LGBT History Month Guest Blog: ‘Filling the void and honouring the past’

Written by Tai Pawb

Towards the end of LGBT+ History Month, we hear from Ol and Harry. Oliver used to share an office with Tai Pawb, when he worked for Cymorth Cymru, and his husband, Harry, was a frequent visitor.

It feels odd to write a joint blog. The last time we wrote one was on the blog here, where Harry came out as a trans man to the wider world, a few months before our wedding. We didn’t want this blog to be focused on that, because there’s a lot of noise about trans rights at the moment, and we thought we would share something positive this time.

Oliver (left), Harry (right)

That is not to say, before we move on, that things are all ok. We’re not in denial, we see the struggles faced by trans people across Wales and elsewhere, and we continue to live our lives in a way that proves people wrong who give into hate.

But today, we wanted to talk about happier times.

OL: LGBT+ History Month is a time to reflect on those that came before us – and, I believe, on the legacy we leave for those who come after. And part of that history is capturing the real, breathing, human stories on the ground – not just the heroes and pillars of our community. So I wanted to start by sharing the story of when Harry met Ollie.

It all began when I was packing boxes for a Lib Dem Freshers event, and I was crouched over them filling them with my anti-homophobia badges, not really noticing the handsome, slightly suave man until he fell over my boxes and stumbled past me with a “sorry, mate”. I’ve always been a sucker for a “mate”. Anyway, I wasn’t suave, or sophisticated, and so bumbled over to him and gave him a badge (bright pink) and then stammered something ridiculously unfunny.

HARRY: All I really remember is the sudden loss of balance, the presence of Lib Dem propaganda in a dark hallway, and then a bright pink badge being shoved in my face. He seemed alright though.

OL: We’ve been together ten years now, and were married in December 2019. Over those ten years, I have seen Harry face down challenges and barriers that would have floored me in an instant. I’ve seen a lot of cruelty targeted to us, but mainly I’ve seen kindness, understanding and love. From my family, friends, and a lot of my colleagues. When Harry came out publicly last year, I expected the worst, based on my own experience as coming out as gay. But we were just overwhelmed by how warm and positive everyone was. It gave us the strength and energy to push past the last awful hurdles that we had to overcome before we could get married. So because I haven’t properly said it here yet, thank you, for all of you for being so supportive.

HARRY: When we were looking at this blog for Tai Pawb, we were struck by how much we relied on people around us, people who went before, and how without those figures – often people just like you and me – we would be in a much worse place. So for this blog, we wanted to share the people that inspire us.

I’ll go first.

Firstly, I would say Stephen Whittle. Stephen is a trans man and lawyer who co-founded Press for Change, a highly influential trans lobbying group who advised the government on legislation including the Gender Recognition Act. I first saw Stephen when I was considering transitioning, and happened to see a documentary called “Make me a Man”, which followed a number of trans men as they underwent gender reassignment surgery. Stephen was so open and eloquent in this documentary, and he showed me for the first time that a trans man can transition and be happy, have a job and have a loving family life. I genuinely think that watching that documentary helped me have the courage to transition – so thank you Stephen for inspiring me!

OL: I’d like to add one of my former managers to this. Susannah Bowyer is still Assistant Director at Research in Practice, where I had my first job. I was lucky to work with a lot of incredible people when I was in Devon, and she was no exception. We wouldn’t always agree on everything, but I remember that in my first job, about twenty-two, I was awestruck by her knowledge, passion and dedication to changing people’s lives. And it helps, of course, that she was one of the women who abseiled into the House of Lords in the 1980s, to protest Section 28.

Queer history is hard to see, especially when you spend a lot of your life hiding from it. I knew about the BBC studio protests, but the House of Lords I only found out when I arrived in work, and someone mentioned it as an interesting fact about Susannah. I remember thinking then, that it was people from the decades before me who made my life today possible – and that includes people like Susannah, and the others who protested.

The fact that Section 28 made my life hell in school, even after it was abolished, speaks volumes to how right those queer activists were then, and how we should never take our progress for granted.

HARRY: I couldn’t decide between my next two heroes, so I’ve put them both in! Firstly, Bristol-born Michael Dillon. Michael was the first British trans man to undergo gender reassignment surgery, just after the Second World War. He became a surgeon himself and helped other trans patients, served in the merchant navy, and in later life became a Buddhist monk. I can’t imagine the bravery he must have had to put himself through what was then completely new surgery, and to live his truth at a time when being trans was almost unheard of.

My final hero is Freddy McConnell. Freddy is a British trans man who made headlines last year when he went to court to try to get recognized as his baby’s father. Freddy had paused his transition to give birth to his baby, but ultimately the court would not allow him to be registered as anything other than “mother” despite the fact that he is legally male. Although his case failed, Freddy continues to share his own unique experience of fatherhood on his Twitter and Instagram, and helps other trans men who want to have families. Freddy experienced a huge amount of backlash and nastiness for his decision, and I think for him to be so open and so willing to help others, even after the hate he receives, shows that he is more of a man than any of those abusing him will ever be!

OL: The other person who I have found so influential more recently, is Hafsa Qureshi who describes herself as “Bi and Muslim as heck”, who is pro trans rights and whose Twitter feed I would recommend to anyone who wants to know more about how LGBT+ identity and other identities interact.

It is really important to me during LGBT+ History Month, that we lift up other voices than just the traditional white, male, gay voices. Hafsa’s voice is powerful, authentic and it inspires me every day I stumble across another perspective she shares. It isn’t her job to enrich me, it is my job to learn more – but the fact that she is so open, so willing to share ideas and lift others up, is amazing.

We are all products of our time, and although I still am young, I know that I did not have many experiences of LGBT+ people and religion mixing positively. Although that part of my life is, mostly, now closed, Hafa’s positive experiences make me smile, and those times when she shares her struggles, I feel like I can grieve and share her pain too.

And that for me, is what LGBT+ History Month is all about.

It is filling a void that has been left by policies like Section 28. It is probably quite apt that it was only this morning that I realized Tennesse Williams was gay. Yes, it makes for a funny aside – a typical Ol sort of lack of awareness. But on deeper reflection, it is so sad. Even gay cultural champions are taught in a way that sanitises their identity, stripping them down to a neutral backdrop that allowed traditional society to read their work without engaging with their queerness.

Well, those barriers are falling more and more every day.

I hope that’s the legacy we leave for the future – by honouring our past.

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