This year, we celebrate 50 years since the first Pride took place in the United Kingdom. Our evolution as an LGBTQ+ movement is tied to our history around the world, which is easy to forget now that we enjoy so many rights (although not all rights and certainly not everywhere). History is also a difficult business as it is usually written by the loudest voices or, to put it bluntly, the voices that have the privilege of speaking the loudest. In the lyrics of the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist, Fun Home (2016): “I want to know what’s true, dig deep into who, and what, and why, and when, until now gives way to then”. To do this, it is necessary to mess with history by looking at events that may have been overlooked but that nevertheless, make us who we are as an LGBTQ+ community. Dismantling assumptions from the past is fundamental to making sure we become a better and more united movement. I will therefore take you through 5 world events in the last 50 years that deserve closer attention.
1. Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), 1970
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in 1970 after taking part in the Stonewall riots of 1969. STAR’s main objective was to fill a gap by helping marginalised communities, including homeless young people and sex workers, challenging the often white middle-class emphasis of the gay liberation movement. After successful fundraising, Marsha and Sylvia purchased the STAR House to give shelter to homeless LGBTQ+ people, who they supported by doing sex work at night. Highlighting the contributions of trans and gender non-conforming people (and in this case, also Latin and Black) to LGBTQ+ rights resonates now more than ever when the recent establishment of the LGB Alliance in the UK deliberately tries to erase this history. The end of STAR came after the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade in 1973 when trans people and drag queens were asked to stay at the back of the march. In response, Sylvia stormed the stage and delivered a speech that will forever remind us why trans people are an integral part of our community.
2. The San Francisco Model of Care, 1983
San Francisco General Hospital opened wards 86 and 5B in 1983, developing what would be known as The San Francisco Model of Care, an interdisciplinary project with a provision of medical and social services to fully tackle the needs of AIDS patients. This model humanised gay people and treated them with dignity and compassion, which was truly revolutionary at the time. As science worked against time trying to find out how HIV behaved, several damaging misconceptions were spread in culture. One of the most prominent was the Patient Zero theory, which promoted the idea that the virus had spread by the hand of a promiscuous and evil gay flight attendant who had travelled to different locations (a theory that was later disproved but had left an everlasting stigma for our communities). An emphasis on care, rather than a cure, addressed more closely what people living with AIDS needed at the time, way before modern prevention methods like PrEP would develop. More than that, this vision inspired the way we care for people with other chronic diseases. To commemorate the nurses that worked in the ward, read the New York Times article below.
3. Admiral Duncan Bombing, 1999
In 1999, Neo-Nazi militant David Copeland planted a nail bomb at the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, which killed three people and injured many others, deliberately targeting the LGBTQ+ community. The attack was part of a politically motivated terror campaign that also targeted Black and Bengali communities, with two other bombs being planted previously in Brixton and Brick Lane, which says a lot about the intersections of hate. The Admiral Duncan bombing reminds us of the systematic violence LGBTQ+ people have endured and continue to endure. 1999 may seem like a long time ago, but the Orlando gay nightclub shooting at Pulse only happened in 2016, and this Pride month, two people were killed in a shooting at a popular gay bar in Oslo. Violence is part of our experience. Violence from others in the playground, growing up as children, and in the streets, too afraid to hold our partner’s hand. Also violence to ourselves, for hating for too many years the way we are and the way we want to express who we are. And yet, our beloved queer spaces are so full of love, like the Admiral Duncan pub, now standing as one of Soho’s oldest gay pubs.
4. Tipping the Velvet, 2002
To honour the lesbian community, I first thought of the documentary Quiet Heroes, about two lesbian medical professionals who treated AIDS patients in Utah when no one else would. However, after speaking with a few of my lesbian friends, I was taught a key cultural moment for lesbian representation in the UK. Tipping the Velvet is a BBC Victorian drama from 2002 and one of the first explicit depictions of lesbian sexual relationships on TV. Representation matters for LGBTQ+ people, particularly for lesbian women who can often feel invisible in our communities. Queer as Folk (1999) had already shown us the lives of gay men living in Manchester, and Tipping the Velvet was the necessary step forward, two years before The L World (2004) in the US would bring us a contemporary focus on lesbians. Although based on a novel by lesbian writer Sarah Waters, Tipping the Velvet was adapted to the screen by a straight man, with all the stereotypes and cliches that it can carry. However, the show certainly paved the way for productions like Vigil (2021) where lesbian women are represented in a complex and three-dimensional way.
5. Decriminalisation of Homosexuality in India, 2018
2018 was the year that India’s Supreme Court brought an end to section 377, a colonial-era law that criminalised gay sex. The ruling in the second-largest country in the world by population was a huge accomplishment for LGBTQ+ rights, particularly for a continent where these rights are comparably limited to other areas of the world. For example, same-sex marriage is only legal in less than a handful of Asian countries, including Taiwan since 2019, one of the most progressive in the continent. In the case of India, the criminalisation of homosexuality has a complex history. Prof Harbans Mukhian, a noted Indian historian, claims that the law was brought by the British Empire as part of Christian beliefs. He points out evidence in medieval history and mythology that demonstrates India was more accepting of homosexuality before British colonisation, an idea that is backed by other historians and mythologists. In fact, depictions of homosexuality can be seen in famous temples in India, such as the ones in Khajuraho. Understanding this history is important to note that LGBTQ+ rights are not necessarily a Western idea. Moreover, some of the inequalities in these countries are dragged by colonisation.
Unveiling our history can seem messy because it intersects with wider conversations, including gender identity, class, healthcare, race, and colonisation. As a queer person, writing this article has been at times difficult, finding both the darkest and most beautiful moments of our existence, the successes and mistakes of our movement. With these highlights, I tried to honour different letters in the LGBTQ+ acronym and the contributions of different cultures and ethnicities. In doing so, I realised how different we all are and yet, how closely knit our histories remain. After 50 years of Pride in the UK, it is important to celebrate the intersections of our histories and build a more inclusive community to face hate and prejudice. The landscape is changing, and my favourite queer spaces now are the ones where I can dance with trans people, lesbian women, and people from different ethnicities, amongst others. Change can be scary for some people from older generations who have fought their own corners for years. We owe a lot to them. Being queer is scary, as Fun Home so brilliantly expresses in its lyrics when the main lesbian character sleeps with a woman for the first time: “Am I falling into nothingness, or flying into something so sublime?”, which reminds us to be courageous as LGBTQ+ people.
Article by Daniel Julian Gonzalez