By Owen Jones, for The Guardian
Do LGBT people know their history? Here’s a case in point. The singer Sam Smith, it’s fair to say, has a troubled relationship with social media. Yes, social media can be a bit like that bear who wrestled with Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant: unforgiving and relentless. But Smith hasn’t helped himself. When he appeared to discover racism for the first time after a friend was racially abused – and then seemed to make it all about himself, and how upset he was – Twitter was not happy.
His latest faux pas: using his Oscar acceptance speech to speculate that he was the first openly gay man to win (very wrong; it’s worth at least a quick Google before a speech in front of hundreds of millions of people). But it gets so much worse. When told that lyricist (and gay man) Howard Ashman was also an Oscar winner, Smith replied: “I should know him. We should date.” Ashman died of Aids in 1991.
American screenwriter Dustin Lance Black – yes, another Oscar-winning gay man – was not amused by Smith’s speech, reprimanding him that, “if you have no idea who I am, it may be time to stop texting my fiance [Tom Daley]”, and adding his own Oscar acceptance speech for good measure. There is only so much ouch and awkwardness I can take. But Black had a serious point: “Knowing our LGBTQ history is important. We stand on the shoulders of countless brave men and women who paved the way for us.”
This is a critical point: that LGBT people – who have suffered millennia of persecution and prejudice – stand on the shoulders of giants, of people who endured misery and sacrifice to achieve the rights and freedoms we have today. For people like, say, Howard Ashman, being an accomplished lyricist and openly gay was significantly harder than it is today, not least at the height of the HIV/Aids crisis. People like him made it easier for those who came afterwards, including Smith.
Smith is far from the only LGBT person with a ropey understanding of their own history. Pride events have increasingly become corporate junkets with politics relegated, and for many younger LGBT people, trawling through Netflix and finding Milk – the stirring biopic which won Black his Oscar and centred on pioneering American LGBT politician Harvey Milk – may be their only flirtation with past sacrifices.
We surely have to remember past heroes (prominent or not), for two reasons. Firstly, because the least we can do is to remember those who fought at such cost for our rights and freedoms: to ensure that those ignored or demonised or persecuted in their time are eventually vindicated by history. And secondly, because it encourages us to continue in their tradition to overcome all forms of oppression and prejudice, whoever happens to be on the receiving end.
So let’s remember them all: the black transwomen who confronted bigoted police officers; the LGBT activists who stood by Britain’s miners and helped changed Labour and union attitudes; Alan Turing, who helped beat the Nazis and was rewarded with persecution; the gay black civil rights activist Bayard Rustin; and yes, Howard Ashman. They are a reminder that change is not given, but fought for. And it’s far from just Smith who has forgotten.