It seems appropriate that the theme for LGBT history month this year is ‘Geography: Mapping the World’ when considering how large the international student contingent is here at Oxford.
This month we look to commemorate sombre events. For example, the 30th anniversary of the passing of section 28, which prohibited local authorities from disseminating materials that ‘promoted homosexuality’ in schools and the 40th anniversary of the murder of Harvey Milk, the USA’s first out gay elected councillor. But there is a lot to be celebrated too, as citizens in Australia and also 16 other Central and South American nations can enjoy same sex weddings for the first time.
30 years ago, it was stated in Section 28 that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”, an act only repealed in 2003 in the UK. LGBT history is frequently littered with taboo and silence. I therefore see no more fitting way to commemorate LGBT history month by flying Pride flags in defiance throughout February.
So why do so many colleges still refuse to fly the flag for the entire month? Students at a variety of colleges have struggled to get the flag flown for the entire month with mixed results.
Some colleges have notably been successful. Students at Oriel have negotiated their way to flying it for the full month for the first time. But even at colleges that have agreed to fly the flag, for example my own college, St Anne’s, the prospect was not immediately welcomed.
Many ask whether a whole month is truly necessary, or even wonder if this fight is worthwhile, or merely a self-congratulatory show of support for a cause that is largely won. It’s first important to note that the flagpoles in Oxford are largely unused. Flying a flag is virtually costless to a college. The decision not fly the flag is just as active as the decision to fly it. Whilst the college loses very little, the lonely spires certainly look better with a splash of colour. Flash back to a younger version of myself, a closeted Oxford applicant, who was blown away when he first looked around Oxford and saw the vast number of flags hanging out of windows representing every identity under the sun. My closeted self could not wait to get here.
Flags do not just exist to congratulate ourselves, they stand as a signal of who we are and who we would like to be, a city that welcomes everyone. If colleges can show support, then why shouldn’t they. LGBT people are an ‘invisible’ minority and awareness is always positive, especially in LGBT history month. This is a fast and easy way to ‘flag’ up LGBT matters and spark discussion about the history of this community and the issues that pertain to them today.
Colleges have fought back, arguing that flying the flag for awareness and support purposes would open the floodgates, allowing hundreds of obscure flags needing to be flown. Others have raised concerns that the LGBT flag may be seen as a divisive political signal that the college should not engage with. Firstly, I think we can all agree that flying other flags to represent other minority groups is no bad thing. There is no reason why we shouldn’t support the flagpoles being used throughout the year to support a variety of groups. More importantly, every stance that we make may cause a division somewhere if we choose to look for it. Remaining ‘neutral’ in this case is not an option.
Failure to make a statement of support can be easily read as an endorsement of those who would disregard the LGBT community. Silence may seep through the history of the LGBT community, but it should not be our future. Engaging in politics is unavoidable and there is no better way to engage with it than as brightly and as boldly as possible.