LGBT History Month 2020: A Chat with the Chair

Sam Bennett

Sue Sanders, LGBT HM chair

Sue Sanders, LGBT HM chair

LGBT History Month has taken place in February since 2005. An initiative launched by charity Schools OUT – which aims to make educational institutions safe for LGBT people – its 16th incarnation launched at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers and Museum of Natural History in November. Following the event, Fyne Times’ Jill Rayner and I sat down with the tenacious Sue Sanders in Oxford gay pub The Jolly Farmers. “Thank you, darling,” the chair of Schools OUT says when I praise her earlier onstage appearance. Has her confidence as a speaker developed through her role in the charity? “No,” she says, a former drama teacher, “I was an arrogant sh*t before.”

Other speakers at the launch included the award-winning poet Louise Wallwein (“Isn’t she wonderful?”) and The Black Flamingo writer Dean Atta who she’s known since he was a youngster – “Now he’s selling his book in America.” Her association with great authors doesn’t end there: “Bernardine Evaristo and I worked together in the early eighties, and she’s just got herself the Booker Prize,” she says, delighted by the recent success of creatives with whom she first crossed paths years ago.

Fifteen years on from the first LGBT HM, she doesn’t think there’s a local authority now that wouldn’t do something to mark it. For the past five years it has been complemented by OUTing the Past, The National Festival of LGBT History launched by Dr Jeff Evans. With a timetable starting 1 February, the festival will comprise 22 hubs this year: 14 in England, six on the island of Ireland and two in the USA. “We’ve had 70 people offer presentations,” Sanders says, “there are people ferreting out the most wonderful bits of history – about suffragettes, about artists – there is an explosion and it is wonderful.”

 LGBT HM Launch speakers

LGBT HM Launch speakers

But what motivated the recipient of the first Rainbow Honours Lifetime Achievement Award (2019) to educate people about queer history? My colleague asks if it was personal. “It was. My education was a disaster, I was treated as a disaster. I was kicked out of three schools, failed my A-levels and got O-level passes – and I’m not a fool.” She did get into a London drama college, impressing them with her practical work, though without A-levels they technically shouldn’t have accepted her. Here, despite it being the swinging sixties, “there were no other lesbians and gays. When I eventually came out in that college, I was so angry that there was nobody else, nobody who really understood.”

Her A-levels consisted of Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Nobody told her they were all bisexual. Following tonight’s launch, host Steve Boyce gave an interview to a reporter with an English literature degree, who also didn’t know about Shakespeare’s sexual orientation. “That’s now. It just fills me with anger that we are not given our history. So we have to fight for it.” When she co-founded LGBT HM (with the late Paul Patrick) she went into National Trust properties such as Sissinghurst Castle and asked where the accounts of queer history were. “We don’t have things like that,” she was told.

Steve Boyce, Schools Out chair of trustees

Steve Boyce, Schools Out chair of trustees

“I went to the British Museum in the eighties to try and find my lesbian history, and said ‘look, I’m trying to find lesbians.’ Well, I was treated like a fool.” Even in Dale Spender’s “stunning book”, Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them, she couldn’t find a single use of the word lesbian. It was there in code, Spender told her, which Sanders had deciphered, “but I was f*cking looking for it. Heterosexual people wouldn’t have got it.”

Decades on, for all the progress made, there are still schools who don’t get involved in LGBT HM. There are also schools that don’t recognise Black History Month (October), “or if they do it’s all American, they don’t do British black history which is very frustrating for me.” Each year LGBT HM has ‘four faces’, each representing one letter in LGBT, and “there’s always at least one black face.” They try to bring visibility to disability via these faces too – “We don’t always succeed” – and each year unite with BHM, Disability History Month, Women’s History Month and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month.

“We’re constantly trying to enable people to understand that LGBT+ people are everywhere. So often when you see an LGBT thing, it’s white gay men. Bisexuals often don’t get a look in, trans are having an appalling time at the moment, and to my shame and upset there are lesbian feminists out there, that I worked with, sh*tting on the trans. It makes me want to cry. I just think, Goddess,” she says where others would use God, “it’s not just the right, it’s the left as well.”

This year, the theme of LGBT HM is Poetry, Prose and Plays (with faces Lorraine Hansberry, EM Forster, Shakespeare and Dawn Langley Simmons respectively signifying the L, G, B and T). It’s a deserved “easy year” theme-wise, she says, warning that 2021 is going to be trickier. “We’re doing Mind, Body and Spirit and it will be linked with the PSHE [personal, social, health and economic education] syllabus and all the crap that’s going down about inclusive education and RSE [relationship and sex education].” In this area she’s less than complimentary about the Department for Education (DfE), “appalling in their lack of leadership”, who Schools OUT have been working with, “hoping they will take some advice”.

At the time of speaking, interactions with the civil service had started to become “constructive”, but the general election’s put something of a spanner in the works. Further, today was when she expected to hear the verdict regarding Anderton Park (the Birmingham primary school subjected to protests due to its LGBT+ lessons) and whether its temporary exclusion zone would become permanent. Two days ago the judgement was postponed. “Sarah [Hewitt-Clarkson, headteacher] went through hours of horrendousness on that court case and we still don’t know. Whichever way it goes, we’re going to have problems.”

IMG_8094She cites the work teacher Andrew Moffat has done with the No Outsiders programme (teaching schoolchildren the importance of equality) as “phenomenal”. Like Anderton Park, Birmingham’s Parkfield Community – where Moffat is assistant head – has been targeted by protesters. “You have that horrendousness,” she says, “that attack on the work, but you also get the other side of people coming together and saying ‘we’ve got to pick that work up’.” Moffat received an MBE for his efforts, and a European Diversity Award, plus “his books are selling well, so in a weird way, the publicity has got the word out, but at a very high cost to Anderton Park and his school. Staff have gone through hell. Imagine going into school every day, past the posters, being yelled at. It’s been horrific, and I don’t know what the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] are doing.” A member of the Independent Advisory Group on Hate Crime, she’s of the belief charges should be brought against protesters.

The protests are not as much about LGBTQ+, she says, as they are control. Moffat welcomed parents into his school, where 98 percent of the pupils are Muslim, so they could learn about No Outsiders. “Mothers were seeing the books, talking and gaining confidence.” However, there are fundamentalist Muslim men leading these objections, “wishing to control their children and women. They don’t want anybody else to have control. It’s very similar to Section 28 – ‘we want to be in control of what our kids are told’.”IMG_8172

She took a while releasing the Schools OUT statement about the No Outsiders row, not wanting to do so until it included the support of Mohammed Amin MBE. “I was upset it took me so long, but I was determined I wasn’t going to do a press release without a Muslim voice.” Ironically, she tells us, their statement was still published a week before that of the education minister, which was devoid of such a voice.

“Darling,” says Jill, “everyone’s a week after you.”

For more about Schools OUT, LGBT HM and OUTing the Past Festival, visit schools-out.org.uk, lgbtplushistorymonth.co.uk and outingthepast.com respectively.

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