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LGBT+ History Month: an opportunity for reflection
February 2023 Simon Williams, PinkUk
Understanding the historic journey of the LGBTQ+ communities helps to affirm LGBTQ+ rights today and in the future, writes Simon Williams, as the UK commemorates LGBT+ History Month 2023.
If you are lucky enough to own a £50 note, you'll see the face of Alan Turing on the reverse side with the Queen on the other. Turing was a mathematics genius who deciphered the Enigma Code, the German military communications encryption in World War II, so playing a huge role in the Allies’ victory over the Nazis.
Turing likely saved millions of lives by bringing the war to an earlier close. His breakthroughs in mathematics also laid the foundation for modern computing. His legacy has touched the lives of everyone.
Turing was gay at a time when male homosexuality was a criminal offence in the UK and in most Western countries. While an intellectual prodigy, he led two lives, one public and one secret, as many gay men had to in post-war Britain. In 1952 he was arrested after admitting, under questioning by the police, who were investigating a burglary at his home, that he had a sexual relationship with another man.
He was charged and later convicted of ‘gross indecency’. Faced with a prison term or suspended sentence on condition of ‘chemical castration’, he chose the latter. This ‘treatment’ made him impotent.
He also lost his security clearance given he would be a ‘blackmail’ risk given his sexual orientation, so was barred from his profession. Two years later Turing, severely depressed, tragically took his own life, poisoning himself with an apple laced with cyanide.
Male homosexuality was eventually decriminalised in the UK in 1967 (only between two men aged 21 or over); until that time, thousands of gay and bi men had received convictions and even prison sentences with heart-breaking consequences. These men, like Turing posthumously, were pardoned by the UK Government in 2017 so erasing their criminal records.
While much remains to do today around the world, especially in making new-found rights more secure such as same-sex marriage in the USA, the LGBTQ+ communities have achieved recognition and protection that would have been unthinkable to their peers in the 1950s. This spans full same-sex marriage rights to protection from discrimination in employment and the repeal of homophobic laws such as ‘Section 28’, a UK 1980s law which banned local councils from promoting homosexuality.
So in 1952 a war hero who was sentenced to a barbaric ‘treatment’ just for being gay is now on the reverse side of the UK £50 note. This did not come about by chance. It has all happened within living memory thanks to fearless campaigners who have literally changed history.
The past is strewn with these heroes: the New York drag queens who climbed lamp posts outside a gay bar to resist police brutality in the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, the courageous organisers of the first Pride marches in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the energetic campaigns of the Gay Liberation Front in the UK, USA and other countries, human rights activists such as Peter Tatchell challenging homophobic dictators such as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and those who confronted institutional homophobia in the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Last but not least, let’s note the achievements of the founders of the LGBTQ+ History movement itself. They all showcase the courage needed to move the needle on rights which today many people just take for granted.
That’s why LGBT+ History Month, founded in the USA in 1994 and commemorated in February in the UK and in October in the USA and Canada, is such an important event. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices made by pioneering activists and to learn from what they achieved to inform the activism of today.
This year,the UK History Month theme is #BehindtheLens which celebrates the contribution of LGBTQ+ people who work in the film industry and their impact on British culture and life. While the Month is celebratory in tone, it is also an opportunity to reflect on LGBTQ+ history more generally. By learning how we got here, we open pathways to achieve social and legal change today and in the future. It also reminds us of the sacrifices and tragedies, such as Alan Turing’s persecution and suicide, that took place along the way.
£50 pic credit courtesy Bank of England and the credit for Stonewall Inn pic by Gryffindor.