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LGBT+ History: keep talking or it didn’t happen

By Perry Miller
01 February 2022

February is LGBT+ History Month. Each week for the next month, we will feature an article in which colleagues share their personal experiences or bring focus to a moment in history.

By Perry Miller

The history of LGBT+ people in the UK isn’t a particularly happy one. Perhaps that’s why most people avoid thinking about LGBT+ History Month for too long, if at all. It’s an inconvenient truth, made even more so because, for many people, it’s a lived history.

Go back just 55 years and sexual activity between men was illegal in the UK; it was still a crime in Northern Ireland as late as the early 1980s. Go back less than 20 years and it was illegal to ‘promote homosexuality’ in our schools – in the 21st century. Go back 15 years – that’s 2007 - and it remained legal to discriminate in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of sexual orientation. At the turn of the century, 46% of people considered same-sex sexual relations to be always or mostly wrong, according to polling by the British Social Attitudes survey. Most of the above was the norm for at least a part of all our lives.

That’s not to say that attitudes haven’t mellowed – Alan Turing now has pride of place on the £50 note but the national sentiment that led to his tragic suicide hasn’t gone away entirely. As shown by the recent story of a gay couple who were refused a house viewing and purchase in south London due to their sexuality.

I tend to get quite anxious every February, and in June (Pride Month), as my social media channels unfailingly remind me that anti LGBT+ sentiment is still with us. The first ‘So when’s straight history month, then?’ tweet is a bit like hearing the first cuckoo of Spring – only much less welcome. I know Twitter amplifies the loons but there’s still enough of them.

It won’t surprise you to learn that social media was just a twinkle in Jack Dorsey’s eye when I was in my twenties. But the prejudice was so pervasive in society at the time that I knew what most people thought.

The time, for example, when I bought my first property back in 1988 – the era of the endowment mortgage. Skip to the bottom of the application form: ‘Are you homosexual?’ ‘Have you ever had an HIV test?’‘If you answer yes to either, then you will be required to have an HIV test.’  These questions were accompanied by a request to complete a ‘lifestyle’ questionnaire (that old gay ‘lifestyle’) and a warning that, should I contract HIV and die of AIDS, then my endowment policy would be null and void and would not pay off my mortgage. Only single men were asked these questions.

I remember the stories in the tabloids around that time, when the AIDS crisis was first properly recognised: ‘I’d shoot my son if he had AIDS’; ‘Britain threatened by gay virus plague’. Two friends were asked to bring their own beer glasses into their local pub as other regulars didn’t want to risk sharing and catching HIV. True story.

In the late 1980s, when I landed a job working in Downing Street, there was a vetting interview with a friendly spook who tried to charm me into dropping my guard: ‘Funny thing old chap, just need to check you’re not, you know, a homosexual?’. Definitely not. ‘Oh great. Well, I just need to chat to a few girls of yours to make absolutely sure. Can I get some names?’

In the early 1990s, I worked for a short period at the Ministry of Defence. 12 months in and I left to start a career in public affairs. Weeks later, I was doorstepped by two Guardian reporters who wanted to know ‘the real reason’ why I had quit. The sub-text was clear.

We’ve come a long way in a short space of time as a society. I don’t believe that any of those situations I described would occur now. But they did happen, and who’s to say they won’t happen again (see Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill)? Which is why we need to keep talking, keep remembering and keep fighting.