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Today’s “LGBT history month” lesson : Value the Victories, Fight the Injustices and Don’t Give Up

By Steve Wardlaw, Chairman Emerald Life

Firstly, congratulations and huge thanks to those who have fought tirelessly for the pardons for many gay men convicted of gross indecency. It is a fitting memorial to Alan Turing and all involved should rightfully be proud of their work on an issue that has long reflected the injustices and persecution of gay men in our, frankly, all-too-recent past.

Over the last few years, we have seen an increase in the mainstream media interest in LGBT history month (February every year). This year is particularly important for the community as it is the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation (pedant note: NOT legalisation) of gay sex in the UK. The 1967 Sexual Offences Act is often cited as the starting point for the struggle for LGBT rights. And yet it seems that, within our community, our history is seen as ‘boring’ or just a lot of older men and women banging on about when they were younger (two views I have heard only recently).

This view needs to change, for two simple reasons.

Much to protect…

In today’s turbulent times, where across the Atlantic we see women’s and other civil rights that we thought hard won being removed by the stroke of a pen, our history is important. It reminds us how far we have come. But it also reminds us of our setbacks. For example, after the 1967 act legalised sex between two consenting men in private, there was a huge spike in prosecutions - on the instructions of the home secretary - against gay men deemed by police to be soliciting. If you ever listen to Peter Tatchell about the journey to equality, he always makes a point repeatedly, that any victory often results in a (hopefully temporary) backlash, and that we need to understand that as the price of progress.

When I came out in 1987, the atmosphere was so anti-gay at a time when Section 28 was about to be pushed through, people would not serve gay men in shops for fear of dying of the new disease AIDS, and lives would be destroyed through tabloids outing ‘the queers’ so our children would be safe. Since then, things have moved apace, and perhaps we got used to the new status quo as the end of the journey.

Yet perhaps we were wrong, and we may now be in an era of a further backlash against equality.

…And much left to do

Even if this is not the case, it is also wrong to think that because we celebrate LGBT history there are no further inequalities to battle against. We founded Emerald Life to deal with those continuing inequalities that might be smaller, but no less important. Many in our community still feel that the financial services sector treats the LGBT community unfairly.  As a result, across the community there are much lower levels of insurance, savings and protection than in the rest of the population. This is why we set up Emerald Life – to ‘insure today’s diversity’. We want to protect our community the way we know how, through our advocacy and education work, and giving people the tools to protect themselves.

What has LGBT history month taught us?

There are two parts to this.

In the mis-quoted words of Santayana, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. Our job as - dare I say - the older members of the community is to do as much as we can during LGBT history month and throughout the year to educate everyone, not just our younger LGBT friends, about our past, the benefits of equality and the path of progress so that no-one forgets how recent these battles were. 

Secondly we need to continue to strive for full equality, not just in the statute books but in how we are treated in our everyday life.  As the bigger battles are won, we must take on and call out the smaller micro-inequities that we continue to face as a community.

It is fitting that the Turing law was announced yesterday – it reminds us that we must never forget the struggles of the early campaigners, that we must never forget to celebrate the victories won and that we must never give up striving, as there will always be those who will want to take that away from us.

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