Grim times for gay people under Thatcher in the 80s


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Grim Times…

The 80s were a period of crisis for gay people – but emerging from the decade, the LGBT community would make huge leaps forward in the 90s and beyond. However, in 1989, an issue of Gay Times in my archives makes pretty sad reading.

For a start, the Conservative government had introduced Section 28 of the Local Government Act which instructed local councils that they could not “promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”. It would be illegal to present gay couples as an acceptable form of family life.

The repercussions of this legislation were very real – and intended. For years, Labour councils that had funded LGBT events, liaison officers and festivals had been crucified in the tabloids as being party of the “loony left”. Millennial readers may struggle to comprehend just how unacceptable it was to large swathes of British public opinion to tolerate gay relationships let alone fund anything to do with the LGBT community.

IMG_7744The Gay Times reported that the Scottish Homosexual Action Group was seeking a judicial review of a decision by Edinburgh District Council to no longer give financial support to open air lesbian and gay festival, Lark In The Park. A council spokesman agreed it had funded the event before but now couldn’t because of the change in the law. Section 28 had real and very sharp teeth.

Why were the Tories so hostile to LGBT people at this time? In the years leading up to Section 28, often referred to as Clause 28, the HIV/AIDS virus had hit gay people hard. Far from receiving sympathy, the tabloids and some very vocal politicians had portrayed the virus as a judgement on a “sick” “lifestyle”. It was referred to as a “gay plague” and in one survey in 1987, three quarters of the UK public stated they thought being homosexual was “always or mostly wrong”.

A “joke” published in The Sun newspaper went like this:

A gay man goes home to his parents and tells them he’s got good news and bad news. The bad news is I’m gay. The good news is I’ve got Aids.

To give you an indication of how bad attitudes were over AIDS on both sides of the Atlantic, a British man was deported from the United States when a small quantity of the drug zidovudine (AZT) and a business card from the Terrence Higgins Trust (an AIDS charity) were found on him by customs. Henry Wilson was held in a jail cell in Minnesota while on his way to San Francisco to take part in trials for a new anti-viral drug CD4.

IMG_7745As for Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister throughout the 80s, her supporters have argued in recent years that she liked certain gay men as individuals. But I’m afraid as a group, she kicked gay men in the teeth when they were already coping with friends and partners dying in their hands. When Section 28 was being repealed in 2003, Baroness Thatcher, as she had then become, sat next to Lady Young as she opposed the scrapping of this discriminatory legislation.

In better news back in the 80s, Denmark became the first country to legalise civil marriage for LGBT couples in 1989. But it was way ahead of the UK and most of the European Union at this time. If anything, the AIDS virus and a political move to the right had pushed LGBT rights backwards.

Terry Dicks – an 80s Tory politician


Back in the 70s and 80s, there were Tory MPs whose views on everything from state funding for the arts through to support for LGBT rights were beyond reactionary. They represented a wing of the party that was socially illiberal and at the forefront of attacks on anything that smacked of LGBT, women’s and/or ethnic minority rights.

Not every Tory agreed with them. But they tended to have the loudest (often, Essex) voices and had powerful allies in the tabloid media. They could be relied on to generate endless copy on wicked Labour councils giving flats and houses to immigrants (had to be Asian or black for maximum impact with target audiences).

Enter Terry Dicks. On one occasion, he moved to stop a Kenyan Asian family getting a council house. These were people who had been forced to leave the former British colony of Kenya after independence when anti-Asian policies were pursued. Same thing happened in Uganda. Their business acumen and wealth was resented in those countries so they brought it here to the UK – but not with a warm welcome from certain people.

This Kenyan Asian family hadn’t actually broken any law and the British embassy in Nairobi had told them to come to the UK where they would be housed. Fair enough if Dicks wanted to take issue with the council that offered a house – Wigan in this case – but his ire was directed at the Asian family with language that was provocative.

Not that Dicks gave a damn. This was a man who described HIV/AIDS as a “luvvies disease” when the epidemic was at its height.

 

Terry Dicks and the Kenyan Asian family
Terry Dicks and the Kenyan Asian family