Parliament’s Speaker’s Chamber Goes Rainbow to Launch LGBT History Month 2017

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The LGBT History Month Launch is a November tradition in the Diversity Calendar and it’s always held in a prestigious venue, but with 2017 being the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act we took it up a notch and held it in the Speaker’s Chamber at the Houses of Parliament. As guests of the Speaker John Bercow, a great ally to the LGBT community, a wide and diverse range of people were treated to an evening of stirring and thought provoking speeches from people who are widely known in the field of LGBT Equality.

The evening started with a welcome from Tony Fenwick, CEO of Schools OUT UK; the organisation that began LGBT History Month in 2004. Tony said that the Month had grown into a British institution with letters of support from all the major party leaders. But he added that we are currently facing a ‘political juggernaut’ from the right and that we needed to join together to take on the task of beating the forces who wanted to turn back the clock.

Tony introduced Wanda Wyporska, ex-equalities officer at the ATL teachers’ union and currently CEO at the Equality Trust, who hosted the evening. Amongst the surprises of the evening, Wanda, a Schools OUT UK Committee member, announced that she would become a trustee.

Wanda went on to welcome Angela Eagle MP, ex-Leader of the House and first out lesbian in government. Angela reminded everyone of  the Labour Governments’ swathe of positive LGBT legislation, including employment protection; civil partnership; same sex adoption; trans gender recognition; hate crime legislation and the putting together of the Equality Act, adding that only an elected labour government would bring true equality to our community.

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The next speaker was Stuart Milk, international human rights activist and founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation. Stuart, who is a friend of LGBT History Month and has come to the UK as our guest over 3 years, spoke of the need to turn negatives into positives. He was particularly moved by the vigil that took place in response to the Orlando massacre and the fact that it took place on this side of the pond too; it reminded him of the candle-lit vigil following the murder of his uncle, Harvey Milk in 1978. He reminded us of Harvey’s prescient statement: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door”.

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Next Wanda introduced Christine Burns, veteran trans campaigner and lobbyist and founder of Press for Change. Christine described being a trans child at school in the 1960s with no sense of belonging. Then in adulthood, she faced the struggle with parliament and the law when trans people had no rights to build on. She also congratulated Mermaids, who are currently battling with some vicious intrusive press from the Daily Mail.

Poet, author, publisher and editor of the OUTburst LGBT History Month magazine Adam Beyonce Lowe, who is also on the Schools OUT UK Committee, provided entertainment with his Polari poem Vada That to piano accompaniment from Nikki Franklin, who played to the guests as they came in.

Then there came the traditional handover of the plate. Sigrid Fisher, Head of Equalities at the University of Cambridge, where the launch was hosted last year, handed the plate to Angela Eagle on behalf of John Bercow, who was regrettably unable to attend due to a previous commitment. Sigrid spoke of her pride in hosting last year’s event the success of the Cambridge LGBT Charter, which they also launched on that occasion.

The next speaker was actor and Stonewall founder, ex-MP and MEP and now Lord Michael Cashman, who warned again of the struggle we have to face in the light of the rise of the right in the USA, in Europe and in the rest of the world. It was now clear that rapid changes in the political climate were becoming the theme of the evening.

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Janet Palmer, another Schools OUT Committee member, ex- Ofsted PSHE Lead and presently a PSHE Consultant, spoke next. Janet said that PSHE was crucial to the prevention of Homophobic, Transphobic and Bi-phobic (HTB) Bullying. Schools with coordinated well-planned and executed PSHE lessons, she argued, were always the best at safeguarding young people.

Professor Sue Sanders, co-founder and Chair of Schools OUT UK closed the evening. Reminding the audience that Schools OUT UK is run by volunteers, Sue went on to talk of Schools OUT UK’s resources: LGBT History Month; The Classroom; the OUTing the Past History Festivals throughout England in February; and our websites, not to mention Facebook and Twitter. She pointed out that there will be more lessons next year as a result of our having won a bid with the LGBT Consortium to train teachers to eradicate HTB bullying tendered by the Government Equalities Office.

Speaking of our subjects for next year: Law, PSHE and Citizenship, Sue explained that it was the logical choice given that the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967 would be the thing everyone would be talking about in 2017. Although she warned us that the TV and radio would be full of broadcasts about 1967 and its impact on the LGBT community, she ended on a positive by adding that they seemed to have taken on board diversity and were not just talking about white men; something she’d found herself challenging all her life.

Sue thanked the organisers: Wanda Wyporska; Lizzie Wallis; and Andrew Dobbin.

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Earlier that day, pupils from four schools were invited to the Speaker’s Chamber to present their own projects on LGBT people from history. Using the Voices and Visibility Timeline, available on our website, with an interactive version to be launched in February 2017 at The People’s Museum in Manchester, the schools had been invited to research a person from the timeline and give a presentation on their achievements. They chose Nicola Adams, Russell T. Davies, Sandi Toksvig and Radclyffe Hall.

They also had the opportunity to debate with a panel of experts who we termed everyday heroes: Phyll Opoku, Black Pride UK organiser, trade unionist and equalites campaigner; Peter Tatchell, Director of the Peter Tatchell (Human Rights) Foundation and a long-time advocate and direct action campaigner and protester for LGBT people; Sara Champion, Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities; as well as Stuart Milk; Professor Sue Sanders; and Christine Burns.

Stuart brought a message from Barack Obama supporting LGBT History. He told pupils that standing up for someone or something you know is right when everyone around you is against it is groundbreaking and makes a historic difference. He cited Maya Angelou, who shook his hand and came to his defence when he faced opposition.

Sara Champion said that she was brought up to believe that people were different but equal and she still didn’t understand why people had a problem with that. However current political events were demonstrating that such problems did exist and that HTB bullying in our schools was unacceptable.

The pupils asked some very apposite questions which proved they were grounded and had good subject knowledge. But perhaps the most important in terms of what they could take away was the question of how to engage and campaign now. Peter Tatchell spoke of the importance of learning from others. Describing his own experience in his childhood of knowing he was gay but not knowing anyone else who was or what could be done about it, he researched other struggles, particularly among black people, against oppression and learned from their successes.

Phyll reminded people to remember that when we are L or G or B or T we might also be black, disabled, working class, old, have a particular religion etc. so that many of us have a multiplicity of issues that intersect.

Speaking afterwards, pupils said they were really inspired by the event and hoped to have more of them. They also expressed concern about the current political environment and the rise of the far right in mainstream politics.

Tony Fenwick, CEO said: “The whole day was awe-inspiring. The young people who came were really clued-up and interested. They made me feel more confident about the future. The speakers were brilliant and I’m so pleased and proud that five were from our committee and two were our patrons. Another patron, last year’s co-host Cyril Nri, took time out from his busy acting schedule and joined us too.

“It was also, however, a balance of forces. We are still shaken by a lot of events in 2016 (Christine Burns got a round of applause when she said the good news is that there are only 31 days of this horrible year to go), but we also came away with a feeling of solidarity. We have the moral right, logic, a wealth of expertise and resources and some amazing people to ward of the enemies of progress”.

Photos from the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans History Month Facebook page (by permission of Nicolas Chinardet, Zefrographica)

Download a programme for the event LGBT Programme 2016 FINAL (pdf)