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LGBT+ history: reflecting on progress and campaigning for change

By Robert Nisbet, Director, Nations & Regions and sponsor of Platform, RDG’s employee network for LGBT+ people and allies

For LGBT+ History Month, Robert looks back on his personal history and his biggest inspiration.

My husband and I were reflecting the other day on our timing.  

We’ve been fairly fortunate. I was born a couple of Parliamentary recesses after homosexuality was decriminalised in the United Kingdom, given the right to marry (albeit 18 years after our first date), and I am able to write this blog and fly the flag for the railway on national television without my sexuality ‘becoming the story’.

One hundred years ago we would have been jailed, two hundred years ago we could have been dangling from a noose, while up to the 17th century we could have faced an even more unpleasant end: being burned at the stake. So, all things considered, it’s not bad.  

Of course, we’ve been subjected to homophobic abuse, have watched friends die from AIDS, endured the iniquities of Clause 28 and know that homosexuality remains illegal in over a third of all countries, but we try to push those thoughts from our minds when we’re eating our Weetabix.

But in LGBT+ history month, it’s important to remember those brave activists and advocates who have pushed back draconian laws and taken aim at injustice.

In this blog, I want to pay tribute to my personal inspiration: Peter Tatchell.

His tactics are often abrasive, he endured decades of vilification by the ‘red top’ tabloids and he has been a persistent irritant to those he challenges on the left and the right, but his impact is undeniable.

Born in Australia, he has made the United Kingdom his home, but his focus is global, and his courage extraordinary: the risks he takes to advance human rights have often proved injurious to his health. 

For example, he tried twice to stage a citizen’s arrest of the late leader of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, for his persecution of LGBT+ Africans. In the second attempt, he was beaten so badly by Mugabe’s bodyguards that twenty years later he still suffers from impaired vision and loss of memory from brain damage.

He was again at the receiving end of state-sponsored violence six years later for rebelling against the mayor of Moscow’s decision to ban a gay pride march in the city. He still returns to Russia to protest anti-LGBT+ laws despite being punched and hit with metal bars.

In the UK, he has been at the forefront of every attempt to flatten the hurdles that allowed LGBT+ people to be treated differently in law. He helped overturn bans on same sex couple adoption, gays serving in the military and then fought to enable civil partnerships, then same sex marriage.

His high-profile campaigning has brought hundreds of death threats; in his flat in south London, he sleeps with a fire extinguisher by his bed, in case of arson attacks.

But his fight is genuinely for equal rights, regardless of sexuality: he was instrumental in the recent court case which brought in a law allowing civil partnerships for men and women, as an alternative to marriage.

I met Peter a few times as a journalist and then, more recently, at the annual Attitude Awards, which was attended by, among others Prince Harry and Kylie Minogue.

Surrounded by that star wattage, I saw him sitting alone at a table in his thoughts - he’s a quiet man - as guests snapped selfies of several colourfully adorned contestants from RuPaul’s Drag Race.  

To me, he was the real celebrity that evening.

I am pleased that we can take a moment every February to remember those who have made a tangible difference to millions of LGBT+ people.

Peter Tatchell is a shining example and his Foundation continues to vociferously promote human rights all over the world.  

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