was in short, aggressively anti-gay. Especially in light of the 1980s HIV/AIDS epidemic that was wrongly described as a “Gay Related Immune Deficiency“.
LGBT activists fought for years against it and were successful in 2003. However, the effects of 15 years of that law are still felt today. As this independent article highlights only a small proportion of schools have included same sex relationships on health education.
SEVEN IMPORTANT EVENTS (AND PEOPLE) TO KNOW
Having scratched at the surface of what LGBTQIA+ History Month is, a closer look at the following events provide us insight into Britain’s attitude to the rights of gay people between the 16th century to recent times.
(If you are following us on Instagram, (thank you!), these may be familiar.)
ONE: The ‘Buggery Act’ 1533 (Britain’s first anti-gay law)
This law prohibited sex between men – sodomy – for which the punishment was death. It was introduced by Henry VIII, though some have argued his motive was not explicitly a hatred for gay men but an opportunity to gain power away from the church, which had normally dealt with such matters. Regardless, the Act asserted that sex between men was unnatural and against God’s will. Indeed, the term ‘sodomy’ referred to sex between human and animal, but it was extended to sex that does not serve a procreative function.
The Act’s first reported victim was Walter Hungerford who worked with Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s important politician. When Cromwell was arrested for treason, his friend Hungerford soon followed. It seems Hungerford was abusive to his third wife, which is not what got him in legal trouble but sleeping with his male servants. He was charged with sodomy. Both Hungerford and Cromwell were beheaded on the same day in 1540.
TWO: The imprisonment of Oscar Wilde (1895 – 1897)
In 1861 acts of sodomy progressed from acts punishable by death to long imprisonment. The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 also made it easier to bring charges of homosexual acts. Whereas before evidence was required, this law meant perception of homosexuality was considered conclusive. This is because the law was written so imprecisely that it became known as a useful instrument for blackmail. For example, expressed affection between men could lead to an arrest.
This law is famous for the devastation of, and among others, Irish poet Oscar Wilde.
Wilde was born in Dublin and published his first book The Picture of Dorian Grey in 1890. Married with two children, he is said to have fallen in love with a younger male, Lord Alfred Douglas. In 1895 Douglas’ father who was unhappy about his son’s closeness to Wilde, accused Wilde of homosexuality to which Wilde responded by suing him. Wilde dropped the suit when his home was raided and ‘evidence’ emerged, his love letters to Douglas, which led to his arrest and charge for ‘gross indecency’ with men.
He was convicted and imprisoned for two years of hard labour. Wilde lost his fame, money and eventually his health. He died in France in 1900 at 46 years old.
It is important to note this 1885 Act did not end in Britain, it was imposed on countries Britain had colonised. India for example, overturned this British law, known as Section 377 in 2018 when the Supreme Court legalised homosexuality.
THREE: The Parliamentary debate on female homosexuality (1921)
The law on homosexuality had been specifically about men, excluding female homosexuality until 1921. This is when Parliament debated adding women to the 1885 Act with the following amendment:
“any act of gross indecency between female persons shall be a misdemeanour and punishable in the same manner as any such act committed by male persons under section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885”
This was rejected, and not for respect of women. White male law makers argued against it because they did not want to unintentionally legitimise female sexuality by calling it an ‘offence’. They set out contradictory explanations why lesbianism, which to them was “a most disgusting and polluting subject”, did not require legal intervention. Including concerns over evidence, believing cases of lesbianism were “exaggerated” and it was too difficult to know for sure since women were by nature more “sociable“. As well as concerns over blackmail. In the end they resolved if there were cases of lesbianism, time would eradicate it. However, it appears the winning argument was discouragement: “The more you advertise vice by prohibiting it the more you will increase it”.
Setting aside the obvious homophobia, why were the same arguments not applied to male homosexuality? I suggest sexism was the reason for the different treatment. While male sexuality was accepted, female sexuality was imagined not to exist. Lesbianism was, and still is, doubly threatening to male supremacy as it is a blatant assertion of female autonomy.
FOUR: The Diaries of Anne Lister (1791 – 1840)
Britain’s first openly gay woman is claimed to be Anne Lister, born in 1791, Yorkshire, North of England. Lister was a wealthy, well-educated white woman who by 35, was managing her aunts’ property, Shibden Hall, which she later inherited. This provided her economic independence, the ability to travel and pursuit of business opportunities.
Lister was also a prolific diarist having written around 6,200 pages, in code. These were discovered and decoded in 1890s, 5 decades after her death by a male relative, John Lister. He hid them due to their detailed account of Lister’s sexual exploits which were exclusively with women. Although the diaries were in Halifax’s public library from 1933, it was not until 1982 when Helena Whitbread, a teacher, came across them and studied them from a different perspective: “a truthful account of lesbian sex”.
