Happy LGBTQ+ History Month!

Each February we remember the troubled and fraught history of sexually diverse people and the ongoing struggle for equality and justice worldwide for all those who are not exclusively attracted sexually to members of the opposite sex and/or who do not solely identify with their anatomical birth gender, or in the case of intersex individuals who were born with both male and female genitals, the sex that they were surgically assigned shortly after birth.

Consenting lovemaking between same sex couples was criminalised for political reasons from the Victorian Era until as recently as 1963, the year the original Star Trek was launched. Subsequent hate-inspired legislation, such as Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1993, which ordered all schools, public libraries and other publicly funded bodies to withhold all information about sexual and gender diversity except for material claiming it was a psychiatric problem – a controversial claim even at that time and one that has since been roundly and near universally rejected by medicine and psychology. Only very recently has the government posthumously pardoned codebreaker and mathematician Alan Turing and others unfairly persecuted under the law for their homosexuality.

A fear of difference and particularly of social change, has meant that progress towards equality has been slow. Homosexuals are still campaigning for the same rights as heterosexuals, while nonbinary and trans people face horrible stigma because their very existence challenges a particularly deeply rooted and unquestioned social axiom: that there are two genders, male and female, and further more that these genders are always separate, distinct, and correspond with complete fidelity to the reproductive anatomy of each person. Put like that, those of you given to critical thinking might already be starting to feel an uncomfortable, creeping uncertainty that this teetering pile of assumptions is unlikely ever to have been tested, but rather assumed because it seemed to fit most people, and anyone who has ever attempted to live outside the accepted norms has always been violently ‘corrected’ so that the rest of society may continue to live on in blissful ignorance of the rich diversity and complexity of what it is to be human.

Person photographing an art installation: a rainbow comprising a curved collage of multicoloured sequins stuck onto a white wall.

People defy categorisation. The sheer number of different pronouns and descriptions of gender identity, sexual orientation, romantic preferences, and what people want and expect from sex and relationships are myriad; separately and collectively so dizzyingly complex a matrix of possible combinations that it is unrealistic to expect social scientists will ever satisfactorily describe anything more than the broad sweep of the characteristics that combine to make up each person’s personal identity. This plunges most people into near crisis when they reach puberty and begin to renegotiate their identity of increasing independence. Many LGBTQ+ youths end up killing themselves at this age and stage of development, unable to reconcile their emerging identity with their social conditioning and societal oppression. The famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung observed that truly getting to know oneself and what one truly wants from life is one of the most singularly challenging hurdles most people face. The prospect of admitting that the material possessions and relationships people have been brought up to believe would make them happy have failed to address their real needs is so terrifying that most people distract themselves with work, striving for greater success and kudos, competing with the neighbours, having a ‘mid-life crisis’ or throwing themselves headlong into a hobby or charitable works. Anything but face themselves in the mirror and ask what is wrong.

Imagine, then, how much worse this must be for anyone fundamentally confused about their gender, sexuality or other socially identified pillars of their identity. In light of this, it is perhaps small wonder that the masses are so frightened at the prospect of having the most fundamental parameters that they use to define themselves taken away. Large groups to be feared in every instance, for the crowd is a more violent beast than any of its constituent individuals, being possessed of the arrogance of a common collective direction that overrides the moral concerns or doubts of any member, everyone in the mob reassuring themselves that they are in the right and quelling their doubts by telling themselves that ‘all these other people are so certain, and they could not all be wrong’). Perhaps the majority of people feel they need the categories of gender, sexuality, and the sense of rightness and moral superiority they majority enjoy from simply being born cis-gendered and heterosexual in order to bound, define, understand and normalise how they feel. After all, without clear descriptions of being that people can identify with, how glibly summarise themselves? They would have to finally get to know themselves deeply and truly, and that – as Jung wryly observed – is something most people would rather die than attempt.

Jung suggested this terrified, trapped majority should be pitied but I find it hard to pity people who seek to protect their collective insecurity at the expense of some of the most vulnerable in society. Trans people are subject to far higher rates of personal and sexual violence than other groups and trans youths are ten times as likely to commit suicide than cis-gendered heterosexual youths. Something has to change. Society as a whole needs to accept that the social norms of gender, relationships and family that we were brought up with were less noble truths and more convenient simplifications: such vast oversimplifications that they bordered on being outright lies. We have still to outlaw ineffective, traumatising so-called ‘conversion therapies’ – programmes of emotional abuse that attempt to change young people’s sexual identity. At the same time, suicide and assault rates are disproportionately higher and careers limited with a tell-tale consistency for most sexually and gender diverse minority groups: clear signals that even in the UK, our society has a long way to go before we achieve equality. Elsewhere in the world, being gay brings near certain torture and death. We must strive to recognise and meet our discomfort with self-compassion, so we can learn to move through it and embrace the near infinite diversity of humankind.

Black female couple holding hands, one wearing a rainbow wristband.

On a lighter note

Wow, that got heavy fast! For some (much) lighter reading, check out the Stonewall LGBTQ+ History Month webpages, where they have brief feature articles on topics from the origins of the word “bisexuality” to the history of the Stonewall uprising in New York that marked the beginning of the gay liberation movement and the slow battle for justice and equality.

Assistant Librarian (Promotions) at the University Library. An enthusiastic advocate of libraries, diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice for all, inside and outside the workplace.

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