It’s February which means it’s LGBTQ History month in the UK. A whole month dedicated to educating people about LGBTQ issues throughout history in order to understand where we are, how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. We have it very easy in the UK, despite homophobic and transphobic attacks being on the rise. LGBTQ people are still in a much better position than we were within living memory.
Here is a list of ten of the most important moments in LGBTQ history (in no particular order). Just a warning, it’s not all rainbows, love and happiness. We’ve been through a lot to get where we are today and a lot of people have suffered in the fight for equality before us. This list is in their honour.
10. Stonewall Riots
Probably the most iconic of all the moments in this list, the Stonewall Riots all began on the night of 28th June 1969 when police raided the Stonewall Inn, New York. Raids were commonplace and often the Mafia owned bars would bribe the Police to tip them off when the raids were due to occur so that people could be prepared. Arrests were frequently made if someone was found wearing more than one item of clothing belonging to the “opposite gender,” or if people were found in compromising positions.
The night of 28th June was different though. There was no tip off and the police raided very late – around 1.20am. A team of undercover police had infiltrated the bar, collected evidence and then called in backup. They operated under the excuse that they had been investigating bootleg alcohol. Nobody knew what had happened until the music died and the lights came up. When the 200 people tried to flee they found the bathrooms, exits and windows blocked. Nobody could escape.
The police followed procedure by lining people up and asking to check ID but everyone refused to produce their ID and those in women’s clothing, who would usually be taken to the women’s bathroom for physical checks, resisted. Meanwhile, police confiscated the alcohol and those who had no reason to be arrested were set free and congregated on the streets outside. By the time the police wagon arrived the crowds had multiplied by ten times or more. As the Mafia owners were escorted out and placed in the vans, the crowds began chanting “Gay Power!”
Moments later, police dragged a handcuffed woman into the street. She shouted about how tight the cuffs were and fought off four police officers who eventually caught her and hit her over the head with a baton. She screamed “Why don’t you guys do something?!”
Enough was enough. It was time to stand up. Rumour has it that Marsha P. Johnson, a black, transgender, sex worker, a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and one of New York’s most popular people in the gay and arts scenes, was the first to fight back. However, Johnson always maintained that she didn’t arrive until 2am when the riots were already well underway and the building was on fire.
The Stonewall riots lasted for six days and are now widely recognised as a major turning point in LGBTQ history and are a symbol of our strength and resistance.
9. Pride Marches
The Stonewall riots were undeniably a turning point in the fight for LGBT visibility and the following year on 27th June, Chicago Gay Liberation led a march to celebrate the anniversary of Stonewall. They held it on a Saturday to coincide with Stonewall riots kicking off on the last Saturday of June. They also wanted the impact of their message to reach as many shoppers as they possibly could on that busy weekend afternoon.
The following day in New York, activists in the city organised their own parade which became known as Christopher Street Liberation Day.
In the following years, more marches began to appear in different cities and existing marches saw more people join in. While the marches were allowed to happen it was still a dangerous thing to be part of. Those who marched, especially in American parades, risked everything if they were spotted and recognised by family or co-workers. They could lose jobs, family, friends, homes.
It wasn’t until 1978 that our iconic rainbow flag was designed by artist Gilbert Baker. He was challenged by Harvey Milk to create a “Symbol of Pride” to represent the community.
Baker created a rainbow that was initially different to the one we know today. Originally there were meant to be eight stripes. Hot pink (which represented sex and sexuality) was removed as the fabric was too expensive to create. Turquoise (which represented magic and art) was removed in 1979 when organisers of the Gay Freedom Day parade wanted to fly the flag in two halve at either side of the street. Seven stripes couldn’t be split evenly so one had to go.
The six remaining stripes have become the iconic flag we fly today. Their colours represent:
Red for life.
Orange for healing.
Yellow for sunshine.
Green for nature.
Indigo for serenity
Violet for spirit.
These stripes all represent aspects of humanity regardless of background, age, race, culture, gender or sexuality. It encompasses everyone and is a beautiful, colourful representation of our community.
8. Decriminalisation of Homosexuality
Homosexuality had been punishable by death from 1563 up until 1861. However, the last execution took place on 27th November 1835 when James Pratt and John Smith were hanged at Newgate.
In the century or so years that followed after homosexuality was no longer punishable by death, things were still brutal and a prison sentence was bestowed upon the men caught in the act. Men found guilty were shamed, disowned by family, etc. Those who were brave enough to be open lived dangerous lives on the line of being open while not giving any evidence to be found guilty of a crime. Famous examples of men who were very open include Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, Quentin Crisp and Oscar Wilde.
It wasn’t until 1967, when the Sexual Offences Bill 1967 passed, that homosexuality between two men of the age 21 and over and in private was decriminalised in England and Wales. Scotland and Ireland followed later. It wasn’t until 1994 that the age of consent of gay men was lowered to 18. In 2000 it was finally lowered to 16 to meet the standard age of consent for straight couples.
