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We Exist

Published: 04 March 2019 Tags: By James Harris

LGBT History Month UK has come to a close, but what can we learn from its aim to “promote equality and diversity by increasing the visibility of LGBT people, their history, lives and experiences”? Why is visibility so important? How is LGBT history relevant today?

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Worldwide, LGBT people are having their humanity, rights and even their very existence denied. If no-one is aware of LGBT lives, issues etc., then it is easier for authorities to discriminate against and persecute LGBT people and get away with it, easier for bullies to convince themselves they’re doing nothing wrong, and easier for those willing to give their support to withhold it because they can’t see that it’s needed. Leaders of nations across the world respond to accusations of anti-LGBT hate and violence by smugly dismissing being LGBT as a western phenomenon, thereby shutting down the conversation. Which is cowardly and cruel, because they are essentially denying the existence of LGBT citizens they are supposed to protect and serve.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has pledged to remove any references to LGBT people from schools, and dismisses homosexuality to a British interviewer by commenting: “Your country is different to ours.” Chechen authorities argue that no LGBT people exist in the Russian republic and that those who are LGBT are fake Chechens, that they could not be arresting gay men because gay men do not exist in Chechnya – which is a ludicrous claim, as personal accounts attest. In Russia, the language is heavily male/female gendered, making it difficult to identify authentically if you are non-binary, and any form of public LGBT visibility is prohibited under deliberately vague propaganda laws. In June 2018, a collection of personal stories was published to raise awareness of LGBT women’s lives in Nigeria, because people don’t think they exist. Pride parades in countries like Saudi Arabia, Uganda and Russia are banned because once an LGBT population has the world’s attention, they’re harder to control and suppress.

And let’s not forget, it wasn’t that long ago when LGBT people weren’t fully acknowledged in the western world either – LGBT rights followed recognition of LGBT identity.

LGBT figures from history like Alan Turing who weren’t given the rights and recognition they deserved, are finally being posthumously pardoned and celebrated. Though the apologies are long overdue and arrive too late for those to whom they are owed, this makes a positive statement. By acknowledging history and admitting to mistakes, we understand how unjust and even tragic the consequences of denying the existence of LGBT people can be, helping us avoid falling into the same destructive patterns in the future.

Evidence of LGBT people/relationships extends thousands of years into the past. LGBT history is the foundation of our communal identity; it incontrovertibly demonstrates that being LGBT isn’t just a modern phenomenon, and therefore supports the notion that being LGBT is innate and not socialised. Not that acceptance should depend on how or why anyone is LGBT of course – you could’ve been ‘turned’ LGBT by drinking from an enchanted stream and still deserve to be accepted – but to claim that being LGBT is merely an influence of external factors is to suggest that it’s less a part of who we are than it actually is. Which can be harmful, because if being LGBT isn’t taken seriously, and dismissed as a cultural affectation – a ‘phase’ or ‘choice’ – then the struggles experienced as a result may not be given the attention they require.

Censoring media such as films, TV shows, books and news can also contribute towards making LGBT people invisible, as happened when China cut a gay kiss from the Alien Covenant movie in June 2017, or when Malaysia cut gay scenes from the movie Bohemian Rhapsody (a key part of the story) last November. Stories – whether factual or fictional – are more than just entertainment; they position us in the lives of others and encourage us to empathise with their plight and see them as individuals with hopes and fears as real as our own.

LGBT representation is not a gimmick – it can encourage a pivotal shift in people’s attitudes.

Even in countries like the UK that acknowledge the existence and rights of LGBT citizens, we as LGBT people can still personally relate to the idea of being invisible, or having our particular needs ignored. Indeed anyone can, LGBT or not – although LGBT people (trans and older LGBT people especially) are more likely to suffer from isolation.

Many LGBT people suffer alone because they’ve got no-one around them who understands or cares – on a smaller scale than government-endorsed erasure of LGBT identity, but no less devastating to the individual. Struggle can lead to greater suffering when we feel lonely or left behind, sundered from our community or the country we call home.

Merely being there is often the only difference between sitting side by side with a friend on a rollercoaster, and falling. But whether locally or internationally, we cannot be there for people without acknowledging their existence first.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, LGBT Foundation is here for you.