Straight washed history

Recently I went to one of my favourite places in London, the Imperial War Museum! Within seconds of walking in I was raiding the bookshop. One book by Stephen Bourne caught my eye. ‘Fighting Proud’ looks at the gay men who served in the armed forces or contributed to the war effort on the home front in World War I and World War II.


The image shows the book cover, which features a photo of two men in uniform embracing.

After just 10 pages I had to put the book down for a while because it invoked such a strong reaction in me. In the preface Bourne writes “In the 1970s I was completely unaware that, as a gay teenager, I had a history.” He then goes on to write that finding a book in the library changed that, and taught him that gay men had existed in the past.

I can relate to that feeling so strongly. Growing up and going to school under Section 28 meant that I only learned about LGBTQ+ issues and LGBTQ+ history by myself, looking up and reading about whatever I could after I had left secondary school. It’s hard to look up what you don’t know about though. And you can’t educate yourself on what you never think to search.

In the first few pages of Fighting Proud I learned that Wilfred Owen, the well known First World War soldier, was gay. WHAT?! How did I not know this sooner?! Siegfried Sassoon was too!

I feel shocked, angry, and cheated by the education system. Like nearly everyone in the UK, I studied their war poetry in my English lessons. This important part of who they were was never mentioned. (Although I’m not sure if this was directly because of Section 28, or whether the syllabus in general was ‘straight-washed’ and this part of their identity was conveniently not mentioned by teachers or the textbooks.)

I also learned that a play I studied in English called ‘Journey’s End‘ contains a lot of homoerotic subtext. Its original director James Whale was gay and the author R C Sherriff is thought to have been gay too.

In another chapter of Fighting Proud Bourne writes about Lord Kitchener. Again, another prominent figure in British history. Even if you don’t recognise the name or know he was a military leader in the First World War, you’ve probably seen his face on the famous recruitment poster. (The one where he points towards the viewer with the caption “Your country needs you.” written underneath.)

As is often the case in history there is no concrete evidence of Lord Kitchener’s sexuality. However he did live with a younger man, Captain Oswald ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, for 9 years. Again after reading this I felt shocked, angry, and cheated about what little I had been taught in history class.

Perhaps it’s worth pondering at this point whether someone’s sexuality matters. After all, it’s not relevant to their war poetry, playwriting skills, or ability to lead to lead the troops to victory, is it? We still learn about them and their achievements all the same, don’t we?

But it matters to LGBTQ+ people. Without this knowledge we grow up not knowing the lives and stories of those who came before us. I hope it’s different for younger LGBTQ+ people out there today, but for the pre-internet and pre-social media generation this straight-washing of education meant growing up thinking you were the only one. That you were abnormal. New. A seed rather than something with roots to ground you and show you your place within the world. You grew up without role models. Without knowing that people like you have achieved amazing things and have been remembered in history for them. (Or in Kitchener’s case, a controversial figure rightly criticised for a lot of horrific stuff too.)

And everyone else grows up thinking LGBTQ+ people never existed in the past either. That being queer or trans is wrong and abnormal when actually, we’re really common! There’s thousands and millions of us! And lo and behold, the harmful myths and prejudices against LGBTQ+ people continue. So does the higher rates of violence, hate crime, and discrimination. Plus higher rates of mental health problems compared to the general population.

All this time there was so much I never knew. I never fully appreciated how robbed I was by the straight-washing of history until now, and this is just one small section of history from one book.

Without consciously realising it I had thought that everything I studied in school was ‘straight’ and I just had to accept it. But I don’t think that way any more, because now I know that I was denied my truth and I was lied to.

I’ve mentioned the well known folk from history in this blog post, however Fighting Proud is full of other previously untold stories. Thank you Stephen Bourne for bringing them into the spotlight where they belong.

My Harmful Heteronormative Education

I was born the year before Section 28 was introduced, so with two exceptions, nothing LGBT+ was ever shown or mentioned by teachers at school. There was nothing in the syllabus either. Before I write about these two exceptions though, let me take you through a brief history of my education…

In primary school nothing LGBT+ was ever discussed. We had sex education lessons in Y6 (10-11 years old), but this was mostly about how our bodies changed during puberty. We watched videos that explained that one adult women and one adult man could have sex, and that having sex made a baby. I remember having to draw pubic hair on sketches of a naked man and woman (!). I also remember the act of sex itself being shown by a cartoon of two cats rubbing vigorously against each other (!!). The video understandably left me feeling confused and gave me more questions than answers.

