We often see same-sex couples on TV – whether hunting for houses or entering Bake off or Masterchef, on quiz shows and in our favourite soap operas and films – and this could lull us into a false sense of security that being gay is widely accepted and tolerated. Unfortunately, it still isn’t the case, not in the UK, and certainly not in the wider world. In this blog, Mark Stobbs our Director of Scrutiny and Quality gives a very personal account of what LGBT+ history month means to him.
When I was a lot younger, I was suspicious of the gay community’s habit of relentlessly (sometimes wishfully) identifying people from history as being gay, as if seeking some sort of validation. ‘So what?’ I thought. The fact that Tchaikovsky was gay didn’t make me any better or worse a person. The same seemed to apply to the habit of outing people who chose to be quiet about their preferences (‘why do you have to bring sex into everything?’). I was hopelessly repressed. When you think about what LGBT+ History Month might tell us, that’s not surprising.
I’m writing this from the perspective of one fortunate gay man. The perspective (and experience) of others will be different from mine. If what I write chimes with their experience, that’s great. But this is personal and I can’t presume to write for them.
The history is depressing. Take the first thoughts that came into my head: Tchaikovsky (suicide), Oscar Wilde (prison and ruin), Turing (chemical castration and suicide), pink triangles under the Nazis, prison sentences and those who were successful (Coward, Novello, Britten simply from the music industry) living with the risk of prison and never openly revealing their sexuality. And AIDS (though this, of course, does not just affect gay men).
Go back further and there’s just silence or rumour. We weren’t taught at school that over 75% of Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed to a young man. Information about gay lifestyles in history comes from laws or reports of criminal proceedings (apparently the fashion for long pointed shoes in medieval times was associated – as so many fashions are – with gay men and was duly proscribed by the church). References in Christopher Marlowe’s writing to homosexuality were censored in the nineteenth century and the publisher imprisoned.* There’s almost nothing in literature before the 1920s. Our history is invisible, which leads to ignorance and prejudice. Until 2003, section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 prohibited local authorities from promoting homosexuality or the ‘acceptance of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.
Even in countries where the state won’t throw me off a high building or flog me for the way I have sex, Messrs Putin and Erdogan describe homosexuality as a decadent western phenomenon and the Polish Chopin Institute argues that the letters which sound pretty explicit about Chopin’s attraction to a man have been ‘mistranslated’. It’s the classic approach to minorities you don’t like: you criminalise, you silence and you ignore.
It’s easy for gay men to be invisible. Unlike most other groups people can’t tell (as opposed to suspect) whether someone is gay when you first meet them. If you’re careful, you can navigate your life under the radar and, indeed, have fun.
It’s understandable. At school, the worst accusation was of being gay, and the perception that you were led to bullying, mockery, exclusion. It still does. It was not challenged then; I think it is now. The images I saw growing up were of people I was invited to laugh at, pity or judge. Until I was in my late teens, I didn’t know anybody who was openly, let alone happily, gay. Relations’ and colleagues’ attitudes towards gay men have varied from open disgust through pity to toleration provided we kept quiet about it – sometimes when they were perfectly aware of my orientation.
When AIDS arrived, the stigma increased and was used to justify intrusive questions if you wanted insurance or a mortgage. For the record, an estimated 32 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses since that pandemic began and the annual number of deaths is around 690,000 per year (the average number of deaths from ‘flu is between 300,000 and 650,000). Incidentally, the parallels (think facemask and condoms), differences (funding of research, restrictions on basic liberties) between the AIDS pandemic and Covid-19 are fascinating and have hardly been discussed. Funny that.
With this background, it takes an element of courage to disclose your orientation. Is there a single gay man who, when asked perfectly friendly, innocuous questions about his life outside work, has never done a swift risk assessment (What are their views likely to be? What power do they have? Will it come out anyway? Can I be bothered? Do I talk about flatmate/friend/partner/husband? Can I avoid pronouns?) before deciding what to say? We’ve all seen, if we simply mention the sex of our partner, the involuntary indication of the other person going ‘Ah, so he’s gay’. If we want to disclose, there’s that question of choosing the right moment, finding the words, waiting for the reaction. Often, it feels safer, or just easier, to change the subject.
I’ve been fortunate: I’ve navigated my career in workplaces that have mostly been tolerant (colleagues here are brilliant). I’m lucky that I had no talent for sport, desire to serve in the army or deep religious belief. I’ve avoided being beaten up for being gay. I choose the sort of hotels where the height of irritation is when the receptionist checks that we did indeed want a double bed. I’ve lived openly with my husband for 30 years. My immediate family are unreservedly supportive. My education, social background and not really caring what other people think undoubtedly helped.
Others aren’t so fortunate and this affects health in two obvious ways. Firstly, people in the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to suffer from poor mental health – the background affects self-esteem and can be exacerbated by guilt or rejection by family or friends. You can fall victim to a narrative that, in some way you are defective and fall prey to charlatans who take advantage of this and the associated stigma by offering ‘conversion therapies’. Secondly, the reluctance to disclose your orientation must have a direct effect on your health – we know from our own section 29 work, that some healthcare professionals (thankfully a small minority) share the attitudes I’ve described). How many of those deaths from AIDS-related illnesses could have been prevented if patients had been open about their orientation and sought help early? Stigma kills.
It’s only recently that living openly was seen as a human right. In a judgment in the Supreme Court in 2010 (just seven years after section 28 was repealed), Lord Rodgers dealt robustly with the argument that gay asylum seekers could take advantage of their invisibility and just be discreet in their home states:**
To illustrate the point with trivial stereotypical examples from British society: just as male heterosexuals are free to enjoy themselves playing rugby, drinking beer and talking about girls with their mates, so male homosexuals are to be free to enjoy themselves going to Kylie concerts, drinking exotically coloured cocktails and talking about boys with their straight female mates. … In other words, gay men are to be as free as their straight equivalents in the society concerned to live their lives in the way that is natural to them as gay men, without the fear of persecution.
Visibility matters: sons, brothers, uncles, fathers and husbands over the last 50 years came out without repercussions and were seen to be happy. My nephews and nieces don’t only see me and Richard as happy gay men, but other friends of their parents too. If any of them are gay, it might help. If not, it might make them think twice before joining in the bullying. Sexual orientation ceases to be an issue.
LGBT+ History Month adds to our visibility. There are painful things there, reminding us of humanity’s viciousness towards minorities and people who don’t fit in. We shouldn’t shy away from that. But it also shows that we have existed certainly long before Leviticus did, that gay men and women, just like their straight counterparts have achieved great beauty and great discoveries for the world as well as leading fashion trends, and that lots of us were able to have fun despite the law. Perhaps one day one of us will score the winning goal at Wembley without anyone batting an eyelid.
Related material/Notes/Useful links
Find out more about LGBT+ History Month, including the theme for this year, useful resources/toolkits and events.