Once upon a time, long before the world would face the horrors of WW2, was a young man by the name of Einar Wegener. He was happily married until the day he realised that he wasn’t like the other men. In fact, he felt more like a woman. In a world where such thoughts were shunned, his wife helped him to find his true identity. In 1930, he became the first to undergo a gender reassignment surgery and lived the remaining days of his life as Lili Elbe. Unfortunately, it was one of her surgeries that eventually led to her death in 1931. This was, however, long before the first successful gender reassignment surgery in 1966.
15 years after Elbe’s death, a genius was born. An individual gifted with a vocal range like none other; the man who possibly invented the whole concept of stage presence. We know him today as one of the greatest singers of all time- Freddie Mercury. And yet, life wasn’t always very easy for him, once his secret was out- he wasn’t straight. Back then, this was a tragedy. How could someone belonging to the LGBTQ community be a successful entertainer? Suddenly, his private life was more important than his music career. And this disturbed him immensely. Back then, AIDS was associated with (only) gay lifestyle, something that was looked down upon. Unfortunately, it was AIDS which finally claimed his life and he never got to know how he would live on, for years, maybe even centuries to come, as a music legend and his sexuality wouldn’t be the most important thing any more.
Fast forward to 1997: the era of hilarious sitcoms. “Ellen” is one of them. But it is slightly different from the rest of the shows. “The Puppy Episode” was aired on 30th of April, 1997. Ellen Morgan, the title character, comes out to her friends in this episode. But, there is a twist: Ellen Degeneres, Morgan’s actress is gay and comes out through Morgan’s character. Nothing like this had happened before and no one ever expected something like this to ever happen, at least not on TV. This particular episode of “Ellen” did not just create ripples, it sent tsunami waves. For a brief while, not only Degeneres but also her co-stars on the sitcom stopped getting job offers and these job offers were replaced by death threats, bullying by the media and advice to never pursue something like this in the future. It’s been over 20 years since then and Ellen Degeneres is more famous and loved than ever.
We have certainly come a long way from the days of considering members of the LGBTQ community as Devil’s incarnations, who need to be purged of their unholy desires, in the cities at least. It is, however, not uncommon to find someone who is homophobic even among the young generation. But the biggest issue is the fact that awareness about the LGBTQ community hasn’t reached the poorer corners of the country- the rural areas. Hardly any efforts have been taken up in this matter.
Various steps have been taken to make the members of the LGBTQ community not feel as if they are any different from the straight people and Pride Month is one of them. Currently, it is well underway and with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots around the corner, let us reflect on this historical event:
The month of June is celebrated worldwide as Pride month by people of the LGBTQ community and their allies, non-LGBTQ people who support the movement. June wasn’t designated the month of Pride on a whim though. There’s a story behind it. One which takes us back to 1960s New York. Particularly to the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Stonewall had a bar like any other except in one aspect. Many of its patrons were LGBTQ, seeking refuge at nights from having to pretend, and express themselves more freely. Little did they know what was coming for them.
It all started late night on June 28th when the police raided the Stonewall, a known safe haven for the LGBTQ people. Such raids were not uncommon in the homophobic and transphobic New York of the late ‘60s, targeting the few sites of respite for the marginalised community. The raid started on the pretence of arresting the owners for pedalling illicit liquor. Their real goal was made obvious very soon as they proceeded to single out ‘cross-dressing’ trans women and escorting them to the police vans.
However, this wouldn’t be a regular raid, as the women being detained started resisting arrest. Bottles were hurled and pennies were thrown at the police. The tyres of their vans were slashed and the revolt escalated to the point that the officers had to barricade themselves in Stonewall to protect themselves from the rioters. Matters got so out of hand that the Tactical Police Force(TPF) had to report to calm things down but even they had a tough time subduing the rioters. It was only by early next morning that the streets began to clear.
Stonewall reopened the following night with hordes of LGBTQ people in attendance, joined by spectators who had heard of the riots the night prior. With the people standing in open protest of the police, the TPF was again sent in. After the two nights of rioting, Stonewall became a gathering point for all LGBTQ people.
A year later on the first anniversary of the riots, a march was organised from Christopher Park, where the rioters met after Stonewall, to Central Park. Dubbed the ‘Christopher Street Liberation March’, it serves as the foundation for Pride Parades today. Inspired by this, many cities across America saw similar marches and showed for support in the days to follow.
We, as a member of the ever-evolving modern society, can inculcate a few changes in our lifestyle to be more inclusive. Here are some of them:
- Be informed and aware.
When talking about gender and sexual orientation, many people want to use correct terminology, but often don’t understand or grasp the true meaning behind the terms. This is especially true when discussing gender identity. One should also remember that people use different criteria for identification and that no one should assume another’s identity based on these definitions. With a little bit of effort, you can easily learn about all the different types of people on the internet.
- Use inclusive language.
Using inclusive language means talking in a way that does not specify a gender, sex or sexual orientation unless it is pertinent to the comment. For example, it is unnecessary to point out that a student is a woman unless the comment is specifically discussing the relevance of gender. You can also substitute the inclusive terms, “partner” or “significant other” instead of specifying “husband/wife/spouse”.
Here are a few more examples for you to use:
- “are you dating anyone?” instead of “do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?”
- “students turn in their papers” instead of “each student turn in his/her paper”(for gender non-conforming people)
This results in a better, safer environment for the LGBTQ folk.
- Remember that you don’t know anyone’s sexual orientation or gender identity unless they tell you.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people come in all sizes, abilities, colours, styles, political persuasions, religious affiliations, cultural backgrounds, relationships statuses, educational histories and ages. In short, there is just as much diversity among people who identify as LGBTQ as there is among those who identify as heterosexual.
- Confront comments that are heterosexist or gender identity biased when you hear them.
Once you are educated about LGBTQ people, step in and educate others. Respond when you hear others using non-inclusive language, making derogatory jokes, using incorrect assumptions/stereotypes, voicing misinformation, etc. Tell them why you think their comment was inappropriate and how they can improve it. Feel free to give them a copy of this tip sheet!
- Don’t let tension around sexual orientation or gender identity continue to be unaddressed in your department because you’re not sure that you know how to handle it.
Barbara Mikulski once said- “Each of us can make a difference. Together, we can make a change”. If we really want the world to be a better place to live in for the LGBTQ community and the straight community alike, we must try our best to be more inclusive. Only then can we achieve a world of equality in terms of sexual orientation.