As Americans use the month of February to celebrate the achievements and contributions of African Americans, many in the UK use this month to educate the country about another civil rights struggle: equal rights in the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community.
This year marks the 10-year anniversary of celebrating LGBT History Month in the United Kingdom. Organizers said the month-long celebrations have increased significantly over the decade from a few events sprinkled throughout February to at least one culturally and historically significant program each day. Sometimes the 28 days aren’t enough and programming spills over to other months as well.
“It’s like when Black History Month started,” said Cheryl Smith, the heritage manager at the Islington Council, an organization that has a steady hand in organizing events related to the LGBT community. “We don’t just do things that have to do with Black History just in that month, we do it all the way through [the year] because it’s part of our community. And the same is for LGBT.”
When it first started, LGBT History Month came on the heels of the House of Commons’ decision to strike down Section 28 in the Local Government Act of 1988. The law prohibited local authorities, primarily teachers, from “promoting” homosexuality or gay “pretended family relationships.”
Because the month rang in a political victory for the nation’s school system, LGBT History Month organizers inherently put a strong focus on educating people during this month.
Schools OUT UK, a group integral in the repeal of Section 28, is now a leader in organizing large-scale events to heighten awareness to both young and older generations. This Valentine’s weekend it hosted the first National Festival of LGBT History, a five-day conference showcasing the achievements, contributions and identity of the LGBT community. It was held in Manchester, about 3 hours north of London. Like its name shows, education is the mechanism it uses to disseminate these messages.
“The only real way to create social change is to educate out prejudice, by being visible in all walks of life, and campaigning hard to change minds,” said co-chair of Schools OUT UK Sue Sanders in a statement. “[We] work heavily with schools and policymakers to improve human rights for everyone.”
Though the U.S. officially recognizes LGBT Pride Month in June, the two nations share many similarities in its political and cultural recognition of gay rights.
The United States and United Kingdom often parallel one another in this sphere. In 2013, it became legal in England and Wales for same-sex couples to wed. In the same year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, the law that prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. Just this month, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples could legally get married in the historically conservative state of Alabama.
British native Kim Foale, communications director of the historic festival, said the designated month as well as the UK’s recent political changes have helped change the discussion of the LGBT community in public spaces. “It has allowed a more open and accepting idea of what people can be.”
In addition to political similarities, the U.S. and UK also shares many of its LGBT advocates. American-based Stuart Milk, the nephew of assassinated gay rights advocate Harvey Milk, attended the national festival in England. In the States, Milk lobbies for broader public education and dialogue to raise awareness of gay rights. Foale echoed Milk by emphasizing the continual support for comprehensive education on the LGBT community.
“How can you challenge prejudice without teaching about it and doing it well and thoughtfully and carefully?”
Other events in London related to this month-long celebration include poetry readings, dances, lectures and multiple film screenings, including one at the British Museum, which is the capital’s largest museum and sees about six million visitors each year.
Organizers say that the media also goes a long way in reaching younger audiences and teaching them history. In cinemas in the UK, two movies — Oscar-nominated “The Imitation Game,” which portrays British war hero Alan Turing’s life and homosexuality and “Love Is Strange,” an indie about the relationship of an older gay couple — is creating buzz. They’re also being widely advertised in Tube stations.
Similar to colleges in the U.S., local London universities and their societies, or clubs, also help spread awareness and education of the LGBT community. Many of these groups say they seek to provide a safe space to LGBT members and their allies. In addition, they campaign on LGBT rights and issues to raise awareness. Smith at the Islington Council said they have partnered with multiple student groups in the past.
Ultimately Foale said that LGBT History Month boils down to the simple fact that LGBT rights are human rights. Therefore in the UK, February is all about more inclusion for all members who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender into the fabric of society.