It’s all too easy to look at all the grim headlines that have come out of late and think that the LGBT rights movement hasn’t made a lot of progress. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still hell of a lot of work to do in this area, but it’s crucial that we remember that LGBT rights have come a long way in a short time. Things really have advanced at lightening speed over the past few decades.
It’s hard to deny that in some parts of the world it’s still difficult to be an LGBT person. According to The Independent, LGBT relationships are illegal in 74 countries around the world, while even in places where LGBT rights are more developed, there are issues. Just look at the high murder rate for trans women in the US, or at how in some nations where there are relatively strong LGBT protections, such as Germany and Australia, the fight to legalise same-sex marriage is still raging.
We should also note that in some places the backlash to the advance of LGBT rights has been fierce and some terrible things are happening. The obvious example is the recent news about what’s going on in Chechnya – an autonomous region of Russia, a country which has an abysmal LGBT rights record. It’s emerged that around a hundred gay men in the region have been tortured in concentration camps, illustrating just how bad some members of the LGBT community have it.
24/7 news cycle
While we obviously have a very long way to go, things aren’t quite as bad as you may think. This is actually a generally point about the world we’re living in. When you’ve got 24/7 news services lobbing negative headlines at rapid-fire pace, it’s all too easy to start thinking that the world is a bad place, because that’s all you ever hear. Also now, we all have mobiles; we can access news anytime, anywhere. So it’s beginning to feel as though we simply can’t escape the headlines.
There’s one thing, however, that we should always keep in mind. We have it better than we have done at any other point in history. By all measurable metrics, from average life expectancy to happiness, quality of life has improved drastically, especially in the developed world, over the past few decades, as advancing technology and changing attitudes transform our society. We have seen that in many ways; this is also the best time in history to be an LGBT person, for the same reasons.
As a concept, ‘LGBT,’ which basically stands for ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender,’ is pretty new when you take historical context into account. During much of history, sexuality and gender were viewed somewhat differently than they are now. In Ancient Greek and Roman cultures, for example, it was common for men to have sex with each other, but there were strict social codes defining roles, and these relationships wouldn’t necessarily be recognised as such today.
Of course, the popularisation of the Abrahamic religions such as, Christianity and Islam across the known world, during the previous two millennia, relegated same-sex relationships to the fringes of society. These religions classed the act of two people of the same sex having sex as a sin, named ‘sodomy’ for the Biblical town of Sodom, which was supposedly a den of depravity. As these belief systems spread, people, especially men, were executed for engaging in the act of sodomy, so obviously acceptance of LGBT people – not that they would have been recognised as such, was very low.
There’s one interesting thing though. Recent research implies that same-sex marriage ceremonies actually took place in the Medieval era, especially from the 9th – 12th Centuries A.D., implying that our ancestors may not have been as closed-minded to the subject of LGBT rights as we once thought. Nevertheless, this research suggests that the Catholic Church clamped down later, and by the end of the Medieval period, any tacit societal acceptance of LGBT people was long gone.
Putting people in boxes
As the enlightenment – the age of reason – waxed and waned, some interesting things happened. Attitudes to various societal issues, for example serfdom, became more progressive, and this had a massive impact on LGBT rights. In some countries, such as France, which was arguably the centre of the enlightenment, same-sex sexual acts were decriminalised in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, whereas in some nations (e.g. the UK), punishments for them were tightened.
The enlightenment was driven by the pursuit of knowledge, and this led to changes for LGBT people, as others sought to put them in clearly defined boxes. Did you know that the term ‘homosexual’ – the more formal, archaic word for someone who is gay – wasn’t invented until the late 19th century? This really shows just how under-developed LGBT rights once were, as if something can’t be acknowledged with clear labels, it’s hard to fight for it; public awareness of the issues involved is low and you need high public awareness to push politicians into promoting real change.
Birth of a movement
As the 19th century died and the 20th century dawned, the anti-homosexual agenda was pushed worldwide, especially by the planet’s dominant power, the British Empire, with an ever-fiercer tenacity. During these dark days, countless people languished in prisons just for being themselves, or were subjected to corrective procedures, such as electric-shock therapy or as in the case of iconic gay computer scientist Alan Turing, chemical castration, to rid them of what society saw as an illness.
There was progress, even in these dark times. As the film, The Danish Girl, recently showed, in the first half of the 20th century, people started performing sex reassignment surgeries, marking a major step for trans rights. Also, there was a nascent, but committed, LGBT rights movement in the developed world during this time, and they made real gains. Perhaps most importantly, same-sex activities were decriminalised in the UK in 1967, indicating that change was coming, if slowly.
