LGBT History Month

Feature by Tom Calverley | 15 Feb 2006

February has traditionally been the month of that festival of heteronormativity, Valentine's Day, when everywhere you turn you're faced with shameless public displays of heterosexual affection. However, those of alternative persuasions now have their own reason to celebrate. As of last year February has been declared LGBT History Month UK, a celebration that "aims to illuminate the hidden histories of those, who would probably today identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Trans."

Gay teachers' organisation School's Out initiated the festival in February 2005, inspired by the success of Black History Month and LGBT History Month US. They argue that LGBT lives have been hidden, disguised and ignored by those recording and telling history, and this has made it easy for others to stereotype and distort the reality of LGBT lives. This ignorance causes the prejudice that leads to homophobia and negative discrimination. History Month aims to rectify this by encouraging schools to teach LGBT History, and through a wide variety of events. Last year saw workplaces, major unions, the police, libraries, churches, theatres, schools and colleges taking part, and plans for this year are even bigger.

There have been objections to the idea, some plain homophobic, while others more valid. Several of the assumptions of LGBT identity have been criticised for relying on purely circumstantial evidence. The organisers sensibly respond that "only those that consider such identification offensive, would find such an honest mistake unacceptable." However, there is also division within the community as to which letter in LGBT should be assigned to particular historical characters. For example, Sappho, the poet whose love-life on the isle of Lesbos gave us the word lesbian, also had sex with men. Should she be called lesbian or bisexual? Moreover, can we apply modern concepts like LGBT identity retrospectively into societies where such concepts did not exist, and where same-sex relations were permissible in certain circumstances? Are we rewriting the past to how we would have liked it to have been, and therefore overlooking the lessons it teaches us?

These legitimate concerns should be discussed, but they do not devalue the fact that LGBT History Month has created a forum for the debate. Regardless of the details of individual cases, they all highlight the existence of sexual diversity across history and cultures, rubbishing ideas that LGBT behaviour is a "modern lifestyle choice" and giving young LGBT people a sense of history and role models. It is the latter which is perhaps the most important effect, and is key to School's Out's aim to use History Month to address homophobic bullying.

Sadly, like Black History month, it seems LGBT History Month is still a very London-centric event. According to both Glasgow and Edinburgh Councils, no local schools are taking part. This is perhaps to be expected, since as recently as 2001 Section 28 was still in force in Scotland, banning any mention of LGBT lives in the curriculum, for fear of "promoting homosexuality." History Month is only in its second year, and it will take many years to reverse the centuries of invisibility imposed on us. In the meantime, it's not too late to set up your own event, or by going to one in our handy guide on how to get involved.