Since the dawn of humanity queer sexuality has permeated through society, with LGBT individuals being revered, oppressed, embraced and vilified across countless civilizations and cultures. Only recently has western society acknowledged the existence of non-heterosexual relationships and genders that deviate from the heterosexual norm, and there is still a long way to go in terms of progress, but the sphere of LGBT has not always been associated with deviant minorities. February marks national LGBT History Month in the UK, this month particularly because of the abolition of Section 28 in February 2005, which had prohibited schools from discussing LGBT issues, and with the range of events and celebrations being carried out across the country in light of this it seems only appropriate to be a little acquainted with the struggles and triumphs the LGBT community has faced through the ages.
Evidence of the existence of LGBT folk has been found in almost all ancient civilizations, from the Americas to India, but of course the prevalence of the sexuality and the attitudes towards it varied greatly. In ancient China, for example, scholars believe that every emperor in the Han Dynasty had one or more male sexual partners, and in early modern Egypt, the Siwa Oasis boasted homosexuality amongst men as the norm, being a majority sexuality. Ancient Greece is often the most cited ancient civilization when it comes to discussion of ancient LGBT history, and rightly so, as pederastic relationships were common. Although this did not replace the institution of marriage between a man and a woman, it was still considered the norm for a man to take a younger, free boy, usually between the ages of 12 and 18, to be his sexual partner. The believed benefits of such relationships were the passing of education and guidance to the younger lover, as well as being a crude form of population control, but this unusual display doesn’t mean the Greeks were completely sexually liberal – homosexual relationships between two men of similar age was still a taboo, and any admission of such relationships or feelings would lead individuals to being exiled, or in some cases executed, as it was believed to be a duty to reproduce for the benefit of humanity.
As you can probably guess, life for LGBT people got pretty tough after this. The spread of Christianity through Europe and the Americas saw LGBT life become oppressed intensely, with this demonization peaking during the Renaissance. Nevertheless, queer culture persevered as it began to show through the cracks in western society’s straight foundations. In eighteenth-century Great Britain, Molly Houses began to appear in London and other large cities. These were private taverns in which gay and cross-dressing men could meet other potential sexual partners, with anthropologists believing these to be the first precursors to the modern gay bar. Over the channel, revolutionary France became the first west European country to decriminalize sodomy, and one of the first significant LGBT movements of modern times began to stir in, surprisingly, Berlin. Prior to the Third Reich, Berlin was a liberal city, containing many gay bars and nightclubs. The first public gay rights organisation, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee), was also set up here by Jewish doctor Magnus Hirschfeld in response to ‘Paragraph 175’ which made sex between men illegal.
This movement saw acceptance of LGBT culture that would not be seen again until the 1960s, the start of the modern gay liberation movement. In the early hours of June 28th, 1969, a police raid took place at the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan, New York. The Stonewall Inn was owned by the Mafia at the time of the raid and was known to be popular amongst the poorest and most marginalized individuals in the LGBT umbrella, including drag queens, trans people and homeless youth. The response to this raid sparked widespread riots in the Greenwich Village area, fuelled by the growing tension between the LGBT community and the relentless police brutality they were facing. These riots are widely considered to be the single most important event leading to the gay liberation movement, as, within a few months of these events, gay rights organizations were founded across the U.S. and the rest of the world. The following year, the first pride marches took place in New York, LA, San Francisco and Chicago to mark the anniversary of the revolt in the streets of Manhattan.
This movement also saw the rise of LGBT awareness in western politics. In San Francisco, just under a decade after the stonewall riots, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office passed a stringent gay rights ordinance in the city – Harvey Milk. Consequently, homosexuality slowly became decriminalised across the United States, and everything became a little more liberal across the board, though admittedly more so for gay men and less so for every other queer person. This new found acceptance had consequences, however, with the 1980s witnessing the AIDS epidemic. Although the disease wasn’t solely suffered by LGBT people, it had a devastating effect on the community, and a backlash from the deeply conservative end of the political spectrum can still be noticed today.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and things are looking up for some of us. Same-sex marriage is becoming legal in places across the world, and medical care for trans people is (slowly) improving, but there’s still a long way to go. In 2011, the UN passed its first resolution recognizing LGBT rights, which was followed up with a report from the UN Human Rights Commission documenting violations of the rights of LGBT people, yet homosexuality is still punishable by death in countries around the world, and trans people still face legislative and cultural barriers to their identity, even in our own nation. This February, we should remember the struggles and triumphs that the LGBT community has faced and keep these in mind as we work towards a better future.