LGBT History Month (1) Gay and Proud!

This week kicks off the start of the now annual celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans history and I’d like to contribute a few postings in the coming weeks to mark the occasion.

First, I have to confess that as a gay man of a certain generation, it feels unsettling, peculiar even, that my history – my community’s history – is now the subject of a semi-respectable commemorations in libraries, town halls, union halls, galleries, museums, in events and venues across the land.

It wasn’t so long ago (or was it?) that we were noisily struggling from the margins to which we were insistently and repeatedly consigned. We used to picket and protest outside the very venues that are now flying the rainbow flag. Times were truly tough back then but there was also a sense of overwhelming purpose, of confidence-in-adversity, driven by values of justice and dignity, by organising and agitating.

If I’m sounding like a nostalgic “veteran” perhaps it’s because, with hindsight, it seems I now am.

And that’s why LGBT History Month matters to me – not so much in terms of the public affirmation and avowal of our dignity and citizenship, welcome though that is – but in the much harder but ultimately more rewarding goal of recovering for posterity the lessons of that struggle, with the richness of incidental detail that first-hand accounting can bring to life.

It’s because history matters today that we have commissioned a written history of Amnesty’s Trade Union Network; to give a voice to our predecessors, to learn something from them, and to acknowledge that we are at just one point within an enduring movement whose task is far from finished. We'll be publishing this as part of our anniversary and I will alert readers of this blog in due course.

Amnesty’s conviction is that human rights and humanity are advanced by ordinary people from around the world doing extraordinary things; that change takes time, effort and perseverance; that small contributions matter as much as grand gestures; that human rights depend on the efforts and temperaments of many rather than the actions of a few.

The struggle for gay rights (as we then called LGBT rights) was just such a movement, and we have made tremendous strides here in the UK over recent years as this timeline from the PCS union shows. But this chronology captures only the big picture, it doesn't describe the subtler social changes, or the small acts of bravery, or the hardships and decencies that have paved the way.

In future postings, I’d like to explore the contribution (or resistance) of Amnesty in the early years to LGBT equality. My memory is hazy and my experiences selective so if there is anyone who can help me out, please post on this or the upcoming blogs.

I also want to blog on the struggle to gain recognition within unions and for respect and rights at the workplace. Here I can speak with some first-hand experience. We’ve gone a long way through the efforts of many. I couldn't have imagined nearly thirty years ago when watching the play Bent, that was controversially awakening British audiences for the first time to this history, that the TUC would be highlighting LGBT rights at the national holocaust memorial event last month. Again – if any reader can help me out, please let me know. If you've made a difference to LGBT rights in your workplace or in your union, it would be great if you could share it.

But for this opening effort, I want to reminisce about my own early days of activism, to set the scene, so to speak.

I arrived in London in the summer of 1979 – the same year that Amnesty’s trade union network was formed – determined to find myself and free myself. It was a heady time: I had my first relationship, I came out to my mother and twin brother (both supportive), and I threw myself into Gay Liberation. The gay and lesbian movement in those days was shaped by the struggles for women’s liberation and civil rights, and we looked to North America for inspiration and tools. I was too impatient for the law reformers at the Campaign for Homosexual Equality – and in any case Thatcher had just been elected – and quickly fell in with a more radical crowd. Our language was the language of rights – a lifetime education for me – but also of social transformation; the magazine Gay Socialist had just stopped publishing so we set up the Gay Noise Collective, we argued and bickered amongst ourselves as often and as passionately as we fought our detractors (one splinter group became the Revolutionary Gay Men's Caucus and wandered off into a misogynist wilderness…).

I was involved in the Gay Activists Alliance, in early Pride marches (which were attacked by the police), a couple of us organised a Gay Film Festival, I was discharged from court, wearing a blue lurex catsuit, after being arrested at one demo, and disappointed not to be arrested at another when I chained myself against the gates of the US consulate in Edinburgh to protest at the USA’s refusal to allow entry to openly gay people, though it made the front page of the Scotsman. In 1980 I was a delegate to the world conference in Spain of the International Lesbian and Gay Association which was then just two years old.

There were giddy days, but serious times. I had to go into hiding for a few days when I was tipped off that a tabloid newspaper had decided I was a paedophile and had hired a photographer to take secret photographs. Their efforts came to nothing. A hoax call to the wife of a prominent footballer claiming I was his lover led to a police investigation. The now-gentrified Hemingford Arms in Islington, at the time the hangout of lefty lesbians and gays, was periodically besieged by National Front thugs, and I was very badly queer-bashed one night in Kings Cross. Worst of all, my long-term partner was raped at bayonet-point by an ex-lover, and the police refused to take any action, leaving us to get a private injunction. We lived, to some degree, in a parallel world of righteous, sometimes indignant, self-sufficiency, disconnected from a hostile and generally unsupportive State (and sometimes alienated from family and origins): when London Transport axed the direct bus route between our radical hubs in Islington and Brixton, we were convinced it was a conspiracy…

In 1982, or so it seemed to me, we all came down with a bump. AIDS was to cast ever darkening clouds over our community, robbing us of our confidence and frivolity, and killing many of our activists, friends and lovers, but also (and there’s no contradiction here) reinvigorating – through urgency – our solidarity. At the same time I was becoming more active in my union branch, finding an outlet both for practical action in support of workers rights, but also an environment congenial to the broader social and internationalist ambitions I harboured. Britain was in recession and the Falklands War had started. Most of all, the union gave me a place debate, to learn, to campaign and organise. Though I was not ready to “come out” beyond the safe haven of the branch, I had found a space to achieve something practical and positive: to make a difference. For several years my gay activism and my trade union activism existed in parallel, but slowly they began to come together, most significantly, memorably and proudly in 1989. More on that another day.

Amnesty is supporting a fantastic free evening of talk, music, performance and art celebrating LGBT history month which is organised by the South East Region TUC. It’s in London on Thursday 26th February. Hosted by comedian LB from UK Black Pride, the evening features performances from Bourgeoise and Maurice, Stav B, Russell Harris in a Company of One and David Mills. Details and flyer here.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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