February is LGBT History Month. This year, the month is especially significant and historic in the UK as Parliament has voted in favour of same sex marriage. In this post, John Peart, LSESU LGBT Officer, gives a very interesting overview of the history of LGBT equal rights movement. He concludes that though the journey to equality has not been smooth, we still have much to be hopeful for.
History is rife with examples of people asserting their dominance over one another; white colonialists over black slaves, men over women, royalty over their subjects. And over the course of history, societies have changed, people have adapted, and attitudes have shifted.
For LGBT people around the world, the long road to legal and societal equality is still being tread; and it’s riddled with pot-holes and winding twists and U-turns. Today, only nine countries around the world have full legal equality for LGBT and straight people alike. At the same time, we have other countries that mute the discussion and ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, others that threaten their citizens with the death penalty, and yet others that follow through with that threat. In between, we have countries that claim they welcome LGBT people with open arms, whilst failing to live up to that rhetoric in the way they govern their countries. And so in many ways, the 21st century is even more illiberal on human rights than humanity has been in the past.
The prejudice and persecution that many LGBT people face in their daily lives didn’t always exist. In fact, in many early cultures, it was celebrated. Hindu and Vedic texts, dating back to ancient India, have long shown depictions of deities breaking our modern gender stereotypes and norms. Several deities, including Vishnu and Shiva, have been shown to manifest in male, female, and transgendered forms. Some are even considered patrons of the so-called “third sex”; rituals have been created in honour of these gods and goddesses. And in other cultures too, such as ancient Greek and Roman culture, same-sex relations were commonplace. Indeed, in the Roman empire, homoeroticism was seen as an assertion of masculinity by male citizens, and something to be proud of. But the world changed. We somehow moved from an era of celebration of homosexuality, to an era of disdain, distrust and disgust for LGBT people. The stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, depicted in Genesis, show how homosexual rape led to the downfall of both cities. Likewise the Laws of Moses – the Torah – are said to forbid homosexuality in Leviticus. If one thing is clear from history, it is certainly that societies and cultures gave LGBT people mixed signals.
As the world moved from BC to AD, the rights of LGBT people very slowly became formalised and more restricted. In 1533, the Buggery Act was enacted, completely outlawing same-sex sexual activity, along with the criminalisation of zoophilia, across the entirety of the British Empire. Like in many countries across Europe since the popular adoption of Christianity, breaking this law resulted in the ultimate punishment – the death penalty – and it wasn’t until 1861, in the Offences Against the Person Act, that execution of the death penalty was stopped in Britain. It was still illegal to engage in same-sex activity, so homosexuals were imprisoned instead.
Other countries across Europe were far ahead of the British Empire at this stage in recognising the rights of LGBT people. Luxembourg, Belgium and France were among the first to legalise same-sex sexual activity in the late 1700s, whilst the British Empire was still in the process of restricting the rights of LGBT citizens. Perhaps oddly, many countries, including the UK, only legislated to restrict the rights of gay men specifically; lesbians were rarely the explicit targets of anti-gay legislation.
The turn of the twentieth century was when everything began to change. The early part of the century saw a change for the worse as Europe was consumed with war. The Nazi war machine moving across the European continent brought with it not only the genocide of millions of Jewish people, but of countless LGBT people too. A pink triangle, worn with its tip facing down, was the label given to those that were to lose their lives at the hands of Hitler’s fascist ideology. Today, that same triangle, inverted, is worn as a sign of defiance and pride for the LGBT communities around the world. But, with Hitler defeated at the end of the second World War, country after country, like dominoes, across the world, including the majority of European nations, began to start the debate about decriminalising homosexuality.