Alan Turing, a British war hero, was found guilty of homosexuality in the 1950’s. Alan, whose work with the enigma machines arguably won us the war, was given a choice between imprisonment or treatment. He chose the treatment which came as the form of chemical castration and he was forced to have synthetic oestrogen injections for a year. The result of the treatment was impotence and gynaecomastia in which the breast tissue increases. Alan was stripped of his GCHQ security clearance and was even refused entry to the USA based on his conviction of homosexuality. Sadly, Alan died in 1954. It has been speculated that he poisoned himself with a cyanide laced apple, whereas others believe it was an accident. On Christmas Eve 2013 Queen Elizabeth II signed a posthumous pardon which she made public in 2014.
This led to Human Rights advocate Peter Tatchell writing to Prime Minister, David Cameron. Mr. Tatchell felt it was unfair that Turing was singled out because of his status and notable achievements, when thousands of people had been convicted of similar crimes. This observation led to the informally named Turing Law which passed in 2016. The law pardoned men who had been convicted of historic crimes regarding homosexuality in England and Wales.
Strangely enough relationships between two women were never criminalised.
Sadly laws that criminalise homosexuality are still in effect around the world today. Our ancient laws still apply in 70% of the Commonwealth (former British colonies). These laws allow homophobia to remain rampant in those countries but the severity of punishment often depends on the country. In 2017 the UK Home Office said that while Jamaica is a regarded homophobic society, “authorities do not actively seek to prosecute LGBT persons,” while places like Uganda, Nigeria and other parts of Africa have strengthened their laws and even changed them. While the original British law only applied to men, these countries apply it to women too.
As of January 2019 there are still 73 countries in the world where it is illegal to be LGBT. You can learn more about them out here.
However, there is a bright side. India has recently overturned some of these laws left over from British rule. While being LGBTQ over there isn’t enough to land you a life prison sentence, there is still no equal marriage but that will likely come in time.
7. Declassification as a Mental Illness
Homosexuality was decriminalised in the 1960’s in the UK but doctors and psychologists argued for decades about classification as a mental illness. It wasn’t until 1992, that the World Health Organisation declassified it as a “Mental illness.”
As with most “illnesses” there were attempts at cures. Electro-shock therapy. Aversion therapy, Gay Cure therapy. There are many names for many types of torture based in “pseudoscience” or “religion.” Thankfully, it has become a well known fact that these “cures” do not work and are in fact dangerous to the individuals put through them. The sad truth is that many families, often under the influence of religion, believe that they can help their children by pushing them through this. However, medical professionals have given absolutely no proof that it can work and most now stand against the abhorrent practice.
Examples of “treatment” include making subjects endure electric shocks. One treatment involves drinking a solution that makes them throw up, while being forced to watch gay porn. Some make people pray and even undergo exorcisms. Some have to attend their own pretend funerals while people read eulogies describing their death from AIDs. Those in control play horrendous psychological games on their patient. They coerce people into abiding by rules which enforce strict gender stereotypes under the impression that they can change themselves. They are even told what they can and can’t wear, watch, read or listen to.
These practices are intense and are designed to break the victims. As a result, lots of young, vulnerable people are driven to depression and even suicide by this torture.
The UK have made steps to ban the controversial therapy. The NHS does not offer any kind of conversion therapy and, rightfully, even condemns it. In the USA, things are more complex between the individual states but New York has just banned the practice in the last few weeks.
The subject of conversion therapy is currently topical due to the release of the film, Boy Erased. The film is a Hollywood adaptation of the memoirs of Garrard Conley who was forced to go through conversion therapy. His story isn’t singular. It’s one of many and according to research over 700,000 adults have been through the same thing.
6. Queer As Folk
Following on with the theme of representation in the media, Queer as Folk was a shocking landmark in LGBT representation on television. First aired in 1999, on Channel 4, its frank openness and its graphic portrayal of the Manchester gay village and homosexuality at the end of the 20th century was bound to ruffle a few feathers.
Russell T Davies, who later brought back Doctor Who, created the iconic program. Queer As Folk opened the public’s eyes to queer issues and drew parallels to the straight world by being as graphic as any romance between a man and a woman would be. Granted, it can make for an uncomfortable watch at times (Nathan being underage and all) but its status cannot be denied.
The reason the show did so well was because we cared about the characters and their mis-adventures. We both loved to hate and hated to love Stuart. We wanted Vince to find his Prince Charming and we rooted for Nathan when he stuck up for himself against bullies at school. QAF wasn’t just about the sex. It was about the people. It was for this reason that America followed up with their own successful adaptation. The American version retained a lot of the original for the first two seasons but went on its own direction after. It managed to always remain relevant and keep its heart which in turn earned it a lot of love.
In 2015 RTD followed up with Cucumber, Banana and Tofu: Three separate series that ran parallel. Cucumber followed Henry and his relationship (and breakup) with Lance as well as a host of other characters around them. It dealt with modern, difficult subjects like threesomes, sexual fluidity, pursuing straight men which ended in one of the most harrowing scenes in TV history. It is one that still gives me nightmares and makes me sick to the stomach 4 years later. Banana was a spin off series which gave the spotlight to the supporting characters of Cucumber. Tofu was a short, very frank, documentary series about sex.
Most recently Russell was the man behind A Very British Scandal which followed the story of Jeremy Thorpe (Liberal MP) and his secret relationship with Norman Josiffe which ends up very dramatic and very public.
This brings us to the end of part one of the Top 10 Important Moments in LGBTQ History. Don’t forget to check back for Part two to learn more. In the meantime, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to keep up to date on all the latest news and gossip.