This year is a big one for me. I’ll be reaching a certain milestone age, but let’s not go there, and it’ll be our 25th anniversary. That’s the anniversary of our first date of course - back then, gay couples didn’t really have anything else to base it on, with Civil Partnerships and (spurts coffee out in astonishment) marriage still things to have to fight for in a far off, utopian, accepting land.
My Dad died last year and just the other day I was driving home to see my Mum with my iPod playing loudly on random. I was singing along to ‘Mad As Snow’ by Kitchens of Distinction, ‘Not This Time’ by The 2 Bears (best song of the year anyone?) and then, suddenly, ‘Smalltown Boy’ by Bronski Beat came on, and I burst into tears.
Such is the power of music to take you right back 30 years with just a few chords, and such is the greatness of that song, of that band and that landmark album, 1984’s ‘Age of Consent’, which not only had a pink triangle on the cover but which listed the gay ages of consent across the world, marking out the places where it was still illegal.
To many gay people much younger than me, the pink triangle means nothing. Its use in Nazi concentration camps to mark out homosexuals (black triangles for lesbians) in line for termination is lost to them, a part of the holocaust never included in the history books. But back in the 1980s, the pink triangle had became a symbol for equality which every gay person in the UK recognised. For many of my generation growing up with no positive role models – and I mean NO positive role models at all – coming out was so hard because you simply knew of no other gay people. There were no Queer as Folks, George Michaels or Brokeback Mountains to make you feel that you were not alone. I mean, people didn't think Liberace was gay. Seriously! Sometimes the sight of a discreet pink triangle badge on someone's lapel was just enough to keep you going.
In those not so long ago days, someone like me, well, me actually, struggled in a world in which the mainstream and most of the non mainstream told you that you were abnormal. Isolation was standard, secrecy essential, and being out was something which took a lot of planning and a lot of nerve. OK, it still does, but things have changed a lot for the better. Just as I was ready to accept who I was, the most important step of all before hoping others will accept you too, along came a giant black tombstone telling me that sex equalled death. Thank you AIDS – that put me off for another few years, just in time for Section 28.
There’s a brilliant documentary called ‘We Were There.’ It tells the story of how gay men and lesbians reacted to the horrific onslaught of AIDS in 1980s San Francisco – of how the ‘gay plague’ not only re-stigmatised gay communities but also brought them closer together. It’s a shattering film, reminding us of the appalling way that frightened, dying gay men, their friends and families were treated. I remember visiting friends in hospital where some staff would wear face-masks, fearful themselves that breathing the very air in the same room might put them at risk. Front page tabloid headlines warned people not to touch us, and not to drink from the same cups. Try coming out with all of that going on around you!
Much to my astonishment in discussing the film, many of my younger gay friends had never heard of a ‘gay plague’, knowing nothing of their, our, very recent history, thinking of HIV as a treatable inconvenience and AIDS as something that happens to people in Africa. Educated, intelligent people, just younger.
Where, I wondered, does that history go? Who decided that it’s not worth teaching? All of that pain, struggle and the movement towards the civil rights now enjoyed. All of that lost, gone. Forgotten?
No, because LGBT History Month goes a long way to making sure that it isn't forgotten. Politics, social history, personal stories, people. It reminds us all that history is what gets left in the finished film, whilst so much other stuff just gets edited out and thrown away. There are lots of histories and some are deemed important enough to be told to us all, others are not. The first Pride I ever attended was the one depicted in the brilliant film of the same name, in 1985. It's a part of the history of the miner's strike I know well, brushed aside for decades, told at last.
LGBT History Month celebrates as well as reminds, it champions and warns, it helps us to understand that not all histories are created equal, even now. And when the families of murdered gays in Russia are left without justice, (they've just banned transexuals from driving too), Nigeria encourages people to kill gays, and even America remains confused in its relationship to us, (the US DVD release of 'Pride' has removed any reference to gays from the images and copy on the cover), LGBT History Month matters more than ever.
After ‘Smalltown Boy’ became an empowering hit, strengthening my self knowledge and pushing me that step closer to telling my parents, the next single by Bronski Beat came out. ‘Why?’ was a provocative statement, a demand for equality and a thumping good dance tune. It was on top of the pops and Jimmy Sommerville with his Tin Tin quiff was spinning around unapologetically and very obviously, gay. I was watching it with my Dad.
‘I don’t care what he does in bed – he’s a bloody cracking little mover,’ he said.
Somehow, I knew I’d be OK. And I was. Thanks Jimmy. Thanks Dad.
LGBT History Month is every February.
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