Why do we celebrate LGBT heritage?

Stephen Barlow yn gwenu at y camera, gwisgo crys glas
Stephen Barlow, Rheolwr Datblygu CDL Cymru
HLF Wales Development Manager Stephen Barlow reflects on the importance of celebrating his community's heritage

"You can't be what you can't see" are words I have reflected on a lot recently. They were spoken by Hannah Blythyn AM as part of her speech at the opening of the National Lottery-funded Icon and Allies exhibition at the Senedd during LGBT History Month in February. And they have truly stuck with me.

[quote]“It's only 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales... The speed of change and progress towards equality has been incredible.” [/quote]

Growing up in the West Wales Valleys, I saw plenty of people who looked like me and, whether they spoke in English or in Welsh, I heard plenty of people that sounded like me. But, if I'm honest, I never identified with any of them. I'm one of those people where there was never any confusion over my sexuality: I always knew I was gay, and I've never felt ashamed of it or in any way disappointed by it. I grew up with a big loving family around me, a very small group of close friends who I'm happy to say are still around now, but I always knew that someday, I would have to leave the place that I called 'home'. I don't know how, but I always knew that there must be people 'just like me' somewhere; it was just a matter of finding them. Many years later, find them I did!

It's only 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. New legislation was introduced in 1967 that allowed gay men to have a relationship in private without acquiring a criminal record. The speed of change and progress towards equality has been incredible - and how truly grateful I am to the activists and politicians who have worked so hard for change. I stand on their shoulders.

Pride and prejudice...

Now, as development manager for HLF in Cardiff, I get insight into a range of projects that celebrate heritage in Wales. I was really pleased that the Pride Cymru application for the Icons and Allies project was successful and I thoroughly enjoyed attending the exhibition launch in the Senedd in February, and hearing some honest reflections and memories from those speaking at the event. 

[quote]“As someone who has always been interested in history... it surprised me how much I’m still learning about the heritage of my own community.”[/quote]

I learnt a lot at the exhibition, which was great, but also a little disconcerting: as someone who has always been interested in history, has been involved with organising Cardiff-Wales LGBT Mardi Gras (now Pride) and who works in the heritage sector, it surprised me how much I’m still learning about the heritage of my own community. I've raised money for the Terrence Higgins Trust in the past - how did I not know that he was Welsh? And what about the politicians that worked so hard (and were supported and challenged behind the scenes by enthusiastic and committed activists) to make life easier and better for LGBT people? People like Leo Abse MP and Goronwy Rees MP and Gloria Jenkins who helped establish Fflag and Stonewall Cymru.

And Dai Donovan, the spokesperson for the miners in Onllwyn, all portrayed in the National Lottery-funded film, Pride. What a guy! What a community to be proud of. Despite being from the West Wales Valleys, having very vague memories of the Miners’ Strike but very strong memories of the impact that it had on my community and communities across Wales, it took a film for me to learn that my two communities were in fact one. Pride was released in 2014 and no matter how many times I watch it (often...), it still makes me cry. 

During a period of raging homophobia - and the extreme challenges faced by mining communities - there were people that were working hard to make life easier for people like me.  My two communities were working together and Dai and his colleagues were at the heart of that. I just didn't know about it. I have a lot to thank LGSM: Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and the people in Wales’ mining communities for. There is no doubt that without these two communities coming together and supporting one another, gay rights might look very different today. I'm so pleased that Pride was made. It truly is "a document for the future, it exists for all time".

Exploring all our histories

As part of my role I get to visit lots of historic places in Wales, whether that's a museum, a landscape or a beautiful historic house. But it is extremely rare that I see a place celebrate anything that is connected to LGBT heritage, outside LGBT History Month. 

[quote]​“I am so proud that I work for an organisation that is actively telling the LGBT community that these histories are important.”[/quote]

For too long, LGBT history has been overlooked, and in far too many cases, deliberately destroyed or hidden. I am so proud that I work for an organisation that is raising its head and is actively telling the LGBT community that these histories are important and as valid as anybody else's. Not only that, grants are available to make sure that these histories are explored, recorded properly and shared as widely as possible, too! Whether as a funder or an employer, HLF is genuinely inclusive and I am a firm believer that people perform better when they can be themselves, whatever the context.

We all want to see people that are like us. We all want to be able to look at our heroes in history and thanks to projects like Icons and Allies and the many other LGBT history projects that the National Lottery has and is funding across the UK, I and people like me can find out more about some of mine. My ask to you is to encourage LGBT people and their straight allies to share their memories: get up to the attic and donate those photographs, films, posters and literature to your local museum and/or archive. I'd love to visit a place and be able to see and find out more about items that have a connection to my gay identity, or for a place to be open about its LGBT connections. 

Let’s do more to celebrate LGBT history in Wales, and across the UK!

Find out more about Icons and Allies on the Pride Cymru website.

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