From the ancient world to the 1969 Stonewall Riots: a brief guide to LGBT+ history

As the UK marks LGBT+ History Month, Ella Braidwood gives an overview of some of the key figures and milestones in LGBT+ history in the western world, from the ancient Greeks to the 1969 Stonewall uprising in the US…

View of a gay pride parade in Boston, Massachusetts, c1977. (Photo by Spencer Grant/Getty Images)

Marked every February in the UK since 2005, LGBT+ History Month aims to promote equality and diversity through raising awareness of the lives of LGBT+ people and their history. Here, Ella Braidwood examines some of the key figures and milestones in LGBT+ history in the western world…

The lives of LGBT+ people can be traced back thousands of years. In Classical antiquity, same-sex desire is well-documented. Born on the island of Lesbos in around c610BC (hence the termlesbian), Sappho was a poet whose lyrics, sung to the accompaniment of a lyre, have received praise from her lifetime to the present day. While her sexuality remains ambiguous, her poetry, surviving mostly in fragmentary form, frequently revolved around her love for women. Suddenly my heart throbs when I glance at you,” she says of a woman in one translation.

Terracotta plaque which is believed to show the poet Sappho rejecting an amorous advance by her contemporary who is also from the island of Lesbos. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)
The poet Sappho is thought to be rejecting an amorous advance from a male contemporary in this terracotta plaque. Sappho’s poetry “frequently revolved around her love for women,” writes Ella Braidwood. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)

In the ancient world too, there are many accounts of men desiring men. These include the fourth century BC Sacred Band of Thebes, believed to be a troop of soldiers made up entirely of 150 pairs of male lovers. There also appears to have been an acknowledgement of what we know as intersex and transgender people today, from the Sleeping Hermaphroditus statues to priests called galli, who presented themselves as women.

Although portrayals of queer desire stretch back to the ancient world, they have often been received unfavourably throughout history. In 1819, King Francis I of the Two Sicilies was so horrified upon seeing certain artefacts from Pompeii, including brightly coloured frescoes showing gay sex, that he ordered the works to be locked away in a secret cabinet in Naplesarchaeological museum. Apart from a brief period in the 1960s, this ancient art remained hidden from public view until 2000.

What is LGBT+ History Month – and when did it start?

LGBT+ History Month, marked every February in the UK, aims to promote equality and diversity through raising awareness of the lives of LGBT+ people and their history.

In Britain, LGBT+ History Month was founded by activists and teachers Sue Sanders and Paul Patrick in 2005, the then co-chairs of LGBT+ educational charity Schools OUT UK

In the US, the month is held every October and dates back even further – to 1994, when it was created by Rodney Wilson, a Missouri history teacher.

The annual event has grown over the years, with the support of prominent LGBT+ figures, from actors Ian McKellen and Cyril Nri, to Labour MP Angela Eagle.

How have same-sex relationships been legislated against through history?

The Middle Ages saw legislative changes that would prohibit sexual relations between men. In England, the Buggery Act 1533 made sodomy an offence punishable by hanging. Lesbian sex, on the other hand, was never restricted by law in the UK – although it is likely that they faced social stigma. And there is evidence of women being persecuted in unique circumstances, one example being Mary Hamilton (who may have identified as a cisgender lesbian or a transgender man today, but was considered a woman by her contemporaries in the 18th century). Hamilton, using the name Charles, was convicted for duping a woman into marriage, in a case that made headlines at the time. According to one local newspaper report, there was a great Debate for some Time in Court about the Nature of her Crime, and what to call it, but at last it was agreed that she should be charged with fraud.”

