Book review: Coming Out (40th anniversary edition)

Written by Ed Fordham on 11 October 2016 in Culture
Culture

Jeffrey Weeks' updated book is ideal for anyone who wants to know the full story of the struggle for LGBT equality in the UK.

Under any definition the story of LGBT liberation and equality is a story to be told. It's barely two years since the law was changed in England and Wales to enable same sex couples to marry, and for Scotland to pass legislation so comprehensive as to become one of the most pro-LGBt nations within Europe. And yet Northern Ireland still stands aloof - a majority is voting for reform there and yet the Assembly, under the complex rules of Stormont, has not yet enabled same sex marriages to take place.

So this is a book whose story I am always keen to read. My first instinct was to look for what I thought would be a new perspective. Not so much homosexuality and the left, but homosexuality and the right, for that is the dramatic shift that has in truth occurred - and specifically under the current prime minister's watch as home secretary.

Further the book, wisely proclaims the ongoing struggle and whilst there is direct reference to Gay Liberation and Invisible Women, I looked actively and keenly for chapters on bi-invisibility and the upsurge in the fight for transgender equality. But at first glance, the book seemed lacking.

That said, this is an essential read for anyone who wants to fully understand what has happened in Victorian and post-Victorian Britain.

The legal account of the campaign to stop the direct criminalisation, and indeed hanging of those accused of sodomy, is thorough and at times vivid. But this also brings bang up to date the roll-call of LGBT campaigners and heroes: Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, George Ives, Norman Haire, Peter Wildeblood to name but a few. Only by reading this account will folks fully understand the extent to which the fight for equality was a fight to change the law and the scale of that task is hard to imagine today. Given that the law had been first changed in a religious context in favour of purity, it was a steep mountain to climb.

There is a fascinating and I felt under-developed section on the massive rise of male private schools in the period 1840-1870 and the extent to which that did and perhaps still does today influence social mores.

But I found myself most gripped re-reading the accounts of the Gay Liberation Front and the 1970's. Partly because this is a time of change and within living memory, but also because it is clear that the author knows and enjoys a wealth of information & sources which he wants to share with the reader. I found myself fascinated by the very notion of the Skegness Women's Liberation Conference of October 1971, and sadly amused by the second major split developing in GLF between "chiefly gay men and what might be loosely termed feminists".

So my test is, having read this book - and dipped into the extensive notes and bibliography - will I pick it up again?  It's a resounding YES.

Anyone who wants to know the back story, the struggle, the obstacles, and who wants literally chapter and verse on LGBT equality in the UK, then this is a must buy book. Is the story complete - is it definitive, not yet.

There is more to be written on same sex marriage, on Northern Ireland's shameful lagging on equality, on Scotland's ascent and status as one of the most equal countries in the world, on transgender rights, bi-invisibility and more. Jeffery Weeks should not rest yet; he has more to do and based on this 40th Anniversary edition, future work will be high quality, thorough and worth reading.

 

Coming Out is published by Quartet Books.

 

About the author

Ed Fordham was the Chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, helped to lead the street campaign outside Parliament for Same Sex Marriage and married his life partner in 2014 in Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel.

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