We commonly consider the Stonewall riots of 1969 to be the event that spurred the creation of the modern LGBT rights movement. These were a series of violent demonstrations that the LGBT community of New York staged at the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan, after the establishment was targeted in a police raid. It was soon clear that the protest spirit that had characterised the 1960’s had inspired these LGBT people to fight back against oppression, and once the floodgates were opened, there was no going back.
The gay terror
The 1970’s were an exciting, if dangerous time, for LGBT rights. People started making their voices heard, as protests calling for the acceptance of LGBT people started taking place around the world, and although there was stiff opposition, real progress was delivered. In the US, for example, sodomy was a felony in every state except Illinois before the Stone Wall riots, but scores of states country-wide scrapped this law during the 1970’s as the LGBT rights movement gained ground.
But the LGBT agenda faced a major setback in the 1980’s due to the rise of HIV/AIDS. Nobody knew where the disease came from, and it impacted the gay male community especially severely, so it was cruelly nicknamed “the gay disease” and LGBT people were ostracised with a new determination by some portions of society because of it. This was a weird time, because acceptance was still growing, but it was apparent that there were still deep prejudices running through society.
‘Til death do us part
The LGBT struggle took on new dimensions in the 1990’s when the subject of same-sex marriage started being discussed. Many people, particularly the religious, balked at the idea at permitting same-sex marriage, with the idea that marriage was only meant to be between one man and one woman shaping the public discourse on the subject. Despite the fact that same-sex marriage gives the people involved the same rights and freedoms they would have in a heterosexual marriage, the former kinds of marriage began to be banned in countries across the world during this period.
But same-sex marriage slowly started to gain traction. The first country to adopt any positive measure in this area was Denmark, which legalised ‘registered partnerships’ for same-sex couples in 1989, while the Netherlands was the first country to outright allow same-sex marriages in the year 2000. Many other countries followed, including Belgium (2003), Spain and Canada (both 2005), Sweden (2009), Argentina (2010), New Zealand and France (both 2013) and the UK (2013 for England and Wales, 2014 for Scotland). The US, which saw a stiff resistance movement, legalised same-sex marriage when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of it during the Obergefell vs. Hodges case.
Transforming our culture
Same-sex marriage is still by no means the norm, but it’s now legal in most of the world’s developed nations. The fight to legalise same-sex unions also sparked a major change in how LGBT people are perceived by society, which can be seen in the way LGBT issues have been increasingly addressed in popular culture in recent years. Across the last decade, we have seen LGBT visibility soar, when compared to prior decades, with shows ranging from Modern Family and Glee, to Shameless (both the UK and US versions) and Empire introducing audiences to LGBT characters that they quickly came to love, promoting greater acceptance of this community in the real world.
We have also seen LGBT visibility increase in arenas which have traditionally been very homophobic, most notably, sport. Across the past few years, various people including Jason Collins, Brittney Griner (both basketball), Robbie Rogers (soccer/football), and Michael Sam (US football), have come out, spurring change in the way LGBT issues are perceived within their communities, and giving young LGBT sports people role models they can look up to in their pursuit of greatness. Although obviously, there’s still a really long way to go in this area of LGBT acceptance.
Major societal strides
We are even seeing strides made in the ‘T’ part of LGBT, which has long served as the community’s most marginalised group. During the last few decades, we have seen the rise of trans stars such as, Orange is the New Black actress Laverne Cox and model Carmen Carrera – people who probably would never have become celebs just a decade earlier. Meanwhile, Olympian and reality TV star Bruce Jenner changed everything in 2015, when he appeared on the front cover of Vanity Fair announcing that he had transitioned into a woman, called Caitlyn Jenner. We saw a similar thing in the UK when boxing manager Frank Maloney transitioned into Kellie Maloney.
LGBT rights struggle goes on
There were too many examples, both of historic/modern LGBT discrimination, and of LGBT acceptance in more recent years, to list them all in this article. But the point is crystal clear – yes, the struggle for LGBT rights continues, and with some people, such as the authorities in Chechnya, determined to hold the tide of change back, we’ve got a lot of work to do. But considering where we came from, we’ve come a long way, and it’s important that we remember this. We should keep in mind that if we can make this much progress, then not even bigots can stop us from advancing LGBT rights even further across the next few decades, giving LGBT people a better quality of life!