Monday, 12 February 2018

LGBT History Month - Standing on the shoulders of giants

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.", wrote Isaac Newton in 1675. It wasn’t an original thought even at the time but as we reach the middle of this year’s LGBT History Month, and as some wonder what the need is for such an event, this quote seems particularly apt. 

Although, as in so many cases, evidence is scant, Newton seems likely to have been at least romantically attracted to men. A possible proclivity, which, like that of so many other prominent figures, is either not discussed or actively maintained in the recesses of the darkest closet by an interested or downright hostile society. 

Further than this, however, the quote epitomises the situation of any LGBT person living in the UK in 2018. It is a cliché but we do indeed stand on the shoulders of giants; people who have had the courage to speak out and push for laws and mentalities to change; for us to be in a position to live our lives more or less as we please (although, as research on bullying, homelessness and hate crimes show, too many of us are still not even able to do that). 

Forgetting this is a betrayal of those courageous forebears (the Karl Heinrich Ulrichs or Marsha P. Johnsons of this world) and puts us on the road to forgetting that rights can be taken away much more easily than they are won. We only need to look at Bermuda, which just repealed its equal marriage legislation after only a year, and the pathetic lack of effective response from the Home Office, to know how true this is. 

However much we may protest otherwise from our privileged positions, vigilance is still key, and taking even a fleeting interest in our past can help us keep it alive. 

To many, history appears boring and irrelevant, but LGBT history is more than a list of meaningless dates. It is about the blood, sweat and tears of people like us. It tells us who we are, how we got there, and why we are we are. It certainly doesn’t have to be a miserable yawnfest in black and white, although there are sadly plenty of gloomy episodes in our collective, and often very recent, past. 

Look at the 18th century London Mollies, with their gender-bending, their mock marriages and birthings, or the thriving gay scene of the Weimar Republic, with its bars, social groups and magazines. Perhaps you’d prefer a look at the 70’s communes in Brixton with their radical theatre troupes? Our past shimmers with all the glittering colours of the rainbow, if you just care to look. 

Far from preventing any member of the community from being themselves, it is a way for us to learn about those role models we are never told about by the straight mainstream. 

Our straight brothers and sisters, by virtues of being members of the mainstream, are steeped in their own history. It is all around them and this allows them to build their sense of self as valued members of a group pretty much by osmosis. 

By our very nature, this is a luxury that we are not granted. Knowing our history provides the grounding to “see further” and be your best self, to be more creative and more at home within your own skin without having to achieve that result on your own. 

In the end, there is space for both learning about our past and enjoying a party. In fact, if we know about the challenges, the joys, the hardships and the achievements, aren’t we likely to want to enjoy ourselves with more defiant gusto and to appreciate the freedom to do so with added vigour? 

To paraphrase LGBT History Month's tag line: Celebrate your present, by all means, but do not forget to claim your past. It will help you create your future.

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