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Representation of minority communities in art, music, film and TV is as important now as ever

Queer Britain Museum (Credit: Robert Evans / Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

Standing in the fabulous LGBT+ museum Queer Britain, surrounded by an array of artifacts which portray key moments in our history, it struck me that the first people of any group, particularly minorities, to make history are exceptional.

For LGBT+ pioneers their distinction often came cloaked in social disapproval, or at times illegality, so celebration of their achievements was neither inevitable nor swift. Not a single LGBT+ figure was celebrated as such in school history lessons. Rather their sexuality, if mentioned at all, was a subject of scorn or derision and the true story of their contribution to science, culture, art and society went unremarked and unvalued. 

In the 50 years following partial decriminalisation dramatists began to tell the stories of some of those firsts. Landmark dramas like The Naked Civil Servant (Quentin Crisp) or An Englishman Abroad (Guy Burgess) painted portraits of flamboyant characters. Unforgettable episodes of soaps Brookside (Beth and Margaret’s kiss in 1994), Eastenders (Colin and Barry’s kiss in 1988 – wonderfully reprised in 2022 by Lord Cashman) helped the public to see that, whilst we might not live next door to them, we were not the curiosities and criminals they had been led to imagine. 

LGBT+ people have always featured in literature and poetry and for many of us books were a lifesaver

Simultaneously, documentary makers delved deeper into the complexities of our real lives. I remember Joan Bakewell’s 1986 programme about Mark Rees, a trans man who became a Liberal Democrat councillor in 1992, and her 1990 programme Falling Out about the consequences of being discharged from the armed forces for being LGBT+.

LGBT+ people have always featured in literature and poetry and for many of us books were a lifesaver. When real life was tough or violent a book was a haven. Some books built bridges. Oh, the joy of discovering Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and Tales of the City and sharing them with people who were on the same wavelength. 

Still from It's A Sin (Credit: TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo)
Still from It's A Sin (Credit: TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo)

Long before anyone knew the term social media, radio had been conjuring up voices from Julian and Sandy, through to David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, establishing an LGBT+ presence in most homes.

However it is the power of TV and film to simultaneously educate and entertain which makes it so important for shared culture and understanding. Programmes such as Coming Out in 2015 explained the history of LGBT+ people in Scotland. Just two years ago It’s A Sin enabled younger LGBT+ people to learn about the things which some of us went through 40 years ago which are no longer raw, but still painful. The resilience which came from those experiences is working its way across generations. I am not a fan of drag, but when I listen to young people I begin to understand what it means to them. I live and learn.

When Schools Out founded LGBT+ History Month the main objective was to stop our stories being lost. Today we can celebrate the lives of people who were not the first, or exceptional, just good LGBT+ people getting on with their jobs and enjoying life with family and friends. Moreover now, when our trans and non-binary siblings are under sustained attack, we can and must use the lessons of our history to defeat this attempted destruction of human rights. History shows that, despite all the claims, we were never monsters. We must use that lesson to stop the escalating demonisation of trans people which, if left unchecked, will legitimise further discrimination of other groups. History shows that given time, legal protection and ethical reporting, minorities cease to be feared by outsiders and become equal members of society sharing common values. That is to the benefit of everyone. That is the future.

By Baroness Barker, Liberal Democrat peer

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