We have always been here: Exploring LGBT+ History Month


Delyth Michael looks at the importance of understanding LGBT+ History Month in York and beyond

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Image by Tim Green

By Delyth Michael

LGBT History Month is celebrated annually around the world, although not always at the same time. In the UK, February is the month chosen to celebrate, grieve, and most of all remember the history of queer people and the movements campaigning for their civil rights. In 2022, some might wonder what the purpose of this month is – why are there two months? June is LGBT+ Pride month and so they may ask if there is a difference between the two. Why do queer people need it? Why should non-queer people care?

To begin to answer the first question, LGBT+ History Month was started in the UK by the Schools OUT charity in 2005, in the wake of the abolition of Section 28 in 2003. Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act said that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. For over a decade, teachers felt at risk of not only losing their jobs but even facing prosecution if they didn’t self-censor and instead dared to speak up against discrimination. They were unable to offer any support to young questioning people, to reassure them that they weren’t broken, that there was nothing wrong with them. 15 years worth of LGBT+ youth grew up under the legislation, the effects of which are unfortunately still felt today.

LGBT+ History Month seeks to remember not only the low points like the years of Section 28 but also the brave people who fought and still fight for the rights of queer people and against discriminatory legislation. It seeks to remember the queer people that society has attempted to consign to the rubbish bins of history, people who just wanted to be themselves without having to be afraid. People like Anne Lister, the most famous historical queer figure from Yorkshire and often called ‘the first modern lesbian’.

Lister inherited her family home of Shibden Hall in Halifax, allowing her to be much more independent than most noblewomen at the time. Anne Lister kept extremely detailed diaries from the age of 15, a sixth of which was written in her own secret code, detailing the more dangerous parts of her life – her relationships with other women. Some of her earliest entries detail her first love, Eliza Raine, who was a fellow pupil with Lister at the Manor School in the city of York – today, the Manor School is known as King’s Manor and part of the University of York. Archaeology and Art History students might see Lister’s distinctive handwriting as they pass through the manor, carved into a window with other schoolgirls’ graffiti talking of same-sex crushes.

“With this ring, I scratched the glass, with this face I kissed a lass” - Graffiti on a King’s Manor window, thought to be by Anne Lister.

Anne Lister is unique in queer and particularly sapphic history for having such an extensive written record of who she was and what she did, with many Many of her lovers are only known to have had queer relationships through their names being in Lister’s diaries, and more than one was later sent to an asylum by family members; a common fate for non-conforming women at the time. These included Ann Walker, the most famous of Lister’s partners, and with whom she had a marriage ceremony performed. A plaque in York commemorates the spot where they celebrated their marital commitment to each other. LGBT+ History Month isn’t just to recognise and commemorate the historical queer figures like Anne Lister who we know so much about, but to grieve for those who we will never get a chance to know, who didn’t have the opportunities of Anne Lister. The fact that a college at the University of York has now been named after Anne Lister, a famous lesbian, and the college currently being built is to be named after David Kato, a Ugandan gay rights activist shows how much times have
changed. The UK is often praised as one of the most progressive countries in the world on queer rights, but there’s still a long way to go.

Compared to other university cities in the UK, York’s queer scene is arguably somewhat lacking. There is no dedicated gay bar in the city, although in 2021 Kuda introduced a monthly queer club night (Kween) and YUSU announced new queer nights at Flares during termtime. As a first year student, I was very excited to hear about this, but a shadow was quickly cast over the excitement when the very first Kween night at Kuda, before I’d even arrived in York, was coloured by alleged homophobic attacks that resulted in two people going to hospital and three people being arrested. Similar frightening scenes have been witnessed in other cities across the country, including multiple violent incidents between August and October in Birmingham last year. Even in the UK in 2022, queer people still can’t go out and be themselves without the fear of being attacked. We may no longer be criminalised, but we are by no means safe. I think that a lot of non-queer people just don’t understand the fears queer people have and therefore don’t understand LGBT+ History Month. When you’ve been getting messages from society your whole life that there is something wrong with who you are, or that people like you don’t exist, LGBT+ History Month is a chance to say that we have always been here, we will not go away and that there is nothing wrong with us and never has been.

While York’s queer scene may not be huge, what does exist is hugely important. Portal Bookshop is a queer bookshop owned by Lali Hewitson in the city centre, with the upstairs space taken by queer Finnish coffee shop Lunar Café and inclusive hairdresser Glenn Miller. I spoke to Lali about what LGBT+ History Month meant to them, and how it differs from Pride. “It’s important to remember that Pride started off as a protest, especially considering the attacks on trans people at the moment. I think Pride can sometimes be written off as that one bit of the year where they have to deal with us by straight people, whereas LGBT+ History Month takes the ethos of Pride and makes it more intense. It showcases that no matter what has happened you can’t erase us because we have always been here.” Cosy Time also provides a second LGBT+ safe cafe in the city, and the York LGBT+ forum runs free events for the community as well as an LGBT+ choir.

Queer bookshops are possibly the most important of all queer spaces. They offer up a place where queer people can not only see each other and feel a sense of community, but get to see books about them and their experiences, the way that everyone should be able to. This is particularly important for
young queer people – I know that seeing queer representation in books when I was younger was huge for me, and even now when I go into Portal Bookshop it’s hard to resist the urge to buy everything I see. Lali says “I get loads of kids coming in who are figuring things out, or their friends are, and even in 2022 have family that don’t accept them or try to change them, and they can come here and see that people like them get to be happy and go on adventures.” This representation is particularly important for trans and non-binary youth, who at present face significant abuse and attempts of demonisation by individuals, groups and sections of the media, particularly online.

I asked Lali for book recommendations specifically for LGBT+ History Month, and their first suggestion was Pride by Matthew Todd for an overall history of the fight for equality, praised for being well written and easy to read. They also suggested The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes, a new release documenting trans history that has been erased from the public narrative, and shows that, in Lali’s words, ‘the precedence by which people are denied their gender identity is based on capitalist greed.’ For a wide variety of books about, by and for queer people, you can visit York’s dedicated queer bookshop on Patrick Pool.

So what should non-queer people do to be allies this LGBT+ History Month? Firstly, make the effort to educate yourselves about queer history, because society won’t do it for you. I always find books to be the best place to start, but there are also podcasts, TV shows and movies about queer history if those are more to your taste. My personal recommendation is the film Pride (2014) which is based on the true story of London-based gay and lesbian activists raising money and support for striking miners in 1984 South Wales. Sometimes it can be difficult to learn about discrimination affecting others and it may bring feelings of guilt, but queer people don’t want or need your guilt. Over the years we have been forced to feel enough of it ourselves. What we need is allyship, acceptance and support. We need your help to keep fighting for equality for all.

There are multiple events this month to celebrate LGBT+ History Month, both at the University of York and across the city. You can find the official university events on the university website’s official news and events page. The YUSU LGBTQ+ Network is also hosting a range of events, which you can find out more about @yusu_lgbtq on Instagram and Twitter and YUSU LGBTQ on Facebook. Other societies are holding their own events too, including the Feminist Society and the History Society. Portal Bookshop will also be holding a Valentine’s Day charity event.