Over the centuries, LGBT+ individuals made the most of instances of respite from harsh (and frequently homophobic) legislation. For example, around the 19th century, the Italian city of Venice became known as a hotspot for queer sex after the Zanardelli Code of 1889 effectively decriminalised private homosexual acts. And from 1918 to 1932, the Social Democrat government in Prussia, covering 60 per cent of modern-day Germany, did not enforce Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code, which prohibited homosexuality. The result was a flourishing underground queer scene, hidden away from the social stigma of mainstream society. This was most notable in Berlin, frequented by British MPs including John Macnamara, Bob Boothby, and Harold Nicolson – the latter having an open marriage with his wife, the writer Vita Sackville-West, who was also the lover of acclaimed author Virginia Woolf.

c1938: Gay prisoners at a concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, Germany, wearing pink triangles on their uniforms| Location: Sachsenhausen, Germany. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
c1938: Gay prisoners at a concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, Germany, wearing pink triangles on their uniforms. (Photo by CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

When Adolf Hitlers Nazi Party established dictatorial control in 1933, Germanys budding LGBT+ scene was swiftly crushed. From 1933 to 1945, it is estimated that the Nazi regime arrested around 100,000 gay or bisexual men, with between 5,000 and 15,000 people sent to concentration camps, where they were made to wear upsidedown pink triangles on their uniforms. (During the late 20th-century Aids crisis, this pink triangle was reclaimed as a gay rights symbol.) While lesbian and bisexual women were not persecuted to the same extent, they were still arrested and detained in the camps, where they were made to wear a badge depicting an upside-down black triangle, used to identify asocialprisoners.


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Queer publications like lesbian magazine Die Freundin ceased publication in 1933 and, in that same year, the Nazis shut down and destroyed the archives of research clinic Institut für Sexualwissenschaft. Opened in 1919, the institute had offered transgender people the first modernday gender affirmation surgeries (surgical procedures that align the sex a person was assigned at birth with their gender identity).

Even after the Second World War, gay and bisexual men continued to be persecuted in Germany and around Europe, with some of the individuals detained in Nazi camps imprisoned again. In Britain, it is estimated that 49,000 men were convicted of gross indecencyfrom 1885 to 1967. These include the esteemed writer Oscar Wilde, resulting in the downfall of his career, and the mathematician Alan Turing, whose work breaking the Enigma code is often credited with shortening the Second World War by an estimated two years. Turing was convicted in 1952, opting for chemical castration over prison as his sentence. Two years later, he died from a cyanide overdose, believed by many to be suicide. 

A photograph of Bletchley Park codebreaker Alan Turing (1912–54). (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
A photograph of Bletchley Park codebreaker Alan Turing (1912–54). (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The modern LGBT+ rights movement

In 1967, the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality – sex between women was never illegal in the UK – boosted the momentum of the modern LGBT+ rights movement. The decriminalisation was the result of the government approving a private members bill, sponsored by Conservative MP Humphry Berkeley, Welsh Labour MP Leo Abse and Conservative peer Lord Arran. It came after years of campaigning, which gained ground after the landmark 1957 Wolfenden Report. This report was commissioned after a number of high-profile men were convicted of homosexuality, and recommended that private sexual acts between men should no longer be a crime.

This movement was further galvanised by events in America when, in the early hours of 28 June 1969, LGBT+ customers at New York Citys Stonewall Inn rioted in response to a police raid.

A timeline of key dates in the modern LGBT+ rights movement in Britain

1969 In the US, the Stonewall uprising, in response to a police raid at New York Citys Stonewall Inn, paves the way for the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement in the west.

1970 The UK Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and other activist groups are set up, with Britains first Pride parade taking place in London in July 1972.

1980/90s The Aids Crisis sweeps across the UK, killing thousands of gay and bisexual men.  

1988 The Thatcher government introduces the highly controversial Section 28, banning public bodies from promoting homosexuality”.

2005 The Gender Recognition Act means transgender people can legally change gender for the first time. Also in 2005, Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force, offering same-sex couples similar rights to those encompassed by marriage.

2010 The Equality Act becomes law, protecting LGBTQ+ people from discrimination.

2013 Equal marriage is legalised in England and Wales, followed by Scotland in 2014.

2020 Equal marriage finally becomes law in Northern Ireland, making it the last region in the UK to do so.

 

Known as the Stonewall riots, or the Stonewall uprising, the demonstrations continued on and off for five days. Key to the rebellion were several black and minority ethnic activists, including butch lesbian Stormé DeLarverie, gender non-conforming Sylvia Rivera, and drag queen Marsha P Johnson.

