LGBTHM 2022: Why do we include LGBTQ+ rights in peace history?
With LGBTQ+ History Month coming to an end, and the museum’s Peace Out exhibition finishing its stay at the Equity Centre in Bradford, we wanted to take a moment to reflect on the impact of the exhibition, and why LGBTQ+ stories are vital to a peace collection. With a large proportion of our collections focusing on anti-war and anti-nuclear movements, the significance of LGBTQ+ stories to a peace museum might not be immediately obvious. However, it is important to recognise the ways in which violence disproportionally affects LGBTQ+ groups both during war and peace-time, and the ways that their safety has often been overlooked in peace-making.
Perhaps the most familiar example of persecution against LGBTQ+ people coinciding with global conflict comes from the Holocaust, during which gay men were singled out alongside Jewish people and other minority groups. It’s estimated that between 5000 and 15000 gay prisoners died in Nazi concentration camps during the war, many of them also Jewish. Other incidences of LGBTQ+ persecution during periods of conflict have been researched, but have received less attention from the media. In Northern Ireland for example, sexuality was one thing that was used against LGBTQ+ people, as the threat of revealing their identity was used to blackmail people into become ‘informers’, who were extremely likely to be targeted by IRA attacks.
The exclusion of minority rights protections from peace agreements, and from the societies being rebuilt after the war, is also not uncommon. Those who survived the Holocaust were forced to live with the shame, rejection and both the psychological and physical consequences of the torture they faced during this period. After the concentration camps were liberated in 1945, homosexuality remained illegal until 1967 in East Germany, and 1969 in West Germany, meaning that a number of survivors from the camps were imprisoned again after the war. They were also unable to apply for government support during these years, which was available to other types of Holocaust survivors. The German government issued an official apology to the LGBTQ+ community in 2002 for their treatment during and after the war.
Similarly, a large amount of discrimination towards LGBTQ+ people remained after the 1998 peace agreement in Northern Ireland. Prejudice and violence in schools, in public, and from churches and prominent political parties, have all continued to affect these communities after the conflict, with a particular lack of acceptance for transgender people. We explored some of the issues in Northern Ireland in Peace Out, as at the time we first created our exhibition, same-sex marriage was not yet legal in Northern Ireland, being achieved in January 2020 after years of peaceful activism. The story of Lyra McKee, a working-class gay journalist who was shot dead in Northern Ireland in 2019, is also available to read as part of Peace Out here: The Ongoing Struggle | Peace Out (peaceoutexhibition.com)
Mural from Hit the North street art festival in 2019. It is a tribute piece to Lyra McKee, painted on Kent Street in Belfast city centre directly across from another piece of street art painted by Emic. There are photos of Lyra posing in front of this mural online. Credit: © Emma Blake
While we’ve focused on just two cases in this blog post, through looking at the relationship between LGBTQ+ persecution and conflicts across the world, we are able to see the ways in which violence extends far beyond armed conflicts, and why it’s necessary for peace movements to do the same. Out of the over 1500 peace agreements made between 1990 and 2015, only 9 referenced sexual orientation, three of these in a negative way. Professor Christine Bell, writing on the neglect of LGBTQ+ security, has said:
“Peace processes and post-conflict environments, almost without exception, fail to address LGBT security or consider what peace would look like for LGBT people.”
Where the safety and rights of LGBTQ+ people are not written into the rules of peace-time society, the door is left open for different forms of violence, and the option to live in peace is no longer available to every citizen. Collecting objects and stories related to the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the UK through the Peace Out project has not only expanded our collections to include previously overlooked communities, but has also expanded the way that we think about peace. Violence against LGBTQ+ people continues to take many forms: neglect, unequal treatment, a lack of access to healthcare, economic inequality, and, of course, individual acts of physical violence. While the movements working to end these inequalities are intertwined with more traditional peace movements, having many of the same aims, they are also movements towards peace in their own rights. As Shannen Johnson, our Learning and Engagement Officer, has said:
“Alongside new objects that show how LGBTQ+ people continue to peacefully campaign for equality today, we wanted to research our existing collection and examine how LGBTQ+ people have contributed to peacemaking more broadly, and the impact that peaceful campaigning has had on the strive to a more peaceful and equal society for all.”
Peace Out is an ongoing project for the museum, and we have extended it beyond the original exhibition in 2019. You can view our digital exhibition at www.peaceoutexhibition.co.uk, and you have a final chance to see it in person at our Peace Out Showcase this Saturday 26th of February at the Equity Centre in Bradford: follow the link below to find out more.
- Gender Violence in Conflict: Neglect of LGBT Security | Political Settlements Research Programme
- LGBT Community the Forgotten Targets of Colombia’s Civil War – IWMF
- The Future of LGBTQ Human Rights in the Women, Peace and Security Agenda | IPI Global Observatory (theglobalobservatory.org)
- Opinion: Gay Holocaust victims and survivors are often forgotten – we need to tell their stories | UCL News – UCL – University College London
- Homosexuality and the Holocaust – Holocaust Center (wagner.edu)