Celebrating LGBT+ History Month

25 February 2020

OVER the past 40 years political and societal attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people have changed beyond recognition. This has been achieved by the dedicated campaigning of LGBT+ individuals and allies who have worked tirelessly to achieve equality for all. ASLEF's LGBT+ committee has played, and continues to play, an important part in this within the trade union movement and wider society.


February is the month that LGBT+ history is celebrated. What is it – and why is it important?


First, it's an annual celebration that provides education and insight into the issues that face the LGBT+ community. The aim is, primarily, to teach people about the history of the gay rights movement and to promote an inclusive modern society irrespective of colour, gender, and disability.


It's also an opportunity to honour those who came before us and to raise awareness of the work we still have left to do. Our history has some very well-known characters like Noel Coward, Rock Hudson, George Takei, and Harvey Milk. Writers such as Oscar Wilde, WH Auden, Gertrude Stein, Henry James, Walt Whitman, and Somerset Maugham. And scientists and explorers, including Alan Turing, Amelia Earhart, Leonardo da Vinci, Florence Nightingale, Alan Hart (one of the first female to male trans people), and Sally Ride. But these people represent just the tip of the iceberg. Oh, and I almost forgot, someone no one expected to be on the list. Liberace.


The Buggery Act of 1533, passed during the reign of Henry VIII, made male homosexuals the targets for persecution, completely outlawing sodomy in Britain and, by extension, what would become the British Empire. Convictions were punishable by death. It was not until 1861 that the death penalty was abolished and replaced by a minimum of 10 years in prison.


Then, in 1885, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which became known as the Blackmailer's Charter, made any male homosexual act illegal; even expressing affection between two men was all that was required to bring a prosecution. Female homosexuality was never explicitly targeted by legislation.


In the post-war period, transgender identities started to become visible. In 1951 Roberta Cowell, a former World War II Spitfire pilot became the first transgender woman to undergo vaginoplasty in the UK and continued her career as a racing driver.


The Wolfenden Report on homosexual offences and prostitution, published in 1957, recommended that 'homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence' and represented a watershed, by promoting more positive conversations about protecting the public, rather than scrutinising people’s private lives.


The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised same sex acts between men over 21 in England and Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland followed in 1980 and 1981.


After the Stonewall riots of 1969, over heavy-handed police treatment of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community, the Gay Liberation Front was founded. Pride followed in 1972 and has been held every year since. The Campaign for Homosexual Equality led the fight to make the age of consent the same for homosexuals as for heterosexuals. It was lowered to 18 in 1994 and 16 in 2000.


But the fight for true equality was far from over. In 1988 the notorious Section 28 of the Local Government Act introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government banned local authorities from promoting or funding any teaching projects about perceived homosexuality. The legislation prevented the discussion of LGBT+ issues and stopped pupils getting the support they needed. This pernicious piece of legislation was repealed by Labour in 2003.


The Labour government also gave us the Civil Partnership Act in 2004 allowing same-sex couples to enter legally binding relationships. And in 2013 the Marriage Act allowed same-sex couples in England and Wales to marry; Scotland followed in 2014.


The Gender Recognition Act of 2004 gave trans people legal recognition of their gender, acquiring a new birth certificate. There is still an ongoing debate over reforming the GRA to one of self-recognition as exists in the Republic of Ireland.


The fight is far from over and LGBT+ people are still seen as other, rather than everyday. Equality has never been given but has been attained though protests, pamphlets, demonstrations, and confrontation.


Some 70 countries still have anti-gay propaganda laws; 35 of these are former members of the British Empire, and many still have the death penalty, compared to 25 that legally accept marriage equality.


Things have changed, and are changing, though there is now a rise on the right trying to reverse our gains. The USA is still backward regarding trans issues and gays in the military. In the UK assaults on LGBT+ people have risen 78% since 2013 and these are reported crimes; research reveals that 81% of hate crimes go unreported.


So now is the time to increase our voice and visibility to push back against the rise in hate and move forward with a progressive equality agenda. The need for the committees is as important as ever. The keys in the closet have been rattled but the doors haven't yet been flung open.


Darran Brown is a member of Preston Branch and ASLEF's LGBT+ Representative Committee.


This piece first appeared in the February 2020 issue of the ASLEF Journal.

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