It’s not just a summer of Pride, so HANNAH SPELLER explores fights, flags and freedoms in the rise of LGBTQ+ rights
Pride. What is it? According to the Oxford English Dictionary ‘pride’ is “the quality of being proud” and a confident “opinion of one’s own worth or importance” (OED, n.d.).
So, what is Pride Month? In short, it is a month dedicated to celebrating one’s true self; more specifically to celebrate the “LGBTQ+ communities all around the world” (CBBC Newsround, 2022). Pride Month takes place in June, and as of this year – 2022 – we are celebrating 50 years of Pride in the UK. So really, there isn’t a better time than now to learn all about the history and reasons behind Pride Month and everything associated with the LGBTQ+ community.
Let’s start from the beginning. I’ll set the scene. It’s 1969 in New York City, a hot summer’s day towards the end of June. You and your mates are sat in your favourite local pub in Greenwich Village – The Stonewall Inn – enjoying the nice weather and a nice drink. Living your life. You’re all fighting over who gets to be closest to the shitty air conditioning and who is going to get the next round of drinks. This continues into the early hours of the morning. It reaches 1am and you show no signs of slowing down or going home. The night is still young, but before you know it, eight new people stroll in and shout “Police!”. The word resonates through you, fear reaching every part of your body. “This is it” you tell yourself. The last straw. And you aren’t the only one. A riot ensues, a rampage. Your fellow patrons of The Stonewall Inn fight back. Some try to run, having never experienced this before. But you, you have. You recognise the familiar feeling of being scared for your life, that you could be arrested for being gay and subsequently outed to everyone in your life.
Out and proud
No more. The arguing and shouting has clearly attracted onlookers and more police arrive, everyone fighting. You and your friends for your lives. The police…. well let’s just say they definitely aren’t fighting for gay rights. People start throwing bottles, or was it bricks, or even stones? It’s a blur; all you can remember is the amazing feeling when finally fighting for something worth fighting for. The police barricade themselves in the pub that you’ve all made your way outside of during the fight. They have clearly underestimated the strength you have when all banding together. But then you smell smoke. Someone has accidentally torched the pub. The fire brigade manage to get everyone out. Somehow no-one has died and eventually the riots settle down. For that night at least. The next few nights similar events take place. More and more people gather at Stonewall, making it a meeting point for LGBT activists. You couldn’t be prouder.
Pride, it’s a funny thing
A year later, in 1970, the first Pride march was held in New York City. The Christopher Street Liberation Day march was named after the street on which The Stonewall Inn was situated, and organised by Brenda Howard, a bisexual activist. Its aim was to mark the events of the year before, and to continue the fight for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. A few months later in the UK, the Gay Liberation Front was formed, and by 1972 they had organised, with other oppressed groups, the first UK Pride march, in London, with nearly a thousand people marching through the capital. By the time of the 2018 London Pride march numbers have reached up to a million (Pride in London, 2022).
Paint the whole world with a rainbow
The rainbow flag has come to symbolise the LGBTQ+ community. It was created in 1978 and originally had eight stripes (Rainbow flag, 2022). Previously to this, the controversial pink triangle that was used by the Nazi regime to identify homosexuals (Pink triangle, 2022), was used, in an attempt to reclaim the symbol that had such a negative history. In the search for a new one, artist and previous US army veteran Gilbert Baker was approached in 1974 by Harvey Milk, the first openly gay American politician and an influential gay leader, (Harvey Milk, 2022). When asked about his design, Baker said that the Rolling Stones and their song ‘She’s a Rainbow’ inspired him more so than the speculated Judy Garland’s ‘Over The Rainbow’ (Rainbow flag, 2022). It may also have been influenced by the popular ‘Flag of the Races’ used in the Hippie movement in the 1960’s (Rainbow flag, 2022).
The eight coloured stripes are symbolic of the following: hot pink to represent sex; red for life; orange for healing; yellow for sunlight; green for nature; turquoise for magic; indigo for serenity; and violet to indicate spirit. After 1978 the devastating assassination of Harvey Milk in 1978, the demand for the flag rapidly increased and due to a stock problems with the hot pink fabric, the flag changed to seven colours. In 1979 it also lost the turquoise stripe to evolve into the flag we know today. Over the years, new variations have emerged including Baker’s 2017 version with the original eight stripes plus a new lavender strip that symbolised diversity. The 2018 Progressive Pride Flag created by a non-binary artist Daniel Quasar, included elements from the Philadelphia flag that draws attention to the issues of people of colour, and the trans pride flag to show inclusion and progression. All variations of the flag are used across the world to show solidarity and safe spaces for those that identify with the LGBTQ+ community. They come in all shapes and sizes, and can vary in subtlety.