In the UK, in 1957, the Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution – better known as the Wolfenden Report – was published. Contained within it were radical ideas; for the first time, a parliamentary committee was recommending that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence.” The recommendation was based partly on a notion of civil liberties – that the state should not intervene in the private lives of individuals, but instead should protect them from indecency, offence and corruption – and partly in response to the growing number of well-known men (such as Lord Montagu, Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood) being convicted and imprisoned for their sexuality. It was also a response to new evidence that, contrary to popular belief, suggested that “homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease, because in many cases it is the only symptom and is compatible with full mental health in other respects.”
Ten years later, the Sexual Offences Act 1967 was passed into law, backed by the Church of England, and homosexual acts were legalised in England and Wales for the first time since 1533. Scotland and Northern Ireland followed suit over a decade later, in 1979 and 1982 respectively. The UK was not alone in this march of change; other countries were reforming their legal systems too, and by the turn of the millennium, nearly every country in Europe had repealed laws banning the private relations of LGBT people.
Across the pond, in the United States of America, the LGBT rights movement was finding its feet. On 28 June, 1969, police raided a known gay bar – the Stonewall Inn – in New York City. The raid triggered a series of spontaneous and violent riots that spilled out onto the streets of the city. These riots were the first true resistance to institutionalised oppression of the LGBT community in the USA. In the wake of these riots, the Gay Liberation Front was born (with its UK wing’s first meeting held in a basement classroom at LSE) and on both sides of the Atlantic, the GLF fought for the rights of LGBT people as well as the rights of other oppressed groups including those of different genders and races. Twelve months later, in June 1970, gay rights activists held the world’s first Pride march – a public demonstration of the LGBT community’s resistance to institutional oppression at the hands of government and society; over 40 years later, those same marches continue around the world – from the USA to Uganda – in defiance of homophobia.
For European countries, the journey from the end of World War II to now has not been an entirely upward trend of improvement for LGBT people; to this day, LGBT rights remain a political football. In the UK, legislation has been passed to equalise the age of consent for LGBT people, to allow same-sex couples to have civil unions and as recently as two days ago, started the legislative process allowing same-sex couples to get married, to allow them to adopt children, to allow people to change their legal gender and to ban discriminatory behaviour based on sexual orientation, gender and gender reassignment, but it’s not been a straight-forward trajectory.
Perhaps one of the more dark times for LGBT people in the UK in recent years has been the introduction of Section 28. For years prior to its introduction, the UK wing of the GLF, as well as many gay and lesbian activists in the Liberal and Labour Parties had been successfully pushing back against heteronormitivity by local authorities; small wins like showing gay families as normal through children’s books were creating waves around the political spectrum. Section 28, was introduced by the Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s in retaliation to this societal shift, and stated that local authorities could not “intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.
In essence, the legislation was a gagging order on the discussion of LGBT issues and a homophobic move by Thatcher’s Government. Whilst breaking Section 28 was never a criminal offence, the guidelines created over a decade of self-censorship on LGBT issues. The Blair Government eventually repealed the legislation, despite continued opposition from the Conservative party, then led by William Hague, but its spectre still lives on. Whilst the legislation was a considerable diversion on the journey to equality for LGBT people in the UK, it has once again become a reality for others across Europe as countries such as Russia, just twenty years after legalising homosexuality, introduce new gagging laws. These laws don’t just target local authorities however, they target anyone who speaks out in public – and arrests have already been made.
The road to equality for the LGBT community across the world is not much different in 2013 AD as it was in 2013 BC. Societies’ view on LGBT people still isn’t solid; it’s constantly changing as different groups vie for attention and supremacy in the eternal quest for peer-domination. No doubt we will continue to see homophobic and transphobic legislation pass through the halls of Westminster and other legislatures around the world. But the important thing to remember is this: it’s not where we have come from, but where we are headed, and when you look back at where we started and where we’ve arrived so far, there’s a lot to be hopeful about for the future.
John Peart is the LGBT Officer at the LSE Students’ Union. He is now in his third year at LSE, studying for a BSc in Government. John was previously a student officer at a further education College in Somerset and a member of the National Union of Students National Executive Council until July 2011.