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On the need for LGBT History Month

by Ali Nobil Ahmad
28 Feb 2008 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Commons

On stage at a recent gig in New York, Gil Scott-Heron complained that the designation of February as Black History Month (BHM) was just another example of black people getting short changed: having oppressed them for centuries through slavery and exploitation, the system now conspires to cut short their heritage celebrations by consigning them to the shortest month of the year. Though only half-serious, Scott-Heron’s rye musings are indicative of a certain scepticism with which some have come to regard ‘minority’ history months.

Now in only its fourth year, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT) History Month, founded by anti-homophobic campaigners as a conscious attempt to emulate the success of BHM in tackling racism, has thus far emerged unscathed from the sort of charges often directed at the former. By the same token, however, it has received relatively little reflective comment within the mainstream about its purpose and value. If the latter may appear self-evident to many LGBT activists, social workers, historians and those politically engaged in anti-homophobic struggles, a number of questions are likely to be asked given the general feeling of fatigue that now prevails with regard to ‘divisive’ identity politics, by which minority groups demand recognition and material funding from the state to pursue agendas that emphasise ‘diversity’.

Indeed, the construction of religious, ethnic or other forms of ‘difference’ through demands for equality have come under scrutiny in recent years within a mainstream that has grown wary of multiculturalism and the ‘race relations’ industry. LGBT History Month, in some measure, owes its existence to (and is inevitably often associated with) the latter, having gained much of its early momentum from the Equality Impact Assessments that followed on from the Race Relations Amendment Act of 2002 following the Lawrence enquiry.

Nor is cynicism directed at LGBT History Month likely to be stem solely from ‘outsiders’. If few would quibble with the importance of eradicating homophobia, some of those who practice same-sex relationships may reject the notion of their identity as being defined by their sexual orientation. Whether for the same reasons that critics of Black History Month express unease at the condescending tokenism and victimology that can be a feature of history-telling that is ideologically driven, or due to a more generalised indifference that characterises the current age of political apathy and disengagement from activism, for some constellations of the ‘LGBT community’ at least, the importance of LGBT History Month is unlikely to be obvious.

A good many young, successful and dynamic twenty and thirty something LGBT professionals socialise in and out of the ‘gay scene’ all year round without feeling any need to reflect on their status as part of a historically oppressed group. Far from feeling marginalised, this ‘post-section 28′ generation has arguably not known discrimination of the kind that their predecessors suffered, and have in many ways established themselves as the vanguard of mainstream cultural and artistic production, shaping trends and styles that get appropriated by the city’s dominant ‘heterosexual’ culture, setting the moral and aesthetic agenda in profound though immeasurable ways.

The hype surrounding last year’s Gilbert and George retrospective at the Tate Modern, in which fairly explicit representations of gay sexuality barely raised an eyebrow, could be taken as signs of a new maturity in societal attitudes towards sexual orientation. The symbolic importance of the exhibition, which marked the duo’s acceptance into the ranks of the art establishment, indicated an unflinching willingness of some parts of the mainstream to celebrate art associated with queer aesthetic culture for its universal appeal and wider importance.

It seems valid to ask, in this context, whether in this, the era of civil partnerships and same-sex adoption, along with the arrival of gay art and subculture within the mainstream, LGBT History Month is in fact fighting battles that have largely been won, and whether in this moment of multicultural crisis, the sort of identity politics and history it represents hark back to a bygone era of sexual segregation?

Such assumptions, as shown by those on the front line in the ongoing battle against homophobia, are premised upon on a deeply misguided complacency that flies in the face all ground realities. Chris Gibbons, a senior education officer at Stonewall who spoke at last week’s Lambeth launch in Brixton library, pointed to the fact that despite the repeal of section 28, schools are reluctant to take an explicit stand against homophobic bullying. LGBT History Month co-founder Paul Patrick, an anti-homophobic activist and campaigner for equality since the 1970s, agues that homophobic bullying (against gay and straight children) is in fact at all time high due to the increased visibility of some aspects of gay life in society without a corresponding increase in understanding and knowledge of the issues surrounding sexual orientation.

