Mapping Edinburgh’s place in LGBT+ history: past present and future

LGBT+ History Month is both a celebration and a reminder. As a celebration, it’s a time dedicated to looking back at what has already been achieved in the struggle for LGBT+ liberation. Important and often overlooked narratives can be elevated, and we acknowledge the great work done by LGBT+ individuals that has brought us to where we are today. As a reminder, LGBT+ History Month exists to highlight what has yet to be achieved, and the daily oppression and aggression that many members of the LGBT+ community still experience.

Though some may argue that a month specifically dedicated to LGBT+ History is tokenistic or unnecessary, a multitude of reasons why this is not the case immediately present themselves. Straight, cis narratives remain dominant in popular culture and, significantly for our universities, in academia. They are part of our education by default. This month exists not as an alternative to making LGBT+ narratives default in the same way, but as a space for LGBT+ individuals to claim as very much their own, and to remind institutions to elevate voices that are all too often brushed aside.

This year’s LGBT+ History Month bears the theme of ‘Geography: mapping the world’, and in considering this alongside the month’s dual function – acknowledging how much has been achieved as well as how much more we have to do – it seems prudent to interrogate, celebrate and learn from Edinburgh’s historically turbulent relationship with LGBT+ rights. This city is a site of contradiction for LGBT rights and culture. Though Scotland was recognised by rights group ILGA Europe as the best country in the continent to be LGBT+ in 2015, and the second best in 2017, the country’s history serves as a seering reminder of the struggle that has been endured before reaching this point.

In 1889 Scotland became the last jurisdiction in Europe to abolish capital punishment for sex between two men. It remained illegal to be a gay man in Scotland up until February 1 1981 and although female same sex relationships were never outlawed, they were systemically erased and ignored. Post war Scotland created an environment in which being gay was understood as an impossibility. It was within this climate that the Scottish Minorities Group was born. What started as regular meetings at pubs or discos (with rules regulating public displays of affection so as to remain law-abiding), eventually became a key movement in the shift in public attitude, with the group setting up an information centre and telephone line.

Nowadays traces of the group’s history is scattered all across the city, as their meetings used rooms in locations from 60 Broughton Street to our very own George Square. Cecil Sinclair, an important activist in the SMG, remembers the problems involved with organising meetings for LGBT+ groups in 70s Scotland: “there was a fuss about the brass plate, because it used the word ‘homosexual’ in it.”
In 1982, the bookshop Lavender Menace, named after a group of radical New York lesbian feminists, opened on Forth Street. It began life in the SMG offices, but gradually became an important location for the Edinburgh LGBT+ community. Its origins and endings have recently been made into a play by Theatre Maker James Ley, proving how Edinburgh’s LGBT+ history continues to reverberate in the art of its present.

60 Broughton Street is now home to one of Edinburgh’s many restaurants, the SMG meeting rooms in George Square now part of our campus rooms, and Lavender Menace now a New Town Flat. These spots are now fully integrated features of our daily landscape, but we should remember each of them for what they are: key sites of cultural significance for the LGBT+ community, and markers of a history of struggle, resistance, and great achievement.

As we move further forward into what has been so far a monumental decade for LGBT+ rights we can rest safe in the knowledge that the experience of the Scottish LGBT+ community has improved immeasurably in the last forty years. And yet, one conversation with an LGBT+ individual today will reveal that things are still far from perfect. We must remain consistent in examining our curriculums, assumptions and institutions for traces of homophobia and ignorance at all times.

Acknowledging and celebrating LGBT+ History month should not allow complacency for the rest of the year. It should not exist as an alternative to integrating LGBT+ experiences into the mainstream, but rather as a much needed call to arms for us to work harder, and to carry on doing just that.

 

Image: Andrew Perry

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