Sue Sanders speaks to SSG about activism, sport and LGBT History Month.
Continuing an annual celebration begun by Schools Out in 2005, this February will be the seventh annual LGBT History Month, and it promises to be a big one (its pre-launch event was held at Twickenham Stadium back in November, which So So Gay attended). The theme for 2011 and 2012 is sport: a daunting subject for many lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people in the UK who have faced or been discouraged by an often openly homo- and transphobic environment. But Sue Sanders isn’t one to back away from a challenge. A founder of Schools Out in 1974, she helped create LGBT History Month and still tirelessly drives it on: championing it across the country by talking to politicians, students, teachers and this year, we’re pleased to say, us.
She remembers her own time at school as ‘the dark ages’ for LGBT young people. ‘There was nothing. No internet, no mobile phones, nothing on the television, no papers, no help lines. A complete dearth,’ she recalls. ‘I did Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse for A-level and at no stage did anyone ever tell me that Virginia Woolf was bisexual. It would have made a phenomenal difference to me if I’d known that!’ Nor has the situation wholly improved. ‘The lies that I was consistently told by omission were profound, and I would say that’s often the case, even now, for young people. We teach them about poets, writers, scientists, mathematicians, and we never let them know that they were in fact members of the LGBT community.’
When she became a teacher herself and founded Schools Out, it wasn’t easy to change things at first. ‘Many members of staff who popped their heads above the parapet and came out – or were outed – got sacked,’ she says, illustrating the risks of taking that kind of stand still only a few years after homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain. Some managed to keep their teaching posts, however: ‘It was very patchy, as it always is with education – you can’t make generalisations about what happens in schools because every school is a law unto itself.’ She describes the struggle the liberation movement had trying to explain what it was challenging when words like homophobia, heterosexism and transphobia didn’t exist. ‘We have a language now,’ she notes, ‘and a whole theory base with which to critique the situation we’re faced with, which is profoundly helpful!’
A string of legislative achievements has been, to her mind, vital in improving the situation: the repeal of Section 28 (in 2000 in Scotland and 2003 everywhere else), measures to outlaw discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace and in service provision, and most recently the 2010 Equality Act. However, just as important is a shift in how people perceive and promote equality, and it is here that Sanders resignedly accepts the education sector ‘has always been slow to pick it up and deal with the issues.’ She compares it to the criminal justice system, which after the publication of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, ‘could begin to enable people to realise there was institutional sexism and institutional homophobia [as well as racism], and get people to join up and start thinking about equality and diversity in a much more cohesive way. I think the criminal justice system really did grasp the nettle in quite a profound way. That’s not to say all problems are solved, but they were much more proactive than education has ever been around the issues, from the centre and from the grassroots.’
She may be selling the grassroots short. After all, LGBT History Month started as a grassroots initiative and the pace of its success has surprised even Sue. ‘I was expecting…it wouldn’t get picked up until the public [equality] duty was there,’ she explained, ‘but last February, we had over a thousand events on the website calendar and you can be sure that probably another 500 or so people out there just didn’t get to put their events on it.’ So how did it begin? ‘Paul [Patrick, Sanders’ Schools Out co-founder who passed away in 2008] and I had seen the power of Black History Month, and had always thought that LGBT History Month would be a really useful thing to have. And then, in 2003 when the government was talking about having a single equality policy with a public duty that would include gender orientation and gender identity I thought, well, they’re going to scratch their heads and think “what should we do?” So if we give them a month at least that’s a foot in the door.’ The idea caught on and LGBT History Month was born.
But things have changed in Whitehall since then: what kind of support has LGBT History Month received from the current Government? Sue pauses briefly to consider her answer – or pick her words – and relates a story about the pre-launch event that illustrates the problem at hand. ‘The Department of Culture, Media and Sport sent some civil servants but no ministers – it’s the first year we didn’t have a minister. The reason, they are saying, is because there was a three-line whip that night so they couldn’t get down to Twickenham, but it does feel like all the civil servants are having great difficulty with the cuts and with the attitude of not getting involved. I was talking to another group of civil servants yesterday who said there’s a complete ban on going out and doing things at the moment. So it’s very difficult, I think, for them to engage.’
