As I type this the House of Commons has just passed a bill which would legalise same-sex marriage in the UK. The bill passed fairly comfortably (400 to 175) which is a sign of just how far Britain has come on the subject of gay rights in the past 60 years. For most people of our generation gay rights are something that is so accepted that it seems strange that people are even opposing them, but this was not always the case. Until 1967 it was illegal to even be gay in Britain as homosexual relations were criminalised (lesbianism was technically legal but was heavily marginalised) and trans people were considered to be mentally ill if they were recognised at all. The last 60 years have been a time of great social change in the Western world and it was a great time of progress for LGBT rights as well. The Wolfenden Report recognised the decriminalisation of homosexuality back in 1957 (interestingly the then Archbishop of Canterbury spoke out in favour of the report’s conclusions) but it was not until 1967 that homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales. In the following decades societal attitudes towards LGBT people became more accepting but Conservative dominance meant that legal rights did not keep pace and in fact homophobic laws such as Section 28, which banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality (in practice banning anything but condemnation of homosexuality) in schools. Most of the advances of gay rights in recent years are the result of the decade-long tenure of the Blair government, which repealed Section 28, made the gay age of consent equal to the straight one, gave gay couples the right to adopt and passed civil partnerships
Of course due to the devolved nature of British politics the progress of gay rights has not been equal in every part of the UK. Although the Scottish government is attempting to pass gay marriage with a similar timetable to the Westminster government homosexuality was not actually decriminalised until 1981 there and the notoriously conservative region of Northern Ireland had to be forced by the European Court of Human Rights to decriminalise homosexuality in 1982.
Homosexuality has been documented throughout human history and attitudes towards it have varied wildly between different time periods and societies. It is not just a simple story of progress from repressive past to enlightened present, gay people have in fact been able to live openly to greater or lesser extents in many societies throughout history. Much of the legalised discrimination against homosexuals actually dates from 19th Century European values, which as part of the imperialism of that era they declared to be universal values of civilization. One example of this is the homophobia present in much of Africa today, where in many countries homosexuality is illegal thanks to colonial laws that were imposed on those countries by colonial administrations imposing contemporary Western values on the continent. China and Japan also had no historical laws against homosexuality but then rushed to draw them up in the late 19th Century so that they would appear ‘civilized’ in the eyes of the Western powers.
You will be able to find at least one historian willing to propose that any historical figure was really gay but we have more or less solid evidence that various historical figures were gay. The great Roman Emperor Hadrian lived openly with his lover Antinous with little reaction beyond a few raised eyebrows, although this may have been due to people’s unwillingness to openly criticise the absolute ruler of the greatest empire the Western world had ever seen. After Antinous died Hadrian actually deified his lover and set up a cult around him that was highly popular in the East of the empire, competing for a time with the church of a certain Galilean carpenter for followers. We see similar stories in Ancient China, where many emperors had openly gay lovers and the Emperor Ai actually tried to leave the throne to his lover.
Lesbianism is featured much less prominently in the historical records than male homosexuality is. To a large extent this is because for so many centuries history was considered the story of what men thought and did, with women as supporting actors at best. Female sexuality has historically been considered to be something that existed merely as an adjunct to male sexuality and in many cases people refused to believe that women had sexual desires of their own. Queen Victoria’s supposed refusal to accept that women ‘did such things’ may be a myth but many countries which had laws against male homosexuality completely ignored female homosexuality, thus making it technically legal. Of course ‘technically legal’ does not mean that it was accepted or tolerated, as historically almost any woman who did not want to enter into a heterosexual marriage was harshly treated by society.
Trans people are even less mentioned in the historical records than lesbians for a number of reasons. One of the main reasons is the fact that historically people have simply been unable to understand trans issues, which remain poorly understood by wider society even today. Some historians have argued that the Roman Emperor Elagabalus was trans due to certain stories that were told about him. One contemporary historian claimed that he married his male chariot driver and referred to himself as the ‘wife’ and Herodian claimed that he offered money to any physician who could give him female genitalia. However Elagabalus’ sexuality and gender identity have been hotly debated by historians. Not least because it is impossible to tell which of the stories about Elagabalus are true and which ones are fabrications by Roman historians attempting to smear the emperor posthumously. The Roman senatorial class who wrote most histories that have come down to us were notoriously conservative and stories of sexual ‘immorality’ were one of their favourite ways to smear Emperors they disapproved of.
In LGBT History Month we celebrate the rich and diverse history of LGBT people and the progress we have made towards LGBT rights. We are thankful that we live in a society where we can openly celebrate our history and remind ourselves why the continuing struggle for LGBT rights is necessary.
The Durham University LGBTA is holding a number of events during LGBT History Month, for a full list of events visit http://www.durhamlgbta.org.uk/2013/01/25/lgbt-history-month-durham/