Rights and riots

Demonstration circa 1970s with Gay Liberation banner

LGBT+ History Month is marked at different times in different countries, but in the UK this falls in February. Some may ask why, though, if we have made progress as a society – however imperfect – it is needed. Why don’t we focus on the future instead of also looking to the past? Why do we have a dedicated month?

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and gender-nonconforming people of all stripes, like many minorities, have a long history of being persecuted and oppressed. From religious laws against homosexuality in medieval Europe to modern-day laws in 72 countries that make it illegal to be gay, LGBT+ people have historically been criminalised and punished for being who they are. Indeed, in eleven of those 72 countries today, the punishment can be death. Even where being LGBT+ is not today illegal, societal and cultural norms and legal frameworks mean that, formally or informally, many of the rights and privileges afforded to non-LGBT+ people are denied to their queer counterparts, whether that be the right to marry the person you love, the right to live openly as yourself, the right to adopt, the right to visit a partner in hospital, the right to inherit from your partner, or the ability to make decisions about your body and your life without legally-mandated medical intervention.

In countries where rights have progressed, that change did not come about through the altruism of the unoppressed majority. Although tolerance and societal norms have varied with time and location, with some cultures and eras being more permissive than others, LGBT+ people in many places have nonetheless in the past lived largely in the shadows. From a Western lens, it’s fair to say that LGBT+ rights didn’t begin to experience a significant shift until the 1970s. While homosexuality was decriminalised in some Western countries in the preceding decade or two, queer people were still discriminated against by society and the authorities – entrapped, arrested using proxy laws, and subject to ingrained discrimination and abuse. The LGBT+ rights movement, however, began in earnest with the Stonewall Riots of 1969, when queer people fought back against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York – riots began, protest groups formed, direct action grew, pride groups marched, and communities began to come together in an organised way to fight for their rights. This movement gradually spread around the Western world, shifting the needle over the coming decades towards the more open, more tolerant society we see today.

These groups were not a homogenous mass. They were formed of thousands of individuals, all with different backgrounds, different gender identities, different sexual orientations, and different stories to tell. At those first riots in the Stonewall Inn, for instance, there were brave people such as Stormé DeLarverie – a mixed-race butch lesbian who forcibly resisted arrest, shouting, swearing and fighting back until she was thrown into a police van – and Marsha P Johnson – a black trans woman, a sex worker who identified as gay, who threw glasses in the burnt-out bar while screaming “I got my civil rights” and climbed a lamppost to drop a brick through the windscreen of a police car. In the decades that followed, countless thousands protested, peacefully and violently, not just for their own rights, but also for the rights of friends, family and strangers. That said, while the people were diverse, the move towards LGBT+ rights has not been a utopia of minorities moving forward together. Indeed, those who were oppressed in intersecting ways (for example, lesbian women or trans people of colour) often had to make choices about which of their rights to fight for, and in recent years there has been a growth in awareness of overwhelming systemic white privilege in our LGBT+ communities. It would also be naïve to suggest that access to rights gained isn’t either facilitated or limited by individual wealth, power, privilege, access to authority, skin colour, legal means, education, and other socioeconomic factors. Diverse individuals may have fought for their rights together, but the gains have not been equally shared.

And so I return to the question of why, in 2021, does LGBT+ History Month matter? Why can’t we leave history in the past and focus on what we now have?

It matters because we must remember that despite the progress, there is still far to go and much to be won, not only in the West but in the many countries where millions of people live in daily fear of being brutalised and arrested and beaten and killed for who they are. It matters because refugees are still fleeing certain death over their sexuality and gender identity, while our governments do their best to turn them away. It matters because we must remember that the human rights we take for granted in the West did not come about through consensus and acceptance, but because of brave people who fought oppression, sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently. It matters because we should never forget names such as Stormé DeLarverie or Marsha P Johnson and what they did for us, those courageous people who sowed the seeds of a better life not just for themselves, but for generations to follow. It matters because when we stop remembering, we risk moving backwards – progress is perilous and public support fickle, and we must recognise that without awareness and allies, that which has been won can so easily be taken away. LGBT+ history is indeed history, but it is also deeply impactful on our contemporary world.

It also matters in a wider context. The many amazing individuals who have driven progress over the decades were diverse in so many ways – their sexual orientation, their gender identity, their sex, their race, their background, and their lived experience. In a world of increasing intolerance and #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo we must embrace the strength that comes from diverse people supporting each other and learning about each other, including LGBT+ people learning about and working to fix white privilege in their communities. The history of advancing racial and gender rights is also rooted in protest, of brave people who stood up to authority and an oppressive majority and fought to be treated as human beings; as with LGBT+ rights, there is still much to do to advance equality and equity for all. The cacophony of voices reflecting on the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, arguing that people were not protesting in “the right way” or that protests should always be peaceful, made me reflect upon the history of protest in the LGBT+ community. While I could never advocate for looting or property damage or physical harm, I did not feel that I, as a gay man with an awareness of queer history and protest and the ways in which our rights were won, was in a position to pass judgement on the methods being used by another oppressed minority fighting for their rights under strikingly similar circumstances. I have the freedoms I have today only because of brave and heroic people who rioted for their rights fifty years ago, and others who kept on protesting for my rights in the decades that followed.

LGBT+ History Month matters because we must understand the way in which minorities have won their rights and that society has never willingly bestowed those rights without a fight. It is necessary not only to educate ourselves about the history of queer people, but to understand the wider context of contemporary protest and current oppression, both in the West and elsewhere. LGBT+ History Month matters – like Black History Month and Women’s History Month and all the other history months that exist in countries around the world – because all oppressed people deserve their rights, they deserve to be seen, and they deserve to be heard. But more than anything, they deserve to be treated as the human beings that they are, and we need to understand our history to understand how to interpret modern-day events and continue to progress towards a more equal world.

2 responses to “Rights and riots”

  1. Russell Dickinson-Deane avatar
    Russell Dickinson-Deane

    Guy, another well-written and incite flu piece, thank you. When you talk about the West and our values, it pains me to realise that even countries supposedly in the “western” orbit such as Hungary and Poland have seen a backsliding in LGBT+ rights. The UK country Director of – was it KPMG? – had to resign last week after stating that the concept of unconscious bias was crap. With such intolerance even close to home, we can’t stop fighting and campaigning. As for your thoughts on violent protest whilst it’s hard to justify the atrocities of the IRA, would the UK government ever have reached the Good Friday compromise without the threat of violence?

    1. Thanks Russell. Yes, I had to think about what wording to use there. “West” seemed most accurate, but of course there are huge variations even within that – just look at the difference between rights granted (or not) in states in the US, for example. The KPMG example is a great demonstration of just how blinkered those in a position of privilege can be; it sadly didn’t surprise me that he thought like that, but it did make my jaw drop that he was stupid enough to say it out loud.

      As for violence, I was really careful about how I phrased that and took my time over the wording, as it’s a very thin line to walk. I could never promote violence as a solution, but there’s no disputing the fact that, in the case of occupied peoples and oppressed minorities, it has brought occupying powers and privileged majorities to the negotiating table countless times in the past. I can’t comment on the specifics of IRA atrocities as I don’t remember enough about it from the time – hopefully once I’ve finished reading my Irish history book and my Mo Mowlam autobiography.

      In more recent times, what did strike me about the Black Lives Matter protests were the number of people who were more worried about smashed windows than murdered Black people – it doesn’t make property damage right, but it does show that many people have their priorities in the wrong place.

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