Soon after the Stonewall riots, an increasing number of LGBT+ rights groups were set up. These included the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in the US, with an offshoot founded in the UK in 1970. Also in the UK, there was also the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, born out of a Manchester branch of the Homosexual Law Reform Society, crucial to the decriminalisation campaign. In the early 70s, the Manchester TV/TS Group was set up, pushing for transgender rights. In politics, too, LGBT+ rights were becoming more prominent. In 1974, Labour politician Maureen Colquhoun, who died in February 2021, came out as a lesbian. She became the first MP to do so, losing the support of her party in the process – soon after, Labour voted to deselect her.

In the 1980s, Britain was devastated as the Aids crisis – which had already ravaged the LBGT+ community in America – hit the UK.  Recently the subject of Russell T DaviesTV drama Its a Sin, the tragedy led to the deaths of thousands of gay and bisexual men, alongside women and those in the transgender community. Gay and lesbian activists like photographers Sunil Gupta and Tessa Boffin documented the subsequent demonisation of gay men in the British media. From their book Ecstatic Antibodies:Britain threatened by gay virus plague,” read one 1980s headline in The Mail on SundayDeaths of prominent celebrities rose the profile of the virus – American actor Rock Hudson perished with the disease in 1985, followed by Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in 1991.

Freddie Mercury of Queen, 1982 Tour at the Various Locations in Oakland, California (Photo by Steve Jennings/WireImage)
Queen frontman Freddie Mercury died on 24 November 1991 due to complications from Aids. He confirmed the day before his death that he had contracted the disease a few years previously. (Photo by Steve Jennings/WireImage)

In the midst of the crisis, the Thatcher government sought to stamp out LGBT+ activism. In 1988, her ruling Conservative Party enacted Section 28 in England, Scotland and Wales, forbidding public bodies from promoting homosexuality”. This resulted in local authorities limiting their activities for fear of prosecution, with student LGBT+ support groups shut down; libraries refusing to stock gay newspapers; and teachers feeling unable to intervene with homophobic bullying.

The implementation of Section 28 was met with fierce resistance from LGBT+ campaigners; it would not be repealed until 2000 in Scotland, followed by England and Wales in 2003.

In response to Section 28, a group of activists, politicians and actors including Michael Cashman, Lisa Power, and Ian McKellen set up the LGBT+ rights charity Stonewall. Alongside lobbying for the repeal of Section 28, the charity successfully campaigned for lifting the ban on gay men and lesbians serving in the military in 2000. Other LGBT+ groups from the 80s included the Camden Lesbian Centre and Black Lesbian Group, which worked with organisations such as Camden Black Sisters to campaign for the repeal of Section 28.

The start of the 2000s preceded significant legislative improvements for LGBT+ people in Britain. Alongside the repeal of Section 28, same-sex couples were given the right to adopt from 2002 and, in 2005, civil partnerships were introduced giving same-sex couples similar rights to those of marriage. Also in 2005, the Gender Recognition Act became law, allowing transgender people to legally change gender. By 2010, the Equality Act protected LGBT+ people from discrimination. After years of campaigning, in 2013, same-sex marriage was legalised in England and Wales, followed soon after by Scotland. However, equal marriage would not come into force in Northern Ireland until January 2020.

Despite legislative progress, there is still a way to go before LGBT+ equality is achieved in Britain. In 2018, the UKs National LGBT survey – the first of its kind – showed that LGBT+ respondents faced additional challenges compared with the general population, with respondents reporting they are less satisfied with their lives. More than two-thirds of respondents said they avoid holding hands in public for fear of a negative reaction.

The progression of transgender rights, in particular, has faced obstacles in recent years. In 2016, the UK government promised to reform the Gender Recognition Act with a simplified system of self-identification – only to drop these plans in 2020. The governments decision was heavily criticised by LGBT+ charities, including Stonewall chief executive Nancy Kelley, who said it had missed a key opportunity to progress LGBT equality”.

The fight for LGBT+ rights, then, continues. And the importance of holding events like LGBT+ History Month remains as clear as ever.

Ella Braidwood is a freelance journalist with bylines in The Guardian, The Independent, Time Out London, and more. She has an Ancient History BA from Kings College London

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