“People tend to reserve their extreme homophobia for when I’m not around,” Sue Sanders tells me at the beginning of February 2012, eight years after she founded LGBT history month and forty-five years on from the first act legalising homosexuality in the UK. “They’ll inform me it’s ‘not a problem’ and will ask what I’m making all this fuss about.” It’s clear that for Sue, the battle for LGBT equal rights is far from won.
LGBT history month was founded by Sanders as both a political and social movement. It began as part of the organisation SchoolsOUT which aimed to encourage a wider understanding and discussion of LGBT issues in schools. Its birthplace as a part of this campaign group also highlights how important Sanders feels the institutions that govern education and work are in the fight for equality. The passing of the Public Duty Act last year, the first act which regulated homophobia in the workplace, was something the LGBT History Month group have fought for since their inception.
The underlying concept of LGBT History month idea is actually a strikingly simple one: to, as Sanders puts it,”put LGBT people central” in the cultural eye for one month of the year. It is about carving out a cultural space for a culture that has, for a very long time, been suppressed. When I ask about the significance of ‘history’ for the movement, Sanders replies: “History is crucial: the stories of struggle, of individuals. Part of growing up is learning about your families, your community, giving you stories, giving you concepts. If you’re a member of the LGBT community you’re not going to get those stories from your biological family at all.”
In the past, the month has featured an exhibition at the British Museum of artifacts of people who experienced same-sex desire throughout history, but which had never been displayed in this context before. The LGBT History Month website carries the disclaimer: “Sometimes we may ‘out’ a historical figure… if we do so and you can prove us wrong, please contact us with the evidence and we will correct the error.” While controversial, the ‘correcting’ of history to include the stories of LGBT figures seems a key project for the movement. However Sanders also says “I would use the word ‘history’ loosely. If you look at the calendar, people have taken it and used it in many different and creative ways.”
This year (and last) the theme of the month has been sport. Sanders made the decision to give two years to sport because “we knew it would be hard.” She notes that “if you talk to most young LGBT people their most hated lesson is sport,” and that many LGBT sportspeople either play in LGBT clubs or else “grit their teeth,” enter ordinary clubs “keep their heads down or begin to try and challenge homo- and transphobia within those clubs.” The prejudices within sport are, for Sanders, “rooted in assumptions about gender,” and thus is a focaliser for prejudices endemic in society. And, Sanders argues, changing the perception of LGBT people within sport is going to involve much more than one gay footballer coming out: “The mainstream media think that if that happens all will be well. That’s nonsense.”
The organisation’s major progress regarding sport so far lies in a charter released by the government and signed by certain sporting authorities, pledging to tackle homophobia in sport. “We’re waiting to see the list [of authorities who have signed up],” Sanders tells me, “and then it will be up to us activists to go to those clubs and say, ‘what difference has this made, what are you doing about it?’”
As Sanders points out, the movement for LGBT rights as a whole is a very young one, and legislation is only the beginning: “Laws do not change the world. We have to have cultural shifts.” She points out that the laws for equality for women or disabled people were effected many years before any kind of equality was achieved, and therefore “the cultural work that we need to do to get [LGBT] human rights to be embedded will take as long, if not longer than it has for race and gender and disability.” However, for Sanders LGBT history month represents a ‘door’ for institutions and individuals to open – an opportunity for them to contribute to the changes in attitudes necessary if equality is to be achieved. While she believes there is a long way to go, she tells me that the calendar of over a thousand events is all the proof she needs that “the movement has been a success.”