Up close and personal with Sue Sanders, founder of LGBT History Month

Sue Sanders, 68, is Professor at Emeritus Harvey Milk Institute and is Chair of Schools OUT UK, an organisation for educators that helps them include LGBT people in the classroom. As a vocal out lesbian Sue is one the pioneers at the forefront of the LGBT and diversity awareness movements, and has spent the last 40 odd years trying to make LGBT people visible and safe. To celebrate LGBT History Month 2016, we talked to Sue about her life and what drove her to create LGBT history month.

Sue was born in Putney and raised by her father – a primary school teacher ­– her mother and her aunt (on her mother’s side) who worked at the BBC. In an era when her dyslexia was not recognised, Sue did not shine academically, but she found her calling with drama. She became a drama teacher straight out of college and went on to do some ground-breaking work with women in prisons in Australia. Coupled with a strong interest in the politics of equality and diversity representation, Sue went on to work with the police force, the criminal justice system and councils, developing diversity protocols and legislation, and has advised on various government boards. Sue was working with teachers when section 28 came in and was advising policy makers and police on the ground during the London bombings including the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho.

On coming out and family:

“I think I knew I was a dyke from about 18 onwards. I felt very different, but all adolescents do. I was at a drama & teaching college in London. Weirdly I was the only out lesbian even though it was the swinging 60s.

When I left college I taught at a girls’ school in South-East London and explored the use of drama with other drama teachers. That was when I had my first intellectual conversations with gay men. It took me some time to have my first relationship with a woman. The kids I was working with, running drama clubs and putting on productions, were aware of who I was.

My family didn’t respond brilliantly. They weren’t dreadful – they dealt with it as best they could. My father was never comfortable with it. My Aunt, who never married (which was interesting!), never spoke about it. It was lukewarm. Later on my mother was very grateful to Jeanne [Sue’s current partner] who was incredibly supportive. My mum lived to 102 but had dementia in her last 20 years. We went on holidays together, we rented a house in Canterbury and split the weeks and went up to look after her. We had some good times together. We were known as the three Louises – we all had Louise as one of our names. In the end she recognised that she was lucky to have two women looking after her and that we did our best for her. My father died before section 28 and my aunt died in the 70s. Dad was looking forward to me having kids so that did hurt him, but I had made up my mind long before I came out that I would not be having kids. It’s by no means a prerequisite when you’re a lesbian not to have kids but I knew I did not have the skills, the ability. It’s the hardest job in the world, and I didn’t have it. I was a very good teacher but I was very glad when it was 4 o’clock and they all went home!”

On career:

“My parents were very excited by my theatre career when it appeared. Bless their hearts, they came up to Edinburgh and were in our largest audience. I think they were quite chuffed. They certainly wouldn’t have let me go to an all drama school, they were very keen for me to have something to fall back on.

Certainly if somebody had said to me when I was 16 that I was going to be a professor because of my work in challenging LGBT discrimination and homophobia and promoting visibility for LGBT people I would have said, “is that even possible?” Given the world we live in, it’s very difficult to have a concept of what your potential is, career wise or anything else. I think it’s a sin to ask a kid, “What do you want to do?” It’s not only about what your talents are, but also about what’s the world going to be? I found I couldn’t easily function in the world. We have to make our own way and find the way to make our own way, which is a massive challenge.”

On her relationship:

“Jeanne and I have been together for over 27 years and she has been a rock, the wind beneath my wings. I’m dyslexic – she often edits stuff for me, reminds me why I do stuff when I tear my hair out, provides me with arguments and concepts and is there for me willing me on. I am intensely grateful to her for her patience. She was a management consultant, assertiveness trainer and therapist amongst other things so you can only imagine how much her skills support the work we do!”

Photos: Left, Sue with Jeanne in 1988 challenging section 28 and then right in 2013, the ten year anniversary of its demise

Photos: Left, Sue with Jeanne in 1988 challenging section 28 and then right in 2013, the ten year anniversary of its demise

On discovering politics:

“My mother was a died-in-the-wool conservative and my father was a wibbly wobbly liberal bless his heart. I had to really find my own politics from scratch. I started picking up the very early gay stuff and what was happening to gay teachers. It wasn’t terribly safe to be out. The teachers I was working with who were gay always kept their heads down. Then a petition came out by the Gay Teachers Group, which was the forerunner of Schools OUT UK, to support John Warburton: a teacher who was sacked for coming out to a group of students who asked him if he was gay. He was asked to sign a letter to say he would never say he was gay again. The Gay Teachers Group started the petition to say we would not sign such a letter. When I took it to all my colleagues I was shocked to find that they wouldn’t sign it. They all had mortgages and responsibilities. So that was a big eye opener. They were prepared to spout all this stuff but when push comes to shove they didn’t want to get involved.