I didn’t know what I was at the time, I didn’t even know there was a word to describe it, but from a very early age I knew I liked more than one gender. From the age of about 8 I had posters of Jet from the Gladiators on my wall along with several female characters from Baywatch. When an attractive, female, teacher in training gave everyone in the class a Christmas card, I kept mine for a long time afterwards because I liked her so much. I kissed boys I liked. I never felt like I was wrong or disgusting, but by the time I finished primary school I was keenly aware of the fact that no was else was apparently like me. Sex ed taught me that I must grow up and have sex involving penises and relationships involving one man.

At secondary school sex education classes re-enforced these ideas. Again nothing LGBT+ was ever mentioned. We learned about some STDs and some forms of contraception. So I now knew that women were supposed to have sex with a man, and sometimes that man’s penis might be a bit diseased so I had to be careful. (But I gained the scarily false assumption that two women having sex was always safe.) I was frustrated by the fact that no information was provided at all if you wanted to have sex with someone of the same gender. Whilst I now had a rough idea that sex involved putting a penis in a vagina (rather than two cats rubbing against each other!), I had no idea how I would have sex with a women. I certainly wasn’t able to put my hand up and ask.


One of the two exceptions where anything LGBT+ was mentioned was during my A-Levels (16-18 years old) as we were studying A Streetcar Name Desire by Tennessee Williams.

SPOILER ALERT – – –  In the story the husband of the main character commits suicide, partly because of her inability to accept his homosexuality. – – – END OF SPOILER.

So there was nothing positive for me to take away there, just another reminder of what I already knew from my own experience. Homophobia (and bi and transphobia) makes people feel suicidal and in some cases it kills.

I knew this from my own experience as I came out to a few close friends at 13. Naturally at this age it was hardly going to be a secret for long. One girl was drunk at a party and told everyone there. The next few days it went round the school and soon everyone in my year group knew. Whilst I was constantly teased, humiliated and questioned about it, I felt lucky because it only turned into physical violence on one occasion, when I was shoved against some lockers and had some rubbish thrown at me.

This leads into the second exception of when something LGBT+ was mentioned at school. From the age of 14-16 I had this amazing teacher who would sit and talk to us for a bit when he had some time left before the end of class. One day he mentioned Section 28 and explained what it was. He added that it meant a teacher couldn’t even say it was ok to be gay. It was one of the most important things I’d ever heard. In a few sentences he managed to convey the message that for most of my life I’d been living under a law that resulted in a harmful, heteronormative education, without actually breaking that rule. His tone of voice made it clear that he didn’t think Section 28 was ok (and he was married to a woman who also taught at my school, so to have someone who I assumed was straight say it made the message stronger for me). From that day on I knew I had an ally who I could turn to if “if things got really bad”. (Bullying was so normal I never thought things were already “really bad”.) I will always be grateful to him for that. I will always remember him.

What angers me about the education system is it lets everyone down, not just LGBT+ people. For example, no one gets a decent sex education. One result of this is that STD rates keep on rising. Teenagers don’t get taught what they need to know, where to go to get tested, how often they should get tested, what happens when you go to a GUM clinic etc. They feel scared, confused and isolated when something happens. This carries on into adulthood.

Any LGBT+ students don’t get the relevant sex education they need.

We are also asked questions like, “How do you have sex with a women then? One of you must wear a strap on.” a lot. Imagine if everyone was taught the answer to questions like that at school! Imagine a world where we weren’t constantly being made to act as the educator and explainer.

Imagine a time where we aren’t bullied or harassed or discriminated against because of our gender or sexuality. Where young people don’t have to suffer at school, and endure depression, self harm and low self esteem. A life so painful suicide seems like the only way out. I never thought about telling a teacher what happened after I came out, because I believed it was normal and to be expected because I was bi. That it was my fault for being different. Plus I was terrified the teachers would disapprove or bully me too. Again, all of these issues of discrimination and bullying continue on into adulthood.

Societies’ norms and values are taught and instilled into us through our education. We must be straight. Anything else isn’t normal or acceptable or worth mentioning. We must be vanilla and monogamous. No mention of open relationships or polyamory. No mention of BDSM. Hell there wasn’t even any mention of fun! Sex was never presented as something that could be enjoyable or pleasurable. I just thought it was something that you had to do. Consent was never spoken of. Never mentioned. Never explained. Why not? It’s absolutely vital. This is one of the reasons we have rape culture.

Again, we all suffer the effects of this limited, piss poor education as adults.

I never understand why we have to even campaign for sex positive, consent based, accurate, LGBT+ inclusive sex education. For the education system itself to be LGBT+ inclusive. It should be the norm. How long is it going to take?