The lack of queer-conscious sex education in schools has been equally damaging, according to consultant in public health medicine, Doctor Justin Varney, who spoke at the launch of Southwark’s February program: gay and lesbian populations face specific mental and physical health challenges, not least of which those which derive from homophobia, a common cause of anxiety, depression and high suicide rates. The ongoing AIDS epidemic amongst gay men is only part of a much wider story; recent evidence suggests, for example, that teenage pregnancy rates are higher amongst lesbians than their heterosexual counterparts, a likely consequence of the disengagement of queer youth from hetero-sexist sex education classes, and the confusion that stems from pressure to confirm with heterosexist norms.

Nor have issues of cultural representation been satisfactorily resolved, despite appearances: if homosexuality, these days, is seldom represented as deviant within popular culture and the media, a raft of more insidiously misrepresentative stereotypes has replaced traditional bigotry. The mainstream’s representation of LGBT life through shows like Will and Grace as the preserve of white, young, affluent, confident and urbane professionals leading materialistic and glamorous existences, along with its affection for gay personalities such as Graham Norton, is less a sign of progress than conditional acceptance. Norton follows in the tradition of Julian Clary and other much-loved camp entertainers and minstrels: sharp witted, larger-than-life, apolitical and untouched by homophobia. Lesbianism, meanwhile, continues to remain largely invisible, appearing only for the titillation of heterosexist male fantasies or to confirm the familiar taxonomy of stereotypes that surround ‘butch dykes’.

It is, perhaps, for this reason that in past years, a few too many of the discussion groups and talks that comprise LGBT History events have tended to get bogged down in a debate over identifying queer personalities throughout the ages. The ‘Hello Magazine’ version of ‘celebrity’ queer history, according to Paul Patrick, is an index of the desire to excavate a past from a context of feeling invisible. Although born of an understandable desire to construct important public role models, the question of whether Shakespeare was gay is less important than engaging with attitudes towards homosexuality and social histories of ordinary gay people in different times and places. These remain untold within a mainstream that views LGBT life through the prism of difference, a fact reflected in the difficulty that gay and lesbian fiction writers face in getting their novels reviewed – the queer everyday, Time Out editor Paul Burston recently wrote, is not yet considered to be of general interest.

Against this backdrop, the abundance of oral testimonial life history talks by ‘ordinary’ people included within the events program this year start to make sense. Far from being confessional, touchy-feely or indulgent, personal biographies are a rich source of queer sub-cultural social history which, having been forced underground for much of the modern period, remains largely undocumented. The act of narrating one’s story of coming out on a public stage, moreover, appears to serve an important function within the queer public sphere: symbolically breaking free of the shackles of shame that have compelled queer people to cloak love and desire in secrecy, whilst forging an atmosphere of solidarity that encourages those whose have not yet come out to draw inspiration.

Herein lies a key specificity of LGBT history, which, unlike ethnic, ‘racial’ and other oppressed minority heritage, is not passed down through families in traditions, languages and customs. As musician and activist Tom Robinson explained at the Lambeth opening, the realisation of being gay can be a profoundly lonely existence for teenagers: unlike the black or Asian child that experiences racism, lesbians and gays cannot necessarily turn to parents with first experience of homophobia, or for advice on coming out and dealing with its consequences.

Attending this year’s openings speaking to event organisers, one gets a definite sense that an older generation of activists such as Robinson is effectively reaching out to what it sees as its own children. The will to preserve and transmit the memory of their struggles and their experiences is borne, that is to say, of a parental, protective desire to shield young gay people today from the kinds of discrimination that they endured; to provide them with the courage to overcome bigotry where it confronts them through documenting queer agency and resistance to civil inequalities throughout the Thatcher years and before.

The response from local government has been uneven, however, with some authorities engaging more than others. Southwark, Islington, Lambeth and Camden appear to be particular LGBT History strongholds. This is no doubt due in large measure to the rich heritage of queer activism within these boroughs, which appear to have developed a healthy competitive spirit for leading the example in terms of the number and quality of events organised. Camden appears to have led the way in 2008 with an impressive list of imaginative and informative events, talks and film showings. Its success is in large measure a product of Lou Hart’s determined fundraising drive and outreach activities, both of which were shaped by a concerted effort to be inclusive of bi and trans communities, elements of which have felt their inclusion in previous years to have been tokenistic.

