The LGBTQ community has been socially and economically excluded, just like any ‘other’ group, yet they are the only group to have been persecuted for the very thing that makes us human: our feelings and emotions. Like those with a disability, LGBTQ people rarely share their ‘otherness’ with loved ones, and whereas a family may feel a desire to support and protect the diversity that a disabled member adds, this is not always the case if they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, often leaving them even more isolated.
Perhaps the most famous case of a member of the LGBTQ community being persecuted for their sexuality in the UK is the notorious trial of Oscar Wilde. The author and playwright was drawn into an unjust ‘gross indecency’ trial in 1895 – dubbed ‘the trial of the century’ – and was sentenced to two years’ hard labour for homosexuality, which at the time was still illegal in Britain. The real reason behind the trial was Wilde’s relationship with his younger lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of Wilde’s nemesis, the Marquess of Queensberry. ‘Two Loves’, Douglas’s poem to Wilde, was used as evidence by the prosecution, and its epic line, ‘I am the love that dare not speak its name’, would help to seal Wilde’s fate, as it seemed to speak unequivocally of their forbidden relationship. Time in prison would be the undoing of Wilde, and he died three years after his release while exiled in Paris.
Wilde’s story is certainly not a one-off. LGBTQ figures were still being persecuted long into the twentieth century. The British mathematician and Second World War code-breaker Alan Turing – now recognized as one of the major pioneers of modern-day computing – was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ in 1952. He lost his job at GCHQ and was subjected to experimental ‘chemical castration’ in an attempt to ‘cure’ him of his homosexuality, which he was offered as an alternative to a prison sentence. The effects it had on him physically and mentally were devastating and he committed suicide in 1954. His vast contribution to the war effort in breaking the Enigma Code and aiding the Allied victory was swept under the carpet until very recently, when he was given a posthumous royal pardon in 2013.
In the US, as recently as the 1970s, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay person to reach public office when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors – a triumphant moment in the struggle for gay rights in the country – only to be murdered 11 months later, in 1978, by one of his colleagues.
These are extreme cases but they’re indicative of the fear and hostility that the LGBTQ community has historically met with. For centuries many simply had to suppress and hide it, pretend they were not ‘other’, and the emotional and mental cost of this is unimaginable. Others have had to endure a sliding scale of such treatment, in ways that don’t always make the headlines, on a daily basis for their entire lives.
Today, things have progressed hugely – in the last 20 years especially social attitudes have, for the most part, changed dramatically; gay rights have been fought for and won, and thousands now take to the streets in cities across the world each year to celebrate Pride. Indeed, Gay Pride had a heightened significance in 2017 as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the part decriminalization of homosexuality in the UK. There were raucous events up and down the country, with institutions, businesses, and museums all participating in the activities. The British media also showed its support – Channel 4 and BBC Two both ran seasons showcasing stories of fact and fiction featuring gay characters, and I was lucky enough to chair a panel with some of Britain’s leading gay and trans actors and writers.
The ubiquitous nature of the celebrations shows us how far we have come, but the fact that it’s taken almost half a century to get from decriminalization to marriage equality for same-sex couples shows how long change can take. For some, this change may have come too fast, for others it probably feels like a lifetime. As much as we applaud the progress that has been made, we also have to acknowledge that we’re not there yet. As always, there is much more work to be done.
From Diversify by June Sarpong. Copyright (c) 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of Harper Collins Publishers.
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