Every February the UK marks and celebrates the contribution that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered individuals have made throughout history. In the fields of science, entertainment, literature, politics and many others, the lives of LGBT people have influenced and shaped the world we live in. Often through personal trials and tribulations, many have overcome adversity to combat inequality, prejudice and discrimination.
The acknowledgment of a collective LGBT History Month is relatively new, beginning in the US in 1994 and in the UK as recently as 2005. Some may ask why an LGBT History Month is necessary within a society where LGBT people have many of the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts. However it is only necessary to open a newspaper to see that full equality for LGBT people has not been achieved by a long shot.
In October last year, the government of Uganda caused international outrage by announcing plans to criminalise homosexuality, with the threat of life imprisonment for committing the “act” of homosexuality, and a proposed death sentence for “aggravated homosexuality”. The legislation went as far as to threaten imprisonment for anyone who knows a gay or lesbian person and does not report them. As abhorrent as this law is there may be those who see it as an isolated incident in a country with many issues associated with human rights violations. However this is only a drop in an ocean already red with blood, with 93 nation’s still legally punishing homosexuality, and 7 of them- Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, United Arab Emirate, Sudan, Nigeria, and Mauritania still upholding the death penalty.
In the UK, homophobia is regarded by some as an issue no longer relevant, with civil partnerships between same sex couples being legally recognised since 2005. However, the age of consent for homosexual activities was only matched to that of heterosexual activities (16 years of age), as late as 2001. Astonishingly, Section 28, an amendment effectively banning the “promotion and publishing of material promoting” homosexuality, was still in effect as recently as 2003, a full 15 years after it was first introduced. In the face of such open and, until recently, legally supported prejudice against the LGBT community, it is understandable that some individuals have even taken their own lives. Alan Turing, hailed as the “father of all modern computer science” and the “individual most responsible for breaking the Enigma code,” thus cutting years off World War II and effectively saving millions of lives, chose to commit suicide after being arrested and chemically castrated in 1952 for the “crime” of being a homosexual.
The BBC came under fire last month after publishing in the ‘Have Your Say’ feature of its website the question “Should homosexuals be executed?” This, despite stating that homophobia and inciting violence will not be permitted in its rules for using the message boards. The question was centred on the Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill mentioned above, with readers being given the opportunity to state their opinions. One reader said, “Bravo to the Ugandans for this wise decision, a bright step in eliminating this menace from your society”. That one ignorant person would respond in that manner is shameful, but that the BBC, one of the nation’s most respected media sources should even publish the question, suggesting that there is any debate to be had on such a topic is sickening. It also shows the constant underlying, and sometimes openly hostile prejudice faced by members of the LGBT community in a country renowned for its tolerance to all.
Despite professional, social, and personal problems faced by members of the LGBT community as a result of their sexuality, many have gone on to do great things. Sir Ian McKellen is an actor, best known for his portrayal as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, and he is also a founding member of Stonewall, one of the UK’s biggest LGBT rights groups. Stephen Fry is a comedian, well known for his involvement in the quiz show QI and his documentary about his own manic-depression; he was also listed in 2007 as the second most influential gay person in Britain. Simone de Beauvoir was a renowned academic and author of The Second Sex, and she played a central role in the feminist movement, speaking out against the French treatment of poor unmarried mothers and was openly bisexual.
The visibility of transgendered individuals within society has been helped greatly in recent years with the win of Big Brother 2004 by Nadia Almada, a male to female transsexual. This was a massive breakthrough in raising awareness of trans issues within the UK, and breaking down prejudices against trans individuals. In politics, Christine Burns MBE was a conservative party branch secretary and vice president of the Press for Change campaign which fought to bring attention to issues facing transsexual people in the early 90s. In America, Amanda Simpson was recently appointed senior technical advisor in the commerce department’s bureau of industry and security, making her the first transgender woman appointed to a senior US post.
Such high profile transgender people and campaigners goes to show the extent to which transgender people have, and continue to, contribute to society by tackling inequality and raising awareness. However a lot of work still has to be done with an estimated 5000 people within the UK self-identifying as transgender, and reports showing the sickening behaviour that transgender people deal with on a day to day basis. With as many as 2/3 reporting having not gone outside into a social setting while transitioning for fear of verbal and even physical abuse, it is completely unacceptable that anyone should be made to feel unwelcome, let alone threatened in a great country such as this, because of something as trivial as the gender they identify with.
Brighton and Hove has a rich link to LGBT History, with The University of Sussex supporting and celebrating its lesbian and gay student body since its opening in 1961. Nearly 40 years later we continue this tradition in February with film screenings, debates and guest speakers, so look out for the posters around campus detailing the events, times and places.
We are lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people. We exist in all times and all places. We speak every language and observe every faith. We are both ordinary and extraordinary. We welcome you to join us, in remembering all we have been, in taking pride in all we are, and in looking forward to all we will be.
For more information about the LGBT society on campus please email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website at http://www.ussu.info/lgbt