On the London bombings and diversity training:

“I was on a panel at Southwark council on how to challenge homophobia on the streets and how to get the police to be more effective. When the bombs went off in Brixton and then Brick Lane, Linda Beloff and I were waiting for the police to talk to us to find out what had happened. We knew it was a toss up between it being a gay place or a Jewish place. By that stage the Steven Lawrence thing had occurred and that was really affecting the police. It was that report that came up with the concept of institutional racism. Some of us who’d been working in the field had come up with that concept, but now it was hitting the Daily Mail. So now police officers had to be trained. I heard there was this company who had got the training of police officers and every member of the criminal justice system. I rang them up and said, “well very excited that you’re doing this, but what do you know about LGBT issues?” There was this long pause. So I went down and talked to her – a white South African interestingly. She’d got a large group of people together to deliver this training. I said, “fine, as it should be, but you cant just do race. Black people are disabled, they’re women, they’re LGBT, they’re old, they’re young. You can’t just do it around racism. It doesn’t sit on it’s own, it’s intertwined.” We now have the word intersectionalism which we didn’t have back then.”

On discrimination:

“We’ve had law on discrimination against women, but we still have women who aren’t paid the same as men and we still have a woman killed every two days. The law change won’t make the difference, it’s the cultural change that we need.

Photo: London Liberationists exhibition at the Museum of London, by Tom Hunter

Photo: London Liberationists exhibition at the Museum of London, by Tom Hunter

“My passion has been about making LGBT people visible because we know that if you make people visible, people change: the prejudices and stereotypes get blown. I remember people saying if every LGBT person woke up with green hair the world would change. To some extent I think that has happened amongst white people, but I don’t think it has happened for black people or disabled people or people from strong religions. The media still predominantly present white men when they talk about LGBT people. They do not have equal visibility of all LGBT people in all their diversity. It’s better but by no means sorted.”

On hate crime:

“One of the things we can be proud of in this country is our hate crime legislation. Our hate crime concepts are quite splendid – the way that we intend it to work is streets ahead of most European countries and America. In practice it isn’t always there but the legislation and guidance gives it that potential.

I think there was a time after the Stephen Lawrence enquiry where good work was being done, but with this government and the cuts a lot of that work has been eroded. The Equality Act came in 2010. That was far too bloody late! I don’t know what Labour were thinking: they were talking about a single equality act in 2003 which is when I instigated LGBT History Month. It didn’t come in until 2010 and public duty didn’t come in until 2011. By then the Tories were in so not all of the potential has been gained. Now much has been lost because of austerity issues. All those wonderful people working away in local councils around equality issues – the majority of those jobs have now gone.”

“Tackling hate crime starts in schools. We have to get our schools to take bullying seriously. To call it bullying is wrong because if it happened on the street it would be a crime – it would be hate crime with all the ramifications that hate crime has.”

On parenting:

“I think If you bring children into the world it is your job to make sure those children are given information that says their family is acceptable. If you’re sending your kids to a school that is not representing their family and you’re not doing something about that, it is a problem. Silence is condemnation. You are undermining what you are trying to do at home. It’s making your life more difficult. We now have the law on our side – use it! Ofsted and the law is very clear. The problem is teachers are not trained, unlike the criminal system where every member has to have equality and diversity training. So we put together www.the-classroom.org.uk which has more than 50 lesson plans that ‘usualise’ LGBT people. I coined the term ‘usualising’. It’s not the gay lesson, it’s usualising – putting LGBT people into a geography lesson, into an English lesson, into a history lesson – the issue is educating, giving the kids the information right from the start and Usualising us. I’d love to see this on issues to do with race, gender identity and disability. It’s not there as much as I would like.”

On LGBT history month 2016:

“This year’s theme is Religion, Belief and Philosophy to try and get people to recognise that there is so much prejudice and stereotyping of religious people and of LGBT people that needs challenging. LGBT people can make the prejudicial assumptions that every religious person is against them, and religious people can make the assumption that LGBT people are the worst thing in the world. Well that’s all rubbish – there are religious people who are amazingly supportive and there are religious people who are awful. There are LGBT people of faith and there are LGBT people of no faith. Let’s explore it – discover and recognise the stereotypes.”



To find your nearest event for LGBT History Month visit www.lgbthistorymonth.org.uk

LGBT history month 2016 has 6 main hubs running a schools and family strand in York, Shrewsbury, Newcastle, Bristol, and Manchester. For more details see here

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