I’ve long been a supporter of gay rights, so it was a pleasure to catch up with my friend and gay rights advocate Philip Baldwin ahead of a special month in the LGBT calendar.
February is LGBT History Month, an annual month-long celebration of LGBT heritage, culture and identity. This year’s theme is Peace, Reconciliation and Activism.
LGBT History Month raises awareness about the role that LGBT people have played in history, challenging stereotypes and, straight or gay, enabling us all to better understand LGBT identities.
It is by learning from the past that we can create a better future. It is for this reason that LGBT History Month is one of my favourite times of the year for campaigning.
We have seen tremendous progress in terms of LGBT rights in the UK. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised gay men, but only in England in Wales. It was right to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of this landmark in 2017, but the age of consent was set punitively at 21 and the legislation did not apply to Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Comparative legislation did not come into force in Scotland until 1981 and in Northern Ireland until 1982. Although the law had changed, I attended a series of exhibitions in 2017 demonstrating that public opinion had not.
The police long continued to harass and arrest gay men, using “gross indecency” laws, which could be broadly interpreted. There also remained a ban on gay and bisexual men serving in the military as late as 2000.
The AIDS crisis had a devastating impact on LGBT rights. The first case of HIV was recorded in the UK in 1981. As gay and bisexual men fell ill, a critique of lifestyle choices and perceived promiscuity overshadowed the LGBT rights agenda.
It was against this background that Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was introduced. This banned the discussion of LGBT relationships in schools.
In 1984 Chris Smith, a Labour MP, had spoken openly about his sexual orientation. He became the first openly gay MP. It was in response to Section 28 though, that Sir Ian McKellen came out on BBC Radio. McKellen, Sir Michael Cashman and a group of friends founded Stonewall, the UK LGBT rights charity the same year.
Section 28 was a cruel blow for LGBT people, introduced at a time when many LGBT people were grieving for friends and lovers lost to AIDS, but it had the effect of galvanising the LGBT community.
The Labour Party’s landslide election victory in 1997 represented a shift in social values and ushered in two decades of progressive change. In 2000, the age of consent was equalised at 16 for same-and opposite-sex partners. In 2002, same-sex couples were given equal adoption rights.
The Civil Partnership Act 2004 gave same-sex couples the same rights and responsibilities as married straight couples in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The Gender Recognition Act 2004 gave trans people full legal recognition in their appropriate gender. In 2007 discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was banned.
In 2009, David Cameron apologised on behalf of the Conservative Party for the introduction of Section 28. Then, in 2013, it was a Conservative Government which passed the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act.
Looking to the future, in the UK we are now in the fortunate position where the mainstream political parties are all supportive of LGBT rights. LGBT rights are human rights.
In July 2018, the Government released their LGBT Action Plan, outlining goals which will hopefully be achieved this year.
These include compulsory and same-sex inclusive Sex and Relationships Education in all schools, banning conversion therapy and reform of the Gender Recognition Act, which now requires updating.
There is a full schedule of events on during February, aimed at all age groups, including museum exhibitions, plays, conferences and international speakers discussing a range of topics.
There is something for everyone! To find out about events near you, please check out the LGBT History Month website.
To follow Philips journey head to his Instagram @philipcbaldwin