Why does LGBT history month matter? One simple answer is that stories drive change. Whether it’s within families, friendship circles, in the community or wider society, we know that sharing stories educates. It challenges misconceptions and creates empathy.
And it’s a reasonable assertion to say that it’s been through the exchange of personal stories that attitudes have changed fundamentally over the last 30 years. Telling stories has normalised same-sex relationships. To turn a well-worn phrase on its head, familiarity has bred acceptance. LGBT history month reminds us that when told together, those stories are worth more than the sum of their parts. This year two moments, which on the face of it were not really connected at all, brought that home to me.
The first was at the beginning of the month when I attended a training camp run by Steve Cram at Kielder in Northumberland. The second was on the last weekend of the month when I went to see the Oscar winning picture, Moonlight. The connection between these two experiences is personal. But when I explain, it’s more obvious than you might imagine.
The main guest speaker at this year’s Kielder training camp was the inspirational Ben Smith of the 401 challenge. You may recall that Ben won the Helen Rollason Award at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year ceremony in 2016. He had done something which even most hardcore runners like me can scarcely imagine. He ran 401 marathons in 401 days.
Bullied at school, Ben felt unable to come out. As a young man, he experienced depression and twice tried to take his own life. At the age of 29 he suffered a stroke and in the process of recovery, he turned his life around. He came out and started running. Within four years he set out on his extraordinary journey, raising a staggering £365,000 for Kidscape and Stonewall along the way.
As I told Ben when I met him at the camp, his exploits had touched me profoundly. I began running as an awkward 11-year-old starting out at an all boys’ secondary school in 1972. It was both my route into friendships and my salvation from bullying even though I was occasionally bullied within the team. It was also great cover from any suggestion that I was a ‘puff’ which turned out to be a bit tricky when I realised I was.
Back in the 70s the idea that sport and homosexuality were on the same page was a world away save prejudicial stereotypes about male figure skaters and female shot putters. So as a teenager, my emerging feelings about being attracted to men seemed completely at odds with my passion for athletics. There was certainly no way I would ever have been open about my sexuality with teammates at school or at my athletics club.
These days, happily, it’s a different story for me and other gay runners. My club has a very different culture to the one I experienced 40 years ago. But it’s taken a long time to get here and we’re not there yet. Athletics is no different to any other sport when it comes to the absence of visible role models at the elite end of the spectrum. So Ben’s presence at a training camp run by one of our greatest ever runners meant an enormous amount.
Steve Cram is the same age as me and as a young runner, I read about his achievements in Athletics Weekly in awe. As a training camp host, he is very hands on and I don’t think it would occur to him to create anything other than an inclusive environment. Yet by putting Ben centre stage, he did something I could not have imagined all those years ago. And finally, in middle age, two disparate but precious parts of my identity and experience were at one in the same place.
What has any of this got to do with Moonlight? If you’ve seen the film you’ll probably get it. Unlike Ben’s story, which had a fair few parallels with my own, the story of the film’s central character, Chiron, is in many ways a world apart. Set in Liberty City, Miami, Moonlight is a coming of age story in a deprived, black neighbourhood. Chiron’s mother is a crack addict leaving him to fend for himself while he dodges a pack of bullies. But first impressions can deceive and for all the obvious chasm between my life story and Chiron’s, there are similarities.
The most telling is that here is a boy who is bullied because somehow he’s different. Before he even knows he’s gay he’s marked out as a ‘faggot’. And over time his response is to being gay is to deny it and to somehow transcend it by being something he’s not. For Chiron, the young man, machismo and being the man he is expected to be, provides cover for his latent sexuality.
I was lucky back in the 70s. By doing something un-gay like competitive athletics I almost inadvertently created cover for my emergent self. And because of the status that gave me, I found the opportunity to blow my own cover pretty early on without being ostracised. If I could do sport, something other boys did, I must be okay.
It was a story I told myself and one that years later when I started work was told back to me. You play in the office five a side team so you must be okay! Yet all of this also reinforced the sense that these two things were not compatible, that I had to choose between a gay man and being a runner. Somehow they didn’t belong together.
And so despite the obvious points of departure, the film resonates profoundly. When Chiron’s emotionally abusive mother screams faggot at him he is left perplexed about what it all means. He has to ask and when he finds out he is left having to make sense of the fact that this pejorative term hurled randomly at him actually does describe something that he might be. I spent years persuading people that I wasn’t a puff only to do a complete volte face and announce that I was.
One of the other moments in the film which left me without dry eyes comes almost at the last. And without giving the whole scene away it is to do with the warmth of an embrace from another man. I can still recall the sense of irresistibility coupled with impossibility that the idea of physical affection with a man held. When it finally happened, embracing another man came more naturally to me than almost anything I’d known and yet it was the very thing I’d been conditioned not to want, let alone do.
And so as LGBT history month drew to a close, these two stories reminded me why it matters.
Ben Smith’s presence as an accomplished athlete on BBC Sports Personality of the Year was a testament to his enormous achievement. But his presence on the programme as an openly gay man was a testament to the enormous changes in attitude we’ve witnessed.
Moonlight’s Best Picture prize at the Oscars gave it a profile that was nothing less than it deserved as a brilliant piece of cinema. But it’s also groundbreaking because it’s the first LGBT film to have done so (not to mention the first with an entirely black cast).
Both stories are about so much more than sexuality and yet both speak volumes about it. It has become fashionable of late to eschew the politics of identity. I saw a tweet recently which indignantly asked why every television series has to have a ‘homosexuality subplot when only 3% of the population is gay’. In an uncharacteristically bullish response, I replied, ‘would that this was really true. To the extent that it is, it’s because we’re here, we always were and we always will be. Get used to it.’
LGBT history month is about creating our own history and writing our experiences into history at large. It’s about making the invisible, visible. It’s about a multiplicity of personal stories that just sometimes find voice in achievements that are far from our everyday lives. And the connection between the two.
It’s about the fact that we were always here even when we were hidden away in closets.
And that fact that we’re here to stay.