A snapshot into LGBT history and how it has shaped us today

Published
3 Aug 2011
Author
Natasha Bell

The LGBT community isn't new, in fact its thousands of years old. Stretching as far back as 10,000 years ago there is evidence of millions of people worldwide having effected change and contributed to LGBT history. In the run up to this year's Reading Pride, let's have a look at some of the events that have shaped where we are today.

Going back to around 2450 BC we witness one of the first intact depictions of profound affection between men to the tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, 'The 'Overseeers of the Manicurists of the Palace'. Their joint tomb was discovered in 1964 by Egyptologist Ahmed Moussa in the necropolis, Saqqara. It is the only tomb in the necropolis to display two men embracing. On the outer part of the tomb, the two men are seen seated together, arm in arm, and also walking, hand in hand. There are also three scenes of the two men embracing: one rests his arm around the other's shoulder, while the second holds the first man's arm. In two of the scenes, the figures stand so close together their noses touch as well as their thighs. Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum also had their names decoratively intertwined above the entrance to the inner chambers as “Niankh-Khnum-Hotep,”, which may be translated “joined in life and joined in death (or 'peace').” The tomb stands as a testament to how the two men evidently wished to embrace each other throughout eternity, and shows that relationships between men were recognised, to some degree, thousands of years ago.

A major influence on modern lesbian culture and literature all the way into the present day, dates back to Sappho of Lesbos who lived roughly between 620 – 560 BC. The principal subject of her poetry was love in all its forms, from jealously and longing to passion and desire, her primary audience being women. Plato labelled her 'the tenth muse' and she writes freely of her infatuations with both men and women. It is not clear whether the bisexuality present in her poetry was reflective of Sappho herself, but the musings and declarations of love to women in her poetry have made Sappho synonymous with female same sex desire, to the point that 'lesbian', the most common word used today stems from her place of birth, the isle of Lesbos, as well as the word 'sapphic' from her name, Sappho.

These are just two examples of same sex desire spanning thousands of years that are documented in both art and literature. Whilst it is clear that people experienced same sex desire and acted upon these desires in the past, it wasn't until sexologists such Havelock Ellis and Richard Von Krafft-Ebbing started publishing in the late 19th century that people had a means to understand their sexual desires as identities.

Lesbianism, unlike male homosexuality, was never made illegal in Britain. The exact reason for this is unclear, however sexologists distinguished women who did not adhere to gender roles as mentally ill. It is clear to see how by attaching this negative association and mental faculty to sexuality in the 19th century, in particular, could have contributed to the stigma and homophobia gay people face today. Homosexuality was deemed mentally wrong and curable as opposed to being an innate, normal part of human nature and sexual desire.

This discrimination against same-sex desire lead to secrecy, which Anne Lister (1971 - 1840) shrouded her four million word long diaries in. Lister was born in Halifax, Yorkshire and over

one sixth of her diaries are written in code. The coded parts document in intimate detail her lesbian nature and affairs, and she declared "I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs." - Anne Lister, Journals, Oct 29, 1820. This self proclamation shows a self conscious lesbian identity and Lister is considered by many as the first modern lesbian. Her diaries caused quite a scandal when they were discovered at her home, Shibden Hall, by John Lister. The diaries were nearly burnt after they had been decoded. Fortunately they were buried within the family archives and were not rediscovered until the 1930's by Muriel Greene but even then, it wasn't until 1988 that they were deemed suitable for publishing for the public.

Whilst Lister was able to deflect outright accusations of her sexuality and maintain public relationships with women, men felt the full force of the law when it came to homosexual insinuations. In the UK sodomy was made illegal by the Buggery Act of 1533 which was punishable by death until 1861. In the UK the extent of peoples prejudice was epitomised in the very public and famous trial of Oscar Wilde whose private life and work were scrutinised by the eyes of the law. The trial opened on the 3rd April 1895 for 'posing sodomite' and he was eventually arrested for 'gross indecency' under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, which was a term accounted to homosexual acts but not accounting to sodomy. After spending some time in Pentonville and Wandsworth prisons in London, he was transferred to HM's Prison, Reading, where he spent the remaining time of his 2 year sentence. When he was finally released he destitute and died penniless in Paris.

Society's increasing prejudice towards homosexuality becomes clear as we move away from classic and ancient times to more modern societies and how in trying to label and understand sexuality as a social identity gave rise to a lot of the causes of modern day homophobia. Scientists such as Kinsey released reports entitled 'Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male' in 1948 and 'Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female' in 1953 to 'provide factual information which they might consider in working out [their] homosexuals patterns of sexual behaviour'. His findings shocked the nation when figures revealed that over one third of the 8000 men surveyed had had at least one adult same-sex experience and that half admitted having erotic responses to other men. Kinsey's reports in attempting to understand sexuality gave credence to the idea that 'homosexuals are everywhere' and his findings added to the surfacing momentum of the LGBT rights movements.

In the early hours of June 28th 1969 the NYPD initiated raids on the Stonewall Inn, Greenwich, New York. It was routine for the police to raid gay bars throughout the 1960's but this particular night they were met with protesters and the crowd eventually turned into a riot. These riots are generally recognised as sparking the modern day LGBT rights movement as Americans for the first time fought back against a government that persecuted minorities. The Stonewall Inn itself, became an icon representing the emergence of an LGBT community consciousness. The fight against discrimination however, was no easy task and crusaders such as Harvey Milk (1930 - 1978) who effected so much change for the LGBT rights movement, lost their lives fighting for the cause.

The UK charity Stonewell derives its name from this historical event. Founded in 1989' by a small group of women and men who had been active in the struggle against Section 28 of the Local Government Act' it is clear to see its campaigning and lobbying for LGBT rights in light of the Stonewall Riots in 1969. Over 40 years later post-Stonewall activism has led to significant changes in the attitudes society has towards homosexuality and has led to significant accomplishments for LGBT rights. Before the riots, homosexuality was decriminalised by only a handful of countries including Poland, Iceland, Switzerland, Sweden, Greece, Thailand, Chad and Czechoslovakia. Three years after the riots the world saw the first Gay Liberation Day March and LGBT Pride Parade. Yet there are still over 60 countries worldwide where homosexuality is illegal, and in some it is punishable by death.

Since the riots however, there has been a snowball effect for LGBT rights across the world. Here are some interesting facts and figures for to consider.

  • Sex between two people of the same sex has been legal since July 27th 1967 in England and Wales, 1981 in Scotland, 1982 Northern Ireland.

  • Homosexuality was declassified as a medical illness in 1977

  • Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected politician in California and was assassinated in 1978

  • Same sex marriage first became legal in the Netherlands in 2001 and in 2005 for the UK.

  • Legal same sex adoption became legal in 2002.

  • Only on the 24th June this year was the Marriage Equality act passed in New York and came into effect on the 24th July.

Looking back over history, things have come a long way. And at the momentum new equality laws are being passed, it won't be long before the LGBT community will have complete equal rights though it will certainly take time for equal recognition of these rights to take full effect.