Comment: The story of LGBT History Month

January 31, 2012
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As teachers in the 1970s, Paul Patrick and I were appalled at the invisibility of lesbians and gays and the lack of support that the unions gave us when we were attacked for being out in the classroom.

In the late 1980s, we dealt with the massive attack on the embryonic work in schools to tackle the invisibility of gays and lesbians: Section 28.

By 2000 life had changed. Unions had worked to support LGBT people in all walks of life, including teaching. We had developed a theory and vocabulary that explained and described the discrimination we faced. We had a Labour government that promised legislation that would begin to deal with many of our issues and the Stephen Lawrence report had woken institutions to the effect of institutional prejudice.

However schools were notoriously slow to pick up on all of this. Section 28 was not repealed till 2003 and it went with a whimper rather than a bang. So few teachers were aware, their habit of ignoring LGBT people and issues were hardly challenged.

Paul and the Schools OUT committee had worked throughout the dark days raising the issues writing lesson plans, producing a teachers’ pack and lobbying the government to challenge the institutional homophobia. Gradually they took on transphobia.

We had seen the success of Black History month in schools. It had made a difference by enabling teachers to think about the issues in a more creative and focused way. We wondered if we could institute such a month for us.

2003 was a momentous year: Section 28 was finally abolished and we got the first legislation that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation and then later on gender identity in the work place.

The Single Equality Act was mooted with a public duty that would cover sexual orientation and gender identity. It occurred to us that this was maybe the moment to float an LGBT History Month.

After much discussion in deciding the appropriate month we hit on February – not the best month weather wise, but a quiet month in the school calendar, which crucially had a half term. We were confident that museums and libraries would be the first to use the month and we concluded that if that was the case parents, children and – most importantly – teachers would see the displays and feel empowered to take their experiences back to their schools.

We approached the Department of Education in the early months of 2004 with a plan and a budget. Although they were not uninterested, they were very slow to give us clarity. By the summer I felt we had to take the plunge, so I made the announcement of the Month at the launch of Amnesty International’s book Sex Love and Homophobia, and a small ripple of interest occurred. At London Pride we asked several VIPs going on the stage at Trafalgar Stage to make an announcement. Most refused, however, ironically, Simon Hughes agreed and did so. Gill Spraggs was working away setting up the website designing a logo and pulling together resources.

Eventually in November we heard from the Department they would give us a small grant and the race was on to create the publicity and get the website ready.

The unions – teaching and non-teaching – were supportive. The National Union of Teachers remunerated us through affiliation fees and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) created the first LGBT timeline which was a piece of education and – in all its rainbow coloured glory – a work of art

I had been active in Southwark on the anti Homophobic Forum, Simon was a Southwark MP so it was logical to ask their help. They came up trumps and they obtained the cinema at the Tate Modern to hold a Pre launch in early December.

The line-up of speakers was phenomenal. We worked hard to have the true diversity of our community; a philosophy that drives us to this day. There were almost as many people on the stage as there were in the audience.

We had hoped that if we had 10 events in the following February we would have made it a success; we in fact had over a 100. One of the speakers – Linda Bellos – prophesied that people there on that day would remember with pride that they were there when we would celebrate LGBT History month at Wembley.

Well, we have not got there yet, however Pre Launch venues have included The Royal Courts of Justice, The British Museum, Twickenham Rugby Stadium and the Oval; as well as a Church of England School.

The Committee that makes the month happen is small, dedicated and voluntary. Paul sadly died in October 2008, nine of us continue the work.

Elly Barnes, a music teacher who topped the Independent’s Pink List in 2011, is our school representative and delivers training to teachers up and down the land.

Nigel Tart, a maths teacher, has been our media officer doing sterling work getting us recognised in both the LGBT and straight press.

Dave Watkins was our treasurer and was vital in setting up the new website the classroom with both design and content. Stephen Boyce is our Patrons representative. Jeff Evans is our academic representative and has organised trips to Berlin to meet with LGBT activists there and enabled many conferences and meeting with archivists and universities.

Amy Macmillan was our membership administrator, crucial given the importance of subscriptions, as we are not funded. Naechane Romeo is our trans representative. Huw Williams is our web technician making sure all three sites are up and running and dealing with emergencies. Amelia Lee is our youth representative and next year will be organising the Schools OUT conference in Manchester and runs the Paul Patrick scheme which supports schools including LGBT people.

The main success of the month is of course due to the tireless work of people up and down the country who grab the month and what it stands for and set up events large and small in their neighbourhoods, libraries, unions, schools, churches, parks, pubs, museum, local authorities, theatres, parks and streets.

The month came from the grass roots, teachers and activists who knew that something had to be done to educate and celebrate the existence of LGBT people everywhere. We hit on a way of working and networking so we are now embedded in the national calendar and got endorsements from both the Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition.

We also supported the birth of two new history months The Disabled History Month November22 to December 22 and Women’s History Month in March. We are working with Pride Solidarity to spread our work across Europe our website is used throughout the world – literally!

We are passionate about diversity and visibility. The words of Paul Patrick and Tony Fenwick perhaps say it all:

We are lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people and their friends.
We exist in all times and places.
We speak each and every language.
We laugh and cry.
We talk and remain silent.
We are emperors and peasants.
We are conservatives and revolutionaries.
We are actors, artists, bricklayers, bookies, cab drivers, cooks and clowns.
We are employed and unemployed. We raise our children and we bury our dead.
When we can, we attend school, college and university.
When we can, we go out into the streets.
We read the papers and watch the TV.
We attend church, synagogue, temple and mosque.
We are free and confined.
We celebrate and we hide.
We are happy and sad. We are supported and alone.

Paul Patrick and Tony Fenwick, 2005

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT) History Month 2011 and 2012 is fighting for LGBT people to be active in sport – as spectators and participants; at elite and at street level.

Tackling homophobia and transphobia on the pitch and on the terraces is an essential step.

Please help us attain that goal.

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