What’s the point of LGBT History Month? (UK)

February is LGBT History Month in the UK, a chance to look back on the struggles of LGBT people throughout history, from the public executions of the middle ages to the Stonewall Riots of the 1970s, writes Milly Shaw.
But is there really such a thing as LGBT history?
After all, there’s still so much discussion about what it is to be LGBT now: are gay people born or made? Are we all bisexual? Is gender identity decided in the genes? Is lesbianism a political choice?

In addition there’s the prickly issue of the very terms ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender’– labels which sit awkwardly for many people in modern society, and which fit even worse when forced retrospectively on the long-dead.

Famous gay people in history
From the ancient Greeks to Julius Caesar, Leonardo da Vinci to Pope Julius III, Richard the Lionheart to Edward II, there’s no shortage of famous historical figures who are rumoured to have been gay.
It suits us to look back on history through rainbow-tinted lenses and pounce on every historical mention of a same-sex relationship as evidence of an uninterrupted LGBT history. The problem, however, is that homosexuality as an identity is a fairly modern invention.
Homosexual acts may have been well practiced throughout history, but the idea of developing a sexual identity from the actions would have been baffling for much of history. The ancient Greeks, for example, are famous now for their apparent calm acceptance of male gay relationships. However the truth is more complicated, with gay male relationships often being displays of power and social status rather than mere love matches.
It’s not just modern homosexual relationships which are radically different from those from history of course. Heterosexual marriage as a union of love is a thoroughly modern invention which has come a long way from its original use as a strategic business tool to link families and distribute wealth.

Documenting gay history
If we can’t be sure that anyone actually identified as gay throughout history, how can we know they were even involved in same-sex acts? Could it all just be the overactive imagination of modern LGBT campaigners desperate to see themselves reflected in history?
The answer is simple – we know that male homosexuality existed because it was illegal. England’s Buggery Act of 1533 made ‘unnatural sexual acts’ punishable by death, but as far back as the Roman empire, accusations of homosexual behaviour led to punishments, fines and blackmailing.
And where are the women in these gay histories? Where they’ve always been, of course – on the sidelines, marginalised and silenced. With little influence in public life and few rights inside or outside the home, same-sex behaviour in women was largely ignored. The little we do know has come from love letters, occasional encounters with the law or medical records.
Ignorance can sometimes be bliss – lesbianism was never made illegal, and for much of history where it was noticed, lesbianism was considered just harmless girlish behaviour that didn’t threaten the institution of heterosexual marriage.
Why we need LGBT History Month
Understanding what – if anything – it means to be part of a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in modern society is no easy task. And it’s precisely because of these ongoing discussions that we need an LGBT history month.
Regardless of whether or not it is accurate to speak of ‘LGBT history’, the fact is that literally millions of people have suffered persecution, torture and death because of their sexuality throughout history. And they continue to suffer – homosexuality is currently illegal and punishable by death or life imprisonment in 16 countries.

Revealing the historical context to our understanding of non-heterosexual identities and relationships gives us strength and solidarity to continue the battle for equality.
History is written by the winners, and for most of history gay men and women have been losers. But just because some kind of LGBT history isn’t easy to find doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We owe it to the LGBT people of history to remember them and their struggles.

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Author: GLBTQ Jamaica Moderator

Activist and concerned gay man in Jamaica with over 19 years experience in advocacy and HIV/AIDS prevention work, LGBT DJ since 1996.

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