Attempting to Excavate British Queer History

The tipping point was at the start of June, when I saw a rainbow sign outside the big Sainsbury’s on the edge of town, the word “proud” across the middle of it in their homey custom typeface. This isn’t a corporate pride blast, in case you were wondering, it’s just that I go to the supermarket an awful lot, so if I was going to be catapulted down a well of deep introspection into queer identity, it was as likely to happen there as anywhere.

It was during my next trip later in the week, after I’d whipped out my phone to take a picture of the sign to send to my wife, laughing about how Sainsbury’s had pride stuff everywhere for no reason, when it dawned on me there might be a reason: Oh yes, it’s pride month. Except it’s not pride month here. Is it? I was unsure for a minute.

London’s parade is in July, Manchester’s over the August bank holiday, Brighton earlier in that month. British queer history month is in February, when the small town I live in now holds its parade, out of fear that by the summer all the uni students will have pissed off home and there won’t be enough marchers to drown out the tuts of the locals. Sure, plenty of other towns have events in June, but like all outdoor activities in this country I assumed the timings were based around those narrow windows of opportunity when it might not be drizzling.

When I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Manchester, the city’s gay festivities went by the name of Mardi Gras (still, bizarrely, in August), long before we all converged on the template of pride. I remember my awareness of its existence but, at a time when my sexuality was largely confined to my head, I didn’t see how I might relate to the rambunctious revelry. Being schooled in 80s and 90s Britain, I wasn’t even aware that the threads that might have tugged me in that direction were being purposefully withheld from me.

Now seeing the UK’s dowdiest high street retailers embrace Pride Month™ with a fervour not seen since we imported Black Friday a few years back, I concluded that if we were going to get steamrollered by a juggernaut of cultural hegemony, then the Stonewall Anniversary was a pretty good one. The impact of the Stonewall riots was worldwide, so it’s only natural that the anniversary would have reverberations across the globe, both positive and negative. The inspiration is tangible, from the name of Britain’s largest LGBT advocacy group to Germany’s Christopher Street Day marches.

Reading many Stonewall takes in both British and American media threw up subtle differences. US publications, perhaps eager for a new angle or wary of Stonewall overload, would often reference other protests that happened earlier in the ‘60s. I thought maybe the British press would unearth something similar, but it didn’t seem willing or able to play that particular game. Two years ago, Britain had its own major gay anniversary celebrating the (partial) decriminalisation of sex between men in 1967, which prompted several newspaper thinkpieces and BBC documentaries but rather fewer rainbow-splattered corporate logos. To me, the UK seemed far more energised by Stonewall than our own history. It’s hard to gauge whether the surge of public pride is down to American influence trickling through multinational outlets, or simply the great gulps of progress that Western society takes at irregular intervals, broadening the nation’s outlook. Maybe the problem was that despite being about sex, decriminalisation was a hell of a lot less sexy than a revolutionary riot.

None of this was helping to resolve the weird discomfort I felt at not knowing whether Pride Month was really a thing in Britain, and furthermore whether the American culture I was consuming was leaving a huge deficit when it came to knowledge of my own country’s LGBT history. I think this fear is a common ruse of the queer subconscious. Even if you’ve lived your whole life with the most preternatural, precocious gayness that should have been recognised and entered into international competition at the age of 4, you will still feel that there is some essential gay trick that you are missing.

When the top hits of Google told me nothing I didn’t already know (courtesy of a couple of decades of gay cognizance, and enough credit to bankroll my book habit) I realised I could easily string together the timeline of British gay history. There’s a lot of trials: Oscar Wilde, Radclyffe Hall, Alan Turing, Jeremy Thorpe. Legislation: equalising the age of consent, freedom to serve openly in the military, the deeply flawed gender recognition act and inevitable march to marriage equality. The diligent efforts of thousands of activists for sure, but the images I conjure of British gay history seem more like faded court sketches than the vibrant defiance of the people on the street.

Certainly, people have been attempting to excavate more exciting stories from our history, most popularly in the film Pride, which succeeds in centering the experience of the working class, probably enough to forgive its largely white cis male view of things, and is definitely a relief from the usual British period drama deference to the ruling classes.

For me, if there’s one chapter of British gay rights that goes beyond the closed-door decisions of pallid old politicians, it’s the controversy around Section 28, the pre-cursor to the various “No Promo Homo” laws in several US states, and Russia’s gay propaganda law. Enacted in 1988, a couple of years after I started school, Section 28 was a typically counter-productive reaction to the gay panic of the 80s.