It’s not all bad, though. She acknowledges that the very first event the Coalition held in Downing Street was for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people. ‘I didn’t recognise many of them, it has to be said,’ she jokes in an aside. ‘I don’t quite know who they all were and I think there were three women there and very few black people. But at least it was an attempt, and I’ve just heard they’re going to do the same thing next year.’ There won’t be a similar event in February to mark History Month (‘which Gordon Brown did for two years running’), but Sanders has cause for some optimism: ‘when they held that event in June  they also produced a policy document (which is available on the Schools Out website),’ she reveals. ‘The Government Equality Office are, at the moment, writing a work plan on how to further LGBT issues across all the various ministries in the government and it will be very interesting to see what they come up with.’
She expresses her disappointment at the Government’s choosing to forgo using ‘some really useful guidance’ on how schools can bring LGBT issues into their lessons, opting for a ‘weak’ two-page primer instead. It’s a contentious subject at the moment, given Melanie Phillips’ recent diatribe against nefarious gay influence on children. ‘I think what was interesting was the truth obviously wasn’t an issue for her,’ Sue reflects when asked about the article. ‘She really did manipulate the facts to fit her need to be outraged. It’s a great shame that she felt the need to do it, but that’s what Melanie does!’ The public reaction to the piece was heartening, though. ‘We are very good, as a community, in being able to be quick to challenge and quick to hopefully educate people who frequently misconstrue facts… So it’s been delightful to see people running round and challenging it.’ (SSG’s Editor-in-Chief has also offered his own response.)
Actually, some of the past week’s controversies have been helpful. ‘It’s been an interesting week, with [Andy Gray and Richard Keys] being very sexist,’ she contends, ‘and as far as I’m concerned, homophobia sits on sexism. So I think it’s quite interesting that people have been very clear that the comment about the female referee was grossly unacceptable… I think that’s useful, in the fact that here we are working on sport and that’s cropped up as well.’
Indeed, we should return to this year’s celebrations. Does she feel, for example, that a focus on sport is difficult to relate to LGBT history? She concedes that the aim is more widely about visibility, and that if she were starting from scratch she probably would have given the initiative a different name when setting it up. ‘We’ve used the word ‘history’ because it’s built upon the success of Black History Month, and the use of the word is as loose as possible.’ But ‘we’re challenging the homophobic history of sport and we’re going to push it forward so [we ensure] a successful LGBT history in sport in the future.’
When asked the reasons behind the sport theme, Sanders becomes even more loquacious. ‘In the run-up to the Olympics it seemed fairly obvious, and the amount of homophobia in sport is so profound: with the two together I felt it was an opportunity not to be missed. What I’ve learnt, working with Pride Sports, is how many LGBT people are active in sport! Last night I had great fun playing basketball with the Slam Dunkin’ Divas in Manchester. There are people up and down the country who have been playing sport either in LGBT groups on their own or braving it and going off and joining other clubs and chipping away at the homophobia in so doing. Plus lots of LGBT people go out and watch sport. So it seems to me crucial that we do make a challenge to the whole sports arena and raise the visibility of LGBT people both as participants and as spectators so we can be out and proud and safe.’
Sue is typically bullish about the month and years ahead while listing the advances made so far and describing how LGBT History Month 2011 is already ‘doing the biz in actually moving things forward.’ ‘We’ve already woken up the Sport England people quite considerably,’ she asserts confidently. ‘The Government Equality Office is going to have a meeting with the main sporting bodies to discuss LGBT issues in February, which is very exciting.’ What does she hope that will achieve? ‘I think it’s actually going to push at the door so that we will get more sporting bodies beginning to think about the issues for LGBT sporting people. Thinking about how they train their stewards to deal more effectively with homophobia in crowds, how they think about how they might support young LGBT people coming into the sport, et cetera. We’re raising the bar.’
One upcoming event she believes will ‘push the boat out a lot’ is Sheffield Eagles RLFC playing a home match wearing rugby shirts carrying the Pride Sports and LGBT History Month logos and the slogan, ‘Homophobia: Tackle It.’ If you’re not able to make it to Sheffield to see that, though, don’t worry: there’s no shortage of events on throughout the month. ‘I was looking through the History Month calendar and going through all the events and two hours later I’d only got up to the 9th of February,’ she laughs. ‘So there are lots of things out there!’ She especially recommends Londoners check out the Drill Hall (‘a wonderful venue that does marvellous work’) but location is no obstacle: ‘You look around and at just about every point of the compass across Britain there is something exciting, so there is absolutely no excuse not to be up and about in February and thoroughly enjoying yourself!’
Keep reading So So Gay for more news and features about LGBT History Month throughout February!