We are our history

Professor Paul Johnson OBE, reflects on the importance of LGBT+ History Month.

Professor Paul Johnson OBE

Professor Paul Johnson

Each year, as we approach LGBT+ History Month, I remember these words of James Baldwin:  

“…history is not the past.  

It is the present.  

We carry our history with us.  

We are our history.  

If we pretend otherwise, to put it very brutally, we literally are criminals.”

Baldwin’s plea, to remember how the past inhabits the present, is as urgent now as it was when he said it in 1980. It is a plea to recognise that each and every one of us is living with, and being shaped by, the past and, therefore, that we must have a fuller understanding of history in order to make a better future.  

This very much resonates with LGBT+ History Month, which was founded in the UK in 2004 by Schools OUT UK and first celebrated in February 2005. LGBT+ History Month recognizes that the history of LGBT+ people in the UK has often been hidden or erased. The core mission of LGBT+ History Month, therefore, is to encourage LGBT+ people to claim our past, to celebrate our present, and to create our future. 

How LGBT+ people engage with the past, as a means to comprehend the present and positively shape the future, takes different forms. For many LGBT+ people, personal history is an important starting point. For example, in a very moving piece published recently in Leeds Magazine, Peter Workman reflected on his life – including his time as a student at Leeds in the late 1970s and early 1980s – and how his own personal experiences and history now underpin his support for the University’s new Pride Scholarships

Having access to the life stories of other LGBT+ people, like Peter, is important because, in essence, they remind us that we, as LGBT+ people, are never alone. Many LGBT+ people, from diverse backgrounds and cultures, share similar life experiences and, through the recounting of personal histories, can gain a shared understanding of the past which, crucially, can inform a collective vision for a better future.  

An important point in our shared history 

LGBT+ people in the UK are at an interesting and important point in our shared history. A raft of recent legislative changes has significantly reduced discrimination against and promoted the equality of LGBT+ people. During the period since the turn of the century, for example, people in the UK have been able to gain legal recognition of a same-sex relationship (first through civil partnership and, more recently, through marriage), have been able to access a legal process to gain recognition for a change of gender, and have been protected by a prohibition on discrimination in employment. These and other important legal changes, which have arisen from a recognition of the injustices of the past, enable LGBT+ people to live our lives with greater freedom from discrimination and hatred. 

At the same time, the journey to full equality for LGBT+ people in the UK is far from over and, in that sense, the history of discrimination against people on the grounds of sexual orientation and/or gender identity is still very much ongoing. Only two years ago, for example, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe – Europe’s leading human rights organisation – condemned with particular force the extensive and often virulent attacks on the rights of LGBTI people that it recognized had been occurring for several years in Europe, specifically mentioning the UK (along with Hungary, Poland, the Russian Federation, and Turkey). Moreover, last year, the United Nations Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, following a visit to the UK, stated that he was “deeply concerned about increased bias-motivated incidents of harassment, threats, and violence against LGBT people, including a rampant surge in hate crimes in the UK”, which was attributed to “the toxic nature of the public debate surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity”. 

Hatred of and discrimination against LGBT+ people in the UK is definitely not the past but is very much the present, and recognizing this is central to eradicating such hatred and discrimination in the future.  

I am really pleased, therefore, that our LGBT+ Staff Network – which I am very proud to support through my role as University Executive Group LGBT+ Champion – has contributed to organizing some of the important and exciting LGBT+ History Month events in the University throughout February.  

Looking Forward 

One event, which I am really looking forward to, is Lord Cashman’s visit to the University, which will round off LGBT+ History Month, on Thursday 29th February. As a politician and veteran campaigner for LGBT+ rights in the UK, as well as being part of that historic kiss in Eastenders in 1987, Michael Cashman is uniquely placed to illuminate the past, show us how history informs our present, and give us the opportunity to reflect on how we want our future to be.  

LGBT+ History Month is for everyone, and I hope everyone in our university will want, in some way, to take part in it. As a community proud of its diversity and being made up of people with widely different experiences and personal histories, LGBT+ History Month is an opportunity for us to explore what continues to divide us and, crucially, what unites us for our common good.  

To quote the poet Mary Oliver: “I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one”. LGBT+ History Month allows us to explore the links between us, through a shared understanding of personal and collective histories, and to recognise that we depend upon each other to, together, make a brighter future for us all.   

About the Author

Professor Paul Johnson OBE is Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, and University Executive Group LGBT+ Champion.

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