Fuelled by AIDS misinformation and sparked by a single copy of a book in a library, the legislation was the cornerstone of a Conservative government whose policy was that no-one had a right to be gay. Rather than seeking to educate the public and have a sensible conversation about these issues, the terse but vague wording of Section 28 made it illegal for schools to “promote” homosexuality, creating a fearful climate of silence where teachers thought it legally safest just never to mention The Gay.

Just once do I remember a teacher using the word at school. I was 16 years old and we were reading aloud excerpts about homeless youths. Seeing what was coming, the teacher read the last piece herself: “I got kicked out of home because I am gay.” With the word came a clang of dissonance, the fire of mortification that everyone might see if they looked at me, despite the teacher gamely proffering herself as a lightning rod for everyone’s attention (spoiler: they all knew I was really fucking gay anyway).

Protesting Section 28 inspired some of the most radical acts in modern gay history — aka not just Peter Tatchell mouthing off and chaining himself to things. Lesbians abseiled into the House of Lords!

Lesbians stormed the BBC 9 O’clock News! If their cries of “Stop section 28!” sound a little weak, I can only imagine it’s because they were overwhelmed by Sue Lawley’s consummate power dyke attire.

The act remained in force for over twenty years, with Scotland repealing it in 2000, and England and Wales in 2003 because we always have more shithead Tories to pummel through. Though not quantifiable, the effects of the legislation are widely considered to have been detrimental to the mental health of countless queer people and the tolerance of society as a whole. Now, another generation later, almost half of gay schoolkids are still bullied, and two thirds of trans students . These worrying stats prompted the adoption of new regulations earlier this year, that will for the first time mandate schools teach about “diverse families” as part of Relationship and Sex Education starting from next September. If this seems like we are coming full circle towards a satisfying conclusion, don’t doubt for a minute that the spiritual successors to the agitators of thirty years ago aren’t also coming back into orbit.

Early adopters of the new education faced criticisms that blew up into apoplectic protests earlier this year. Parkfield Community School, for children aged 4-11 in Birmingham became a flashpoint, when parents began to complain about the “No Outsiders” diversity programme run at the school. Created by a teacher to combat the sort of bullying he’d experienced at school in the 1980s, the course uses 35 picture books to gently introduce younger kids to issues around all areas of inclusion, and has been running successfully since 2016, even being called out by Ofsted school inspectors as an excellent example of how kids should be taught about equality. The handful of books touching on queer and trans themes include ban-list favourites such as Tango Makes Three and My Princess Boy.

The second largest city in the UK, Birmingham is also one of its most diverse, and yet the rejection of promoting diversity seems to be an irony lost on most of the protesters. As is often the case, the objections are framed as infringements of religious rights, clear from the banners and chants of many of the Muslim parents of children at Parkfield. Crowds of hundreds gathered at the gates for several weeks, with entryists flocking from miles away to whip up a frenzy. Other religious groups around the country chimed in with their concerns, all perpetuating the false dilemma of having to choose between faith and sexuality. For LGBT Muslims in particular, this is a fallacy they continue to fight in the face of prejudice from all angles.

Frequently, protesters’ cries were about the “sexualisation” of children, or the promotion of a perverted lifestyle, in wilful ignorance of the chief goal of all these sorts of inclusivity initiatives: the simple acknowledgement that we, the queers, exist. And, if they had cared to research among the actual gay community, they would have soon learned that merely existing while gay has a distressingly low chance of causing anything sexualised to happen. It is doubtful many of the protesters had read the books that were causing their outrage. They would have found the tamest, most sanitised — even heteronormative — introduction to gay relationships. Tango Makes Three, not Tango is Locked in Her Igloo While Her Dads Invite the Whole Colony Round for a Chemsex Orgy.

After an injunction against the protests outside the school gates, the crowds moved a few streets away, and then to a nearby school, Anderton Park. Under pressure from the Department of Education (which they deny), Parkfield halted its No Outsiders programme and, temporarily, the protests. After some tweaks the school has relaunched the scheme, but with parents’ demands to completely remove LGBT material not being met, they are withdrawing hundreds of children. If all this is happening when a small set of schools try and deliver this most elementary education, the prospects for the nationwide adoption of RSE next year are pretty fraught. In anticipation of more protests, ministers have issued guidance on how to deal with them, without really addressing the root cause. With an ever right-leaning government, I worry that they will eventually give up, ignoring these educational blindspots despite rising hate crime figures in our tinder-box of a nation.