More generally, the extent to which internal differences and the issue of ‘compound diversity’ within the LGBT community is being confronted is striking. Discrimination against disability, ageism and racism have been highlighted respectively by Regard, Polari and Rukus, all of which represent subgroups that face prejudice from outside and within the LGBT community. Founder of Rukus Ajamu X is at pains to point out the subtle racism behind the commonly made assumption that black people are uniquely and uniformly prone to virulent homophobia. At the same time, ‘Outside Edge’, the exhibition he has curated at the Museum in Docklands on the history of the black gay and lesbian experience in Britain does not shy away from representing the specific forms homophobia manifest in Caribbean dancehall music lyrics.

Poet and writer Musa Okwonga, whose writings document his own personal journey of coming out within the context of a black British family, stresses that the particularity of his subject position should not be seen exclusively as a source of victimhood and suffering. The rich intellectual heritage with which being black and gay can be associated is a source of positive inspiration: ‘James Baldwin once said something like: “I’m both black and gay; as far as I’m concerned, I’ve hit the jackpot.” He meant, I think, that he was able to see the world from two exceptional vantage points: as black man in a white man’s world, as a gay man in a straight man’s society. There are some incredible highs (and lows) that come with that position, and with that heritage.’

The success of ‘Outside Edge’ in documenting the specific history of queer black subculture, activism and public meetings with rare flyers to club nights, conferences and newsletters dating back to 1980 is a good example of how LGBT month has diversified in its scope with its expansion since being set up. Founder Sue Sanders confesses it has taken off beyond her own expectations: what began as a website listing 100 events in 2005 developed into a list of over 800 in 2007. Over 1000 are expected this year.

If the threat (and reality) of tokenism is perceived as a problem with minority history months, all the evidence suggests that many LGBT organisations that operate all year round generally find it useful to showcase, acquire funding for and focus their activities within a co-ordinated period of intense and widely publicised activity. A thirty year-old lesbian discussion group at Gay’s the Word bookshop, now run by Joan Ballington, has welcomed the opportunity to benefit from structured, well researched educational talks (including one organised by Rukus). Paul Burston, who is putting on an LGBT literary event as part of this year’s program, has confessed that History month galvanised him into acting upon what might otherwise have remained a fantasy rather than a concrete idea.

Perhaps the defining feature of this year’s program, however, is the growing interest from mainstream organisations in participating. The Petrie Museum, which approached Camden with the idea to run an event this year, is a case in point. The Novas Gallery, which is showcasing the work of gifted LGBT artists who received little or no formal training or art education, is another. Small and medium size galleries appear to have spotted an opportunity to attract visitors drawn by the freshness of diversity and sexuality as a theme. Equally significant is the belated arrival on the scene of big national institutions like the Imperial War Museum and, at long last, the V & A, which ran a series of talks last weekend that began the work of reinterpreting its collections through the prism of queer social history. Oliver Winchester, Chair of the LGBT working ‘Party at the Museum’, is confident that the current generation of curators has been influenced by queer cultural theory as developed in academic research.

A remarkable talk by Chris Breward, the V & A’s Head of Research and a leading historian of fashion, skilfully drew together the various links between aesthetics, gender, class and sexual identity through a discussion of men’s and women’s suits and dresses. The collections, he demonstrated, can be analysed at multiple levels to think about LGBT identity: through consideration of the garments themselves, and their social importance for the people that would have worn them, but also in terms of the designers’ own sexual orientations and desires.

The success with which queer cultural theory can be used to place LGBT history at the centre of mainstream heritage raises the question of whether or not the exciting prospect of an LGBT museum, as advocated by Jack Gilbert of ‘Proud Heritage’ in London is necessarily a priority. The exponential growth of LGBT History Month is evidence on the one hand that the establishment of such a museum is inevitable and highly desirable. On the other, it could be argued that talks such as Breward’s demonstrate that the way forward is, rather, to ground the history of sexual orientation in a broader story that encompasses ‘race’, gender, social class and other ways of organising society. The two are not necessarily incompatible, of course. As with the debates that surround Black History Month in the US and the UK, however, such questions are likely to become more controversial and pressing as agendas proliferate and clash. For the time being though, LGBT History Month appears to have done enough to keep cynicism at bay.

A different version of this article appeared on the Untold London website [link may no longer be functioning]

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