A pivotal moment in the gay rights movement will be celebrated during LGBT+ History Month in February with a look back at the Stonewall Riots. Charlie Bullough reports
The Stonewall Riots happened in America 50 years ago but the impact of the protests was felt all around the world.
Police raided a gay club in New York called the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969. It sparked days of demonstrations from people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and Trans (LGBT) community.
Sue Sanders, co-founder of the nationwide LGBT+ History Month, said: “It was the first time the LGBT community, predominantly led by Trans, just said ‘Get off our backs. You are treating us abominably’ and just challenged the whole prejudicial horrendous situation that we were dealing with.”
The 72-year-old added: “It was a three-day riot in New York that gave rise to the whole concept of ‘Pride’. If you think why did we use the word pride? It is because for so many years we were made to be ashamed. We were told we were perverts, we were dreadful and we were immoral.”
The first LGBT+ History Month was in February 2005 shortly after the repeal of a law forbidding local authorities intentionally promoting homosexuality. The Section 28 amendment of the Local Government Act 1988 also banned promoting the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of “homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.
I think the explosion around gender and gender identity over the last five years has been phenomenal and very exciting’Sue Sanders
Campaigner Sue said of the Section 28 era: “It was a vicious and horrendous atmosphere that we were living in. We had no social media, no Internet and no mobile phones. I was fighting it with very early photocopiers that just constantly died as soon as you tried to do 60 or more copies.”
Sue, a vastly experienced drama teacher, recalled: “Everybody used Section 28 as an excuse to do ‘Sweet FA’ about LGBT issues, so homophobia became rife in schools, bullying was horrendous, it still is, actually. LGBT kids commit suicide in much higher numbers than heterosexual kids.”
The activist said teachers also found it difficult to be openly gay, adding: “The irony is even now teachers aren’t comfortable with being out. It’s probably easier to be an out LGBT police officer than it is to be an out LGBT teacher.”
Sue founded the history month with fellow teacher and campaigner, the late Paul Patrick. They were also co chairs of Schools Out UK, a voluntary charity whose goal is to make schools and educational institutions safe spaces for the LGBT community.
The themes of this year’s history month are peace, reconciliation and activism. The event is using four faces to highlight its themes and aims. The four faces are assassinated human right activist Mariella Franco, physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfield, poet Robert Graves, and gay liberation activist Marsha P Johnson, a prominent figure in the Stonewall uprising.
Sue added: “The aim of LGBT+ History Month has been to make LGBT people and all our diversity visible. Our visibility has increased. I can think back to my own teenagehood, we were there but we were hidden in plain sight.”
She said the history month, now in its 15th year, had expanded hugely since its inception. There were 100 events in 2005 but more than 1,500 last year.
At the heart of LGBT History Month is OUTing the Past, the official LGBT history festival, which is now in its fifth year.
For the first time, the festival is going international, with 18 hubs in England, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Norway, Sweden and New York.
Highlights this year include original theatre about 19th Century poet Walt Whitman and his links to a group of devotees in Bolton. There will also be a play reading about the life of activist Peter Tatchell, plus appearances by Stuart Milk, nephew of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in America. OUTing the Past, which also began on February 1, will culminate with a gathering of international activists and academics in Belfast during the last weekend of March. Sue said: “I think the explosion around gender and gender identity over the last five years has been phenomenal and very exciting as people are beginning to challenge the straight jacket of terms and want to be much more fluid.”
She concluded: “I think a lot of it is to do with Internet. It’s the whole process of being able to find other people who are like you and not have to rely upon on what the media tells you. You can actually discover people who are feeling what you are feeling. You begin to explore and talk about it and say, ‘Gosh, I’m not the only person who feels this’ and begin to feel more confident about your identity and expression of identity.”
“I would suggest the Internet has had a profound effect on people being able to explore and being more confident in who they are.”