February is LGBT History month. It’s a reminder, says Laura Macdougall, of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
A Rainbow flag flies at the Foreign Office during last year’s Pride in London March. Picture by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
This month, LGBT History Month celebrates its 10th anniversary. Set up in 2005 to coincide with the abolition of Section 28, which prohibited schools from discussing LGBT issues or counselling LGBT or questioning youth, it celebrates the lives and achievements of the LGBT community and offers a time for remembrance and discussion of the issues surrounding the continued struggle for LGBT equality.
For those who identify as LGBT, not only does the coming out never stop, but nor does the homophobia. This was recently highlighted by two male (heterosexual) radio DJs in Luton, who, alarmed by reports of continued homophobia experienced by young people, carried out an experiment. They decided to measure the public’s response to two men walking through Luton holding hands. ‘Disgusting’ was the word used by one youth, whose mother said: “He’s got a stigma; he’s a teenage boy.” The DJs also noticed parents ushering their young children away and the whole experience left them feeling very ‘uncomfortable’ and particularly shocked at the response among young people, whom they had expected to have more liberal attitudes.
This was only a 10-minute walk through the major streets of a large English town, but reports from other parts of the country are equally worrying.
A fortnight ago, the charity LGBT Youth North West announced it was drawing up plans to investigate the creation of the first state school to cater for LGBT pupils. The initiative has largely been met with criticism: it’s not a solution, it has been argued, and will only worsen the problem, to further segregate young people who identify as LGBT or who are struggling with their sexuality, from mainstream education. However, the charity’s strategic director Amelia Lee claimed any potential school set up along these lines (which would also include non-LGBT pupils) is about ‘saving lives’.
Despite laws which claim to protect gay people from homophobic bulling, she said: “The truth is that, in schools especially, bullying is still incredibly common and causes young people to feel isolated and alienated, which often leads to truanting and, in the worst-case scenarios, to suicide.” In Lee’s opinion, the current education system routinely fails to recognise that young people can struggle with their sexuality, and that, given that most schools are far from inclusive, she believes we need more ‘specialised’ schools.
Not only would more dramas that focus on the full LGBT experience be more representative of the UK population, but such programmes would offer hope to young people struggling with their sexuality and might demonstrate to their peers that there is nothing wrong with being LGBT
Whether or not such a school is founded, and whether or not you agree with it, it’s clear that we are failing this country’s youth, all of them, even those who don’t identify as LGBT. The charity Stonewall estimates that half of Britain’s schoolchildren are still not taught about lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender history or role models and that half of the country’s LGBT youth experience homophobic bullying at school. However, schools that do offer lessons and activities around LGBT History Month and include figures such as Alan Turing, Oscar Wilde and Anne Lister in the general curriculum have reported a dramatic decrease in incidences of bullying and uses of homophobic language.
Schools aren’t the only area in this country where there is still work to be done. There was widespread annoyance yet – tellingly – not much surprise when Sally Wainwright killed off Kate (one half of a lesbian couple) in the BBC’s hit drama, Last Tango in Halifax. Lesbians, before their character is axed (because, after all, they’re only a plot device), tend to be unhappy or psychotic. The Oscar-nominated film The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing’s cracking of the Enigma code, was criticised for its portrayal of Turing’s homosexuality.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game
America seems to be faring better at offering diverse characters on television: even though most appear on cable channels or streaming platforms such as Netflix or Amazon Prime, there are still more on prime-time dramas than there are in the UK. Not only would more dramas that focus on the full LGBT experience be more representative of the UK population, but such programmes would offer hope to young people struggling with their sexuality and might demonstrate to their peers that there is nothing wrong with being LGBT. Russell T Davis’ new Channel 4 drama, Cucumber (part of the Cucumber, Banana, Tofu trilogy) is a good start to the year, but it also serves to highlight how rarely gay characters appear in drama programming, and lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters are rarer still.
Yes, progress is made every day. We can now marry our partners. During LGBT History Month we should be grateful to those who have made this possible, those who came out at great personal cost and those who have given so much of themselves in the fight for equality.
But it’s clear that legal equality doesn’t alter people’s opinions. So, while I will be celebrating the achievements of the past year, during LGBT History Month, I will also be mindful of the rise in homophobic and transphobic hate crime in 2014, the young people suffering from depression or contemplating suicide as a result of their sexuality, and, yes, even those who are too frightened to walk down the street holding hands with the person they love.
Laura is a London-based writer, reviewer and editor with a focus on arts and culture, feminism, lifestyle and LGBT issues.