by Sue Sanders, co-chair Schools OUT/LGBT History Month UK
At Schools OUT we have consistently worked since 1974 to change the law and culture on LGBT people and issues. We have been acutely aware that they are two distinct and linked areas that are crucial in enabling the safety and visibility of the diversity of LGBT people in a country.
John Vincent’s book is a useful and pretty comprehensive look at what happened in the UK in both areas since 1950.
The book will certainly educate those who have little knowledge of this momentous time and will enable those who were busy in the period in their own area to check out who else was doing what.
We have as LGBT people and their allies in the last 64 years had a roller coaster ride. We take a step forward – the limited legalizing of homosexuality 1967 – and then back, with the immediate increase of men arrested for indecency and importuning.
Governments produce their laws from attitudes which are informed by culture, media, education and religion. Tracing how the latter has changed is obviously much harder than recording the change of laws. Vincent’s reading is extensive: the book is valuable for the references and index. He cleverly sets the legal scene in his chapters and then goes on to describe the cultural landscape. What is shocking is how bereft that landscape is of LGBT material. Often when it is there it is negative and posits a dangerous world which influenced many to hide and or deny their sexual identity.
For me, reading the book as someone who was partially active back in the early seventies, it was a painful walk down memory lane remembering frustration, anger, long rants with friends, some alas now dead, and early action. I think it is quite hard for people now to understand how we in the days of no mobile phones, internet, photocopying, email etc. worked effectively, and the challenges we had to overcome.
Vincent as a librarian charts in particular how they deal with LGBT issues and is clear that the response is patchy and poor. How could it not be?
People need nourishment to write books; if you were going to write positive books, fact of fiction on LGBT people, where were they getting it?
So there are not that many positive books to put in the library. Are people going to be brave enough to take them out if they are there and how are they going to find them?
Questions we are still asking in 2014. There are still libraries that put their LGBT children’s fiction in the problem section along with health issues!
Vincent documents the work of some librarians to visibilise LGBT-themed books and the importance of so doing.
It is salutory to see how often it is a strong individual or a couple of people that form a group that work consistently and tirelessly to make a positive difference; it was ever thus I guess. We owe those pioneers a great debt.
While it is clear from Vincent’s work and our own observations we are in a much better place than we were in the 1950s, it would be foolish to think we have reached nirvana.
Enter any museum and the lack of images of white able bodied gay men is striking. Black disabled, older, young lesbian, bisexual and trans people are virtually invisible. We are a diverse community, but if we are represented, we are rarely represented as such.
The role that Schools OUT has played in initiating LGBT History Month back in 2005 is recognized throughout the book and in an appendix which is gratifying. We know that it and the Public Duty 2010 has fuelled exhibitions, events, plays, poetry, films and photos that have begun to fill the massive gap about us. We also know that we are still so dependent on the individual in an institution who is passionate about the issue. In the ten years we have been going we have seen how, when just one person leaves, an entire organisation’s support for the month collapses. We still need to embed the concept into our cultural institutions.
Schools are of course the most crucial place. Vincent charts the media’s poor response to the vital work of No Outsiders that enabled so many schools to use effectively the few children’s books that are inclusive of LGBT people and issues. The work in education is vital and we at Schools OUT have also initiated The Classroom, a website which has over forty free lesson plans that usualise LGBT people and issues in lessons that are relevant to the national curriculum.
We know only too well how patchy the work is in schools and how many teachers are still afraid to be either out to their pupils or deliver appropriate inclusive lessons even though Ofsted make it clear they require them to deliver such lessons and the Public Duty requires them to.
The work continues, while the law is crucial in allowing our visibility and safety it is the culture that enables and sustains it. We have had law that outlaws discrimination based on gender, ethnicity and disability for several decades. But it is clear with the disproportionate numbers of black people in prisons and mental health institutions, a death and/or serious assault on a woman every three days, the lack of equal pay for women and the massive unemployment of disabled people and the recent scapegoating of them as ‘welfare scroungers’ that the law has not achieved equality. The law has been working for some of us as LGBT people for less than a decade – for some, equality is still not there.
The work Vincent records is inspiring; he makes it clear it is vital and needs recording. Not just for LGBT people but for everyone as we all need to learn about all humanity.
We need to ensure the work continues and is inclusive. We are a diverse community, we need to see hear and celebrate that diverse culture.
February is upon us; there are events up and down the country that are:
Claiming our history – Celebrating our present – Creating our future
Check our Events Calendar:
Enjoy, learn, indulge, immerse yourself and spread the word, if you want a society that respects itself and Educates OUT prejudice.
Sue Sanders, co-chair Schools OUT/LGBT History Month