The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

Over the last twenty years, it’s been a frequent lament from Boomer gays who went through the AIDS crisis and Thatcher’s anti-gay Clause 28 legislation to see younger LGBT people voting Tory. Even the bizarre recasting of Thatcher as a gay icon has come as a nasty shock. So what was it really like back in the 1980s? Were all gay men and lesbians uniformly Labour voting and left-wing. Tories at the time certainly thought so. But some gays were caught up in the Thatcherite wave despite her very obvious homophobia. On balance then, were 1980s gays – rebels or Tories?

A polarised and hostile landscape forces gays to be rebels or Tories

In the 1980s, it seemed to make more sense for gays to find themselves with the rebels rather than the Tories.

Right-wing journalist Paul Johnson summed up the 1980s Tory establishment view of LGBT people in a 1986 Daily Telegraph article. Labour-run councils were operating a taxpayer-funded conspiracy to indoctrinate young people into homosexuality. The creation of gay and lesbian community liaison officers was offered as proof of this. The secret agenda of “the new demagogues of abnormal sex” was to destroy the institution of marriage. And to create a new cohort of future Labour activists.

“For some Labour strategists there is a political bonus too: a child who grows up to be a committed, practising homosexual is not only a sure Labour voter but a potential Labour activist.”

So let’s follow that bizarre logic. The Labour Party was advocating LGBT rights as part of a cynical ploy to create new homosexuals who would join its ranks automatically. Tories like Johnson saw “homosexual proselytising” everywhere. For this reason, Clause 28 specifically targeted the perceived “promotion” of homosexuality by local councils in schools. One might call this a moral panic. But forty years ago, it just felt like the heat had been turned up on already existing bigotry against LGBT people. The justification was that homosexuals = dangerous lefties.

And well, if you’re told repeatedly in the press that as a gay man you’re a rebel – then you just become one.

This was also a time before the liberal Toryism of David Cameron combining social liberalism with austerity economics allowing LGBT people to become right-wingers without endangering their civil liberties. That route didn’t exist in the 1980s.

Thatcher’s Tories allied with self-proclaimed morality and parents groups to take on the evil of homosexuality. The Ealing Parents Action Group in 1988 pronounced that while women and ethnic minorities had an inherent identity and so deserved civil rights, homosexuals chose to “behave” as they did: “No scientific test can distinguish a person’s sexual orientation on the basis of their genes or hormones”. The local MP, Harry Greenaway, who was at odds with the local council over LGBT rights made the astonishing and unsubstantiated claim that a male teacher had put on make up in front of his pupils!

DISCOVER: Homophobia in the 1980s House of Lords

Rebels or Tories – the choice for gays gets tougher as the decade progresses

By the late 1980s with the newspaper tabloids almost at war with gays over AIDS – blaming LGBT people for the spread of the virus – and Thatcher implementing Clause 28, it was almost impossible for a gay man to say the words: “I am a Tory”. And few did. But it should come as no surprise that there were gays and lesbians who were fans of Thatcher and her ideology despite everything.

As early as November 1981, a new gay magazine title, Direction One, was launched at a “downmarket” cocktail bar on the Tottenham Court Road. It was deemed to be a luxury publication at £1.50 and 64 glossy pages. Unlike other LGBT magazines and newspapers, it was stocked by the main newsagent at the time, W.H. Smith. Many gay titles were banned. One writer for the magazine professed his admiration for Thatcher stating “I am all for law and order”. While another voiced an intention to support the newly founded SDP Alliance, which had broken away from the Labour Party.

The editor summed up the magazine’s ethos: “We want to get out of the gay ghetto, we like to eat in good restaurants, and drink in nice cocktail bars too.” Politics was old fashioned, she opined, and the magazine was all about the consumer lifestyle and attracting advertisers. In truth, I don’t remember this title surviving into the mid-1980s but if you know different, do tell.

Postscript

While researching this blog post, I found an article that made me feel very sad looking back at that era. On 29 April 1985, The Guardian reported on a series of ceremonies throughout France to remember those killed in the Nazi Holocaust. One of the wreath laying events was at a cemetery in the town of Bescancon. Second World War deportees, resistance fighters, and military prisoners who had suffered at the hands of the Nazis laid wreaths. But some of the deportees took exception to LGBT activists placing a wreath for LGBT people slaughtered by the Third Reich. These deportees led a violent attack on the half dozen LGBT activists, ripped up their wreath, and chased them from the cemetery.

Worse, as the police intervened, some of the deportees were heard to shout: “They should all have been exterminated!” “They should reopen the ovens and throw them in!” French journalists reported that none of these people yelling such appalling things were Jewish. What is interesting is that they acknowledged the murder of gays and lesbians by the Nazis and thought that part of the Holocaust hadn’t gone far enough.

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