Useful lessons learned from LGBT history

by David Isaac

Published: 07 Feb 2019

Some people question why we celebrate LGBT History Month every February.

Although there has been much recent progress in recognising the rights of LGBT people, and we’ve moved remarkably quickly from persecution to equal legal recognition, I believe that once a year it’s worth pausing to reflect on this and how it happened.

There is still a lot more to do, but I believe that everyone can learn from the lessons of the last half century and use them to address some of the challenges we face in today’s society.

Even after the introduction of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, which partially decriminalised homosexuality between consenting men, things were far from easy.

I grew up in the 1970s, and as a young gay man it was hard to imagine that one day we would have legal equality – let alone that openly gay politicians, celebrities, sports stars and business leaders would be commonplace.

Nowadays it’s easy to forget that it used to be entirely legal to discriminate against gay people at work, that our relationships could not be legally recognised, and that we were considered unfit to adopt or foster children.

Coming out at work was far from easy, and the legal prejudices of the time were bolstered by fear of HIV and AIDS.

Today, at a time when LGB people have legal equality and businesses compete to be the best employers for LGBT people, that sort of society may seem like a distant memory. It’s sometimes hard to recall why so many people found it hard to talk about their personal lives and lived them in secret.

And yet, remarkable though this progress may have been, it hasn’t changed society’s attitudes to gay people overnight. Much depends on where you live. Bullying in schools, mental health issues and hate crimes still continue to be serious issues that disproportionately affect the LGBT community.

The good news is that there is increasing awareness of these. I’m pleased that the government has recently introduced its LGBT Action Plan. It's a promising development that demonstrates greater focus and much-needed leadership, and provides extra resources to tackle these issues.

The challenge is to ensure that this commitment is translated into real action and demonstrable change – especially for young members of the LGBT community.  

As we celebrate legal equality for gay people, it’s also easy to overlook the fact that legal recognition for the transgender community is far from complete. Indeed, some of the misunderstanding that we saw in the LGB debates of the 70s and 80s is now apparent in the current debate for increased rights for transgender people.

Equality should never be a zero-sum game – but nonetheless, in promoting the rights of transgender people we do need to understand the potential sensitivities in relation to women’s rights.

What lessons from recent LGBT history can help us achieve progress in the big debates facing this country – whether in relation to the debates around transgender rights or healing divisions after Brexit?

I’d like us to reflect on a few of the approaches that helped deliver the successful changes we’ve achieved to date:

1. Listening to the views of your opponents

If you are going to achieve meaningful change, it’s important to listen to the views of your opponents.

We should learn from the personal courage of some very committed individuals who set out a clear vision of an equal world for gay people, even though they were sometimes unpopular in their own communities because they were prepared to “compromise” by engaging in serious and constructive dialogue with people who disagreed with them.

2. Being realistic about how quickly change can happen

We need to be pragmatic and balanced. In my view, the path towards full legal equality for the LGB community taught us that whilst we need to have ambitious goals, we also need to take people with us – whether they are parliamentarians or the public – at their own pace.

That can be frustrating. It requires patience, a long-term strategic approach, and a balanced and thoughtful awareness that rights sometimes conflict with each other: advancing one set of rights may intrude upon another. 

3. Having respectful debate

One of the reasons that attitudes changed to LGB people was because we engaged in respectful debate. Yes, people were angry and frustrated at times – but real progress began to happen when we stopped shouting at each other.

There were passionate voices with genuine concerns and feelings on all sides of our difficult historic debates, but only by engaging in considerate dialogue can we move people away from entrenched positions.

Of course, none of these approaches were sufficient in themselves to bring about legal and social reform. Bravery, perseverance, smart media-savvy tactics and parliamentary support were all vital ingredients in driving change.

Nevertheless, I believe that engagement with opponents and respectful debate were critical in delivering meaningful progress. Without them, I’m certain that change would not have happened so quickly.

None of these approaches are unique to the LGBT cause; perhaps they’re crucial ingredients for any successful activism. But let’s use LGBT History Month to reflect on the insights that the last 50 years can provide.

Watch our short animation showing the landmark moments for LGBT rights in the UK over the last 10 years.