Christopher Bryant talks to Sue Sanders, one of the founders of UK LGBT History Month, about the great work that is done every year to increase the visibility LGBT people, from the classroom to the city streets.
In February 2005, the first UK LGBT History Month was launched, and the powerhouse behind it was the inspirational activist Sue Sanders. It is now in its ninth year. I caught up with Sue to talk about the importance of LGBT History Month, how it supports the “protected characteristics” in the Equality Act, and how to build a better future for all LGBT people.
What were your aims when you started History Month?
Back then we had the Equality Act being talked about, and I knew that the public duty would be in there, which would say that all public establishments would have to celebrate all the protected strands. I knew they would be in a state thinking, “how do we do that?”. Having seen as a teacher the success of Black History Month, and how it gave teachers more confidence to do work around black history, it had always been in my mind that having a LGBT History Month would be a wonderful thing. I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to give organisations a space and a concept, as well as a website that has information on it that they can use. So there would be no excuse for them not to celebrate and promote LGBT existence and people.
How has it changed over the 9 years?
It has grown phenomenally. It’s amazing how many events happen all around the country, and obviously we are indebted to the people who make this happen. We just do the one ourselves, which is our Annual General Meeting. Looking at the calendar, and the diversity of events, and how schools have begun to use them, it’s incredible.
We chose February because it had a half term and we knew it would be libraries and museums that would pick it up first. And now of course we’ve got permanent exhibitions that, my guess, would probably have taken longer to get there. For instance, the Imperial War Museums in Manchester and Leeds now have permanent exhibitions of LGBT participation.
We always have a prelaunch in an important place. We started off in the Tate Modern, and then went to the Empress State Building, which is Metropolitan Police building. Then we were at the TUC, then the Royal Courts of Justice, and The British Museum. That was a really important event. The British Museum did this wonderful virtual tour of all the museum’s LGBT artefacts.
It has certainly focused the minds of the people whose job it is to share information – whether that’s concretely, in galleries, museums and libraries, or more ephemerally in schools and universities. They know that February is a time to use, and to build a legacy of information around, LGBT people.
Is the main objective of History Month to target these people, and these organisations?
The reason I ask is that at the prelaunch at Bletchley Park last November, there was a lot of talk about the various Key Stages in school, and how History Month addresses the Stages. I don’t know what the Key Stages are, and so I wondered how you see History Month addressing the adults who do not have this understanding.
History Month was designed to be all things to all people. We have worked with a variety of different organisations. Some people don’t know that we work with schools, and have no concept that LGBT History Month was invented by Schools Out, because they’re not interested, they’re in the own world doing their own bit. We’ve consistently worked with organisations and pushed the concept of the visibility of LGBT people, and the importance of them making people visible in a way that’s appropriate to them.
Now we have The Classroom, which is our latest website. In a sense it’s odd. What we’ve done at Schools Out has produced this month, which now is pretty well known and adopted and used, so people know that in February you do LGBT History Month. Now we’ve produced this website called The Classroom which is saying that we don’t want the gay lesson, we want LGBT people to be included in every part of the curriculum every day. We want to be usualised.
So in a sense we’re sending out two conflicting messages. But they’re not. What we’re doing is grabbing every different way we can to make LGBT people visible. If you asked me what is the crux of my work, that’s it: to make us visible and to make us safe.
Who determines the theme each year?
It has tended to be me, but that will change as I start to do less. It’s been very much intuitive.
When we said we would focus on sport in the two year run up the Olympics, that was an obvious thing to do. And I knew it would take a lot of time to change concepts – within the community people can be very sport-phobic, and obviously there’s masses of homophobia in sport. I knew it was a big job and that it would take two years.
The Maths, Science and Engineering theme was very much because of the Turing Centenary. And Turing was a beautiful link, because he was also a marathon runner and only just missed the Olympic team. It was a nice follow through.
We live in an argumentative society, particularly online. What sort of opposition have you encountered over the years, and what has your experience of that been like?
The first five years there was a question in the House [of Commons] every year about us, and about how money was spent. We did get a small seeding grant from the Department of Education for the website, so there were questions, and the Daily Mail took a pop at us. That’s died down. I can’t remember the last time someone took a pop at us. When Gordon Brown was Prime Minister he had an event at Downing Street for LGBT people in February that he linked with what we were doing. When Cameron came in he moved it from February to July, but he kept up the link with History Month.
What’s frustrating is that you get the political support on one level but it doesn’t make a difference in the really crucial area, which I have been banging on about since I was a girl: there’s no compulsory training for teachers on equality and diversity.
Is that one of the objectives of The Classroom?
It’s one of the objectives of Schools Out, which is the mother. We’ve been saying for years that it’s an outrage, and there should be compulsory equality and diversity training for teachers. Schools Out started in ’74, and we went through the whole fighting Section 28 thing. But post 28, even with the Equality Act, teachers don’t get that training. The Criminal Justice system does. I delivered a lot of that, and I made damn sure that that it was inclusive of all the protected strands.
You said at the prelaunch event last November that you would be winding down your input and handing over the reigns to Elly Barnes. I wondered how you felt about that, and how you see History Month developing.
Elly will be doing the prelaunch next year. Tony Fenwick did the lion’s share of the Bletchley Park launch. Amelia Lee has organised this year’s Schools Out AGM. We have a new person coming in doing membership. We’ve got a new Treasurer. Simmons & Simmons have picked us up for pro bona support. Within the year we’ll be a charity. It’s ridiculous that we’re not yet, but we’ve always been grass roots teachers who have been too busy producing the goods to do the admin. My responsibility is to make sure that Schools Out is tenable, and is an organisation that, should I be run over buy a bus tomorrow, is not going to collapse. We have no money, nobody gets paid, we run everything from our homes. There is no building or organisation that is enabled financially. It’s done by love and passion. What we’ve done is to begin to organise ourselves more effectively.
My vision is that while History Month is needed, while Schools Out is needed, while we need to challenge homophobia and the lack of visibility and the diversity of LGBT people, it will be there. We see white gay, able-bodied men out there, but we don’t see the diversity of our community yet. That’s the crucial thing, To be get the diversity of the LGBT community visible clear, included. We’re also making it visible to ourselves. We don’t know our own history. It’s crucial we have that space where we can begin to discover our own history.
And it will be picked up by youngsters that can make it different. It’s only appropriate that they will change it. If I’m comfortable with it at 66 there might be something wrong with it! It needs to be of its time. We have a brilliant young poet called Adam Lowe who is doing a poem a day for History Month. A whole new generation is coming up and using it. Which is as it should be.
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