Interview: Sue Sanders, founder of LGBT History Month

Interview: Sue Sanders, founder of LGBT History Month

In a cosy pub opposite Westminster Palace I had the pleasure of interviewing Sue Sanders, the founder of LGBT History Month.

LGBT history Month is celebrated in February and was founded by the charity SchoolsOUT. Sue Sanders  is an “out and proud” lesbian, a British LGBT rights activist and founder of LGBT History Month. In 2015 she was made Emeritus Professor of the Harvey Milk Institute.

“So, we are here opposite the Houses of Parliament, what are you here for today?”

“I will be speaking at an event organised by the Met Police and ParliOut to mark LGBT History Month and to discuss what we can be doing moving forward. We were also here just last week at the Labour Party LGBT History Month Reception.”

“Fantastic, its clearly a very busy month for you. Just to start, could you tell me about the founding of SchoolsOut and what LGBT activism was like when you first got involved?”

“SchoolsOut started way back in 1974, I wasn’t there then. But it was a bunch of gay teachers, called the Gay Teachers’ Group. It was basically a social group, but very soon it became political because one of their members, John Warburton, got sacked because he came out to his students. Some students saw him at an early gay pride march and said “are you gay sir?” on the Monday morning and he said “yes”.

I linked up with Paul Patrick and, with the arrival of the internet, we got a little website and began to get the word out by making resources. The thing that really moved us up a big notch was Section 28. What was interesting was that we didn’t have a clue how parliament worked. It was an eye opener to me that we really had to know this stuff. We did masses of work when Section 28 came along, we were on television, raised lots of awareness and produced lots of resources. I worked with Ian Mckellen and Micheal Cashman who went on to found Stonewall.

The Daily Mail was profoundly good at getting everyone’s knickers in a twist. If you look at the stuff going on it was horrific. Some of it is coming all over again but against the trans community now. In 2003 we lost Section 28 and the Labour party started working on the Equality Act and the Public Duty Act. The Public Duty Act expected people to be proactive about equality, but where we they going to get the information from?”

“And why did Schools Out start LGBT History Month?”

“We saw how Black History Month had had an amazing effects and we thought about what we could do.  Now LGBT History Month has a website with an interactive calendar with over 1000 events this month. The month has grown organically, the website grew and we attended lots of events organised by others. Then in 2010, in the run-up to the olympics, we came up with the idea of having a theme. We’ve done lots of themes and try to make the venues link with the theme. Our 10th year is when we thought about an LGBT History festival. This year we are in 15 hubs, the National Archives, Imperial War museum, British Museum, Shrewsbury, Preston, Liverpool, Manchester to name a few. We are just growing. The work that we have been doing since 2005 has been a real driving force.”

“On university campuses nowadays, students generally know that February is LGBT History Month, how have universities contributed over the years?” 

“It is a joy to know most universities are doing something. But I still talk to tutors in universities who say they are too frightened to come out to their students. That’s frightening. The whole non-platforming debate is very worrying. There is something very worrying about some of the students’ narrowness of thinking. What we should be doing is coming together and fighting the very real enemies that are out there, especially now with the right nipping at our heels.”

“As part of LGBT History Month the Debating Society held an event, debating whether the trans movement should be separate to the L, the G and the B. They suggested that recent successes in marriage equality and hate crime legislation has led to a shift in focus, whereas the trans movement still struggle with more blatant from of discrimination. Where do you stand on this?”

“I can make a case for both and to me the important thing is trans people need to lead and say what they want and we will be there supporting it. We have consistently always been trans inclusive. I lose my cool when people call it ‘gay history month’. There will be all sorts of ways that trans people will want to do things, I totally respect the trans people that want to work away from us  and I totally respect the trans people that want to work with us. One cannot say that one way is right and one way is wrong. It is crucial that both are enabled.”

“Last year the IOE merged with UCL, so there are now over a thousand trainee teachers every year at UCL. What would be your biggest piece of advice for teachers entering the classroom?”

“They need training. It is outrageous that compulsory equality training is given to the criminal justice system and not to all teachers. Let’s train them. The other thing is, let’s give them resources. After LGBT History Month we set up The Classroom. There we produce lesson plans which usualise LGBT people and are completely free and available for teachers to use.

One of the things I would say to teachers, find ways to educate youngsters to use appropriate language. Don’t tell them off when they say “that’s so gay”, but find ways of explaining and unpacking language. Language is a subtle thing but it can make a difference.”

“Thinking back to when  you were younger, did you ever imagine that marriage equality would be passed in the UK?”

“Never. As a feminist it’s not something I particularly want to do. However, having marriage equality has made a phenomenal difference. It’s not an institution of which I am particularly fond. But Stuart Milk points out that when people who are not comfortable around gay people,  go to a gay wedding, their minds get changed and they see that it all about love. Politically, it has made a massive difference.”


To find out more about LGBT History Month you can visit their website. There a still a number of events taking place in London.

The UCL LGBT+ Society are hosting a number of events including Varsity sports events with KCL. 

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