It’s hard to reflect back on absence. In recent years, as I’ve begun to learn more queer history, I have wondered why it’s become so interesting and fun to me. I think it’s largely the joy of discovering the weird and wonderful gay people that have existed. I remember how bored I was in history lessons at school, thanks to the omissions from a staid system where it wasn’t deemed appropriate to show me a reflection of myself. For someone like me that can move easily and safely in my daily life, these are things I could fix later for myself. For others, I don’t think the impact can be underestimated. While it seems like every teen under the sun is identifying as queer these days, 80% of them still hear “gay” as a pejorative. What if it was as commonplace and sanctioned as spelling tests? Would it still be such a shock to the system when you realised it could mean you?

That’s why I think that over the next year, despite all the other political distractions, if anything demands a bit of the feistier sort of queer resistance that the Brits are capable of, it’s keeping LGBT education in schools firmly in place for next September. Then I think we can call that a proud month.

Sally does something with computers for a living. Beyond this, she enjoys making gifs, dreaming up stories, and overthinking. She lives over a river in the South of England, but her heart belongs forever to the North.

Sally has written 14 articles for us.

30 Comments

  1. Thanks for a great article, I’ve felt similar things about knowing more about American LGBT history than my own country’s. It took me until university and a Queer History course to finally get interested in the past. Hopefully the new curriculum will help more kids learn about their predecessors a lot sooner than I did.

  2. this was really interesting and informative, as a north american who doesn’t know a ton about british queer history!

    i had a similar experience as a kid to this,”With the word came a clang of dissonance, the fire of mortification that everyone might see if they looked at me, despite the teacher gamely proffering herself as a lightning rod for everyone’s attention (spoiler: they all knew I was really fucking gay anyway).” and your description of it is so on the nose!

    also, the url is great.

  3. This is great! In 1967 the same Lord (can’t remember his name, sorry) who sponsored the bill to de-criminalize gay male sex also sponsored a bill to protect badgers. This inspired the wonderful slogan “Don’t bugger the badgers and don’t badger the buggers!” Perhaps you can revive this.

  4. I was in London this past summer, and good Lorde did Sainsbury’s and other chains embrace the rainbow flag. What struck me the most was how detached it all seemed from the actual LGBT community. Of course, this has been happening in the States for some time, and in big box stores Pride month begins earlier and earlier just like all the other holidays. To be honest, London felt very American/consumerist in the weeks leading up to the parade, and I found myself disinclined to attend. I did take a walk on the outskirts of the parade route and got the sense that most of the rainbow bedecked revelers I saw were cis-gendered straight folk. My queerest memories of London will always be of watching the Women’s World Cup, and that’s perfectly fine.

    Anyhoo, on the subject of modern British queer history, is there a book that any of you in the AS community would recommend?

    • There is a great book I was reading called Queer City by Peter Ackroyd. It’s about the queer history of London beginning with the Celts and ending with marriage equality. I would say though the focus is more pre-20th century. But I would still defintly recommend.

      • Historian here who likes to dabble in queer history for fun! I would recommend Rebecca Jennings’s book about lesbians in Postwar Britain, ‘Tomboys and Bachelor Girls.’ It’s very well-researched and a good read as well.

    • “What struck me the most was how detached it all seemed from the actual LGBT community.” That’s the feeling I’ve been trying to put words to for months! The Sainsburys near me have taken their banner down now but I kept driving past it without being able to work out exactly why it was irritating me. That’s it. It’s detached from anything meaningful. There was nothing inside the store. A display of queer books or films, particularly history would have been nice to see.

  5. Thanks Sally, so glad to hear it’s not just me being baffled by the pride sandwiches that have been on offer this summer!

    What really confused me was trying to explain to straight friends that we don’t have a pride month as such, and no I’m not going out of my way to buy M&S LGBT (lettuce, guac, bacon & tomato) sandwiches just because they sounds gay af.

  6. Thank you for this article! I spent a lot of “Pride month” being annoyed that companies like Sainsburys would jump on a rainbow bandwagon for show while I will have to live with the effect of Section 28 for the rest of my life, with the recent protests in Birmingham not helping that. Please take a sign to the protests with “It’s Tango Makes Three, not Tango is Locked in Her Igloo While Her Dads Invite the Whole Colony Round for a Chemsex Orgy.” on it!

    • This is really good, and helps articulate a problem I have- which is that I am chippy as fuck. I am angry. I feel othered at work all the time. Yet ‘homosexuality isn’t a Thing anymore’. That’s as maybe, but I spent 2003-7 in the closet and miserable, when 40% of the adults thought homosexuality was ‘always wrong’, and Sect 28 had hollowed the gay out of sex education completely. I can try as much as I like, but I’m highly likely never to get over that. And now I have a graph to explain why! 🙂

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