The story of Anne Lister unfolded, a woman who wore mostly black, which in combination with her perceived masculine-like behaviour meant she was ridiculed, with people referring to her as “Gentleman Jack”. Lister met Ann Walker who was a very wealthy, the two are said to have committed to each other in 1834 and lived together in Lister’s property until Lister’s death in 1840.
FIVE: Laurence Michael Dillon (first to “undergo female-to-male sex reassignment”)
Dillon was a wealthy, well-educated white physician, born in 1915 in Dublin and assigned female at birth. Having been more comfortable presenting as male for some time, he sought medical treatment in 1939 from a doctor George Foss who had been looking into treating severe menstruation using testosterone.
Gossip of his longing to become a man sent Dillon out of town, settling in Bristol. There he worked in a garage which in addition to the hormones, helped him “pass” as male. Time at the hospital for a head injury, provided him the opportunity to have a double mastectomy, removal of his breasts. Another doctor, Harold Gillies, known to perform penis reconstructions on wounded soldiers and intersex people, later performed 13 surgeries on Dillon between 1946 – 1949. A different diagnosis was used as cover for the surgery.
In 1946 Dillon published a book Self: A study in Ethics and Endocrinology, a catalyst to the term ‘transsexualism’ entering the English language. Interestingly, Dillon, yet a licensed physician performed surgery removing the testicles of the first male to female person– Roberta Cowell. Reassignment surgery was still illegal then. In 1958, Dillon’s journey was exposed by the media which forced him to move once again to India where he died in 1962. His unpublished autobiography, Out of the Ordinary, was published in 2017.
SIX: Deborah Anne Dyer aka Skin (“a queer black icon”)
‘…a lot of the discussions now are standing on our shoulders. Because we started that shit.’
Skin was born Deborah Anne Dyer in London in August 1967 and she is best known as frontwoman of the rock band Skunk Anansie. Her music, look and attitude disrupted social decorum and she notably became the first Black Brit to headline Glastonbury in 1999, before Stormzy (and Beyoncé), making her a Black queer icon.
Skin is openly gay and has talked frankly about her sexuality as a “journey”. Having grown up in Brixton, London, in a Jamaican and Christian household where everyone was assumed to be straight, and homosexuality was ignored as though it did not exist. She says her first crush was on a sweet boy who she never told and it was not until her 20s, at university when she was exposed to different life styles and people, that she unexpectedly had her first crush on a girl.
Remarkably, when she realised she was interested in girls and that she might be gay, she was reassured. Today, 52-year-old Skin “still feels a deep responsibility to get off the fence and fight against fascism, homophobia and sexism”.
SEVEN: Phyllis Akua Opoku-Gyimah (“an LGBTQ rights activist and anti-racism campaigner”)
‘I don’t believe in empire. I don’t believe in, and actively resist, colonialism and its toxic and enduring legacy in the Commonwealth, where – among many other injustices – LGBTQI people are still being persecuted, tortured and even killed because of sodomy laws… that were put in place by British imperialists.’
Opoku-Gyimah is a self-described “out black lesbian who also identifies as a queer black woman”, who among other things, co-founded the UK Black pride in 2005. It advocates for solidarity among Black people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Latin American descent and those who identify and support Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender.
The positive impact this has on the lives of Black and queer women, as highlighted here, means “being seen”, “representation”, “hope”, celebrating “perseverance through adversity.” Value of her work was noted when she was presented with the Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire award (MBE) in 2016. She rejected it. However, conceded that she was as indeed, a Lady, and so she is widely known as: Lady Phyll.
The MBE is a prestigious award in British society, an important symbol of success because it says your work is valuable, which for Black women, in particular, is no mean accomplishment. Undeniably it is an award of colonial legacy. This is to say, and without judgement to those who have accepted, her decision to refuse it was incredible. It exposes her unwavering commitment to the LGBTQ1A+ community and the desire to work outside power structures that have historically undermined it.
WHAT WE CAN TAKE FROM THIS
We can start to see that Britain’s story on the rights of gay people is a story about power. From Henry VIII honing homophobia to take power away from the church, the law pursposefully ignoring and undermining lesbianism so to uphold male supremacy, to Margaret Thatcher categorising the HIV/AIDS pandemic a gay problem to stay in power. We can see power reflected in the individuals noted in this history; wealthy white landowners, people that mattered in society. Creating space for UK Black Pride speaks of a LGBTQIA+ community that can uphold white supremacy. Finally, this is also a story of Britain’s wider domination, colonialism. A legacy that continues to devastate the lives of gay people in countries Britain considers undeveloped.