Hidden queer history
The flag itself has become symbolic of the struggle of LGBTQ+ people. The erasure of queer people from history is disturbing, and I wonder if you are as surprised as I was when I discovered how little I knew about certain well-known figures. Artist Andy Warhol, famous for his multiple images of Marilyn Munroe and Campbell’s soup tins, was an openly gay man. Alexander the Great “had many partners and mistresses” (Attitude, 2022). According to a book by Walter Isaacson (Jackman, 2022). Leonardo da Vinci was also openly gay. Rumour has it that the legendary Florence Nightingale preferred men to women. The convenient hidden sexuality of these historic figureheads means that many young LGBTQ+ people are unaware of the incredible achievements of people like them.
Death for being gay
A significant milestone in the oppression of the LGBTQ+ community in the UK goes back to 1533 and the Buggery Act. This was the first law in the UK that made homosexuality between men punishable by death. It wasn’t until 1861 (328 years later) that the punishment was brought down to a minimum of 10 years instead of death. The 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act made any gay act, even in private, a prosecutable offence. This law ultimately led to the arrest and jailing of Oscar Wilde in 1895, for sodomy.
Legislation to criminalise female homosexuality was never explicitly discussed until 1921, however after much debate, both the House of Lords and Commons rejected the bill owing to fear that the law would draw attention to acts of lesbianism and encourage women to explore homosexual relations.
Emergence of transgender identities
After the end of the Second World War in 1945, transgender identities started to become more visible, and in 1946, an autobiography by Michael Dillon detailed his journey as the first transgender man to undergo phalloplasty surgery, undertaken by Sir Harold Gillies. In May 1951, former WW2 Spitfire pilot Roberta Cowell, underwent the first vaginoplasty surgery in the UK.
However, the post-WW2 period saw some rather less pleasant statistics, such as an increase in the arrests of gay men. This included mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing, who developed the basis for the first computer, who took his own life after the outed as gay and stigmatised. It wasn’t until 2013 that Alan Turing received a posthumous royal pardon. In 1957 the Wolfenden Committee, named after Sir John Wolfenden, recommended the decriminalisation of gay sex between two consenting adults over 21. It wasn’t until 10 years later that the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 officially decriminalised the act. However, this still was not equivalent to laws concerning sexual offences between two heterosexual people, where the age of consent was 16, which did not change until 2001.
Repeal of Section 28
A major part of LGBTQ+ history was in 2003 with the repeal of Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28 law which banned local authorities from promoting homosexuality. Section 28 had meant that anything regarding homosexuality could not be taught in schools, leading to a lack of basic sex education for many LGBTQ+ students and ultimately adults. 2004 saw both the Civil Partnership Act, which allowed gay couples to have a civil partnership, and the Gender Recognition Act, that gave trans people full legal recognition to change their gender and get a new birth certificate. In 2010 the Equality Act gave LGBTQ+ employees protection from discrimination, harassment, and victimisation at work for the first time, and in 2013 the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act finally meant that homosexual couples could legally marry.
Despite much progress, change is still necessary. Not everywhere do gay and trans people have equal rights to those of cis-gendered and straight people. There are 69 countries in the world that still criminalise homosexuality (Reality Check team, 2021). And even in countries where homosexuality was legalised since 2003 there are still laws being passed that take big steps backwards for the LGBTQ+ rights. For instance, in Florida, USA a bill was passed earlier in 2022 to ban discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity in primary schools (Popat & Honderich, 2022), not unlike the UK’s Section 28.
The LGBTQ+ community are still fighting for equality globally, but it isn’t just laws we want changing. We need a society where gay or trans people do not have to come out, do not have to feel fear for just being who they are, do not get bullied for being different or who don’t get maliciously outed before they are ready. We strive for a society where everyone is not just equal in the eyes of the law but equally respected too. The steps made so far are appreciated. In 2019 the New York City Police Commissioner, James P O’Neill, rendered a formal apology for the actions of officers at Stonewall in 1969, and the Policing and Crime Act of 2017 pardoned all historic instances of criminal convictions against male homosexuality in the UK, but we still live in a heteronormative world where being gay is seen as 'different'.
Pride is for life, not for profit
Making these steps isn’t about plastering rainbow colours or flags everywhere for Pride month for a brand’s own financial gain, and then taking then down straightaway as soon as June ends. It is about giving LGBTQ+ people equal opportunities and allowing them to have their voices heard and listened to, especially when they are talking about something that they personally experience.
Pride - as an emotion - is something that everyone should be able to feel about themselves.
Pride is a funny thing.
Written by Hannah Speller
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