Forty years ago, attitudes towards LGBT people were majority unaccepting. Gay and lesbian rights activists were derided as part of the “loony left”. And for many LGBT people, the choice was either living in a social ghetto or staying firmly in the closet.
AIDS hadn’t come to prominence at the start of the decade but once awareness of the HIV virus increased, attitudes worsened. This was largely fuelled by tabloid newspaper headlines blaring “gay plague” and a lack of public education – at first.
Role models for LGBT people were in short supply. In popular entertainment, gay men were almost invariably effeminate or led tragic lives culminating in some grim death. The idea that gays and lesbians could lead mundane, suburban existences living peacefully with their neighbours was far off.
Homosexuality had been legalised back in 1967 but legal recognition didn’t mean social tolerance. Although cultural phenomenon like disco music in the 70s made gay people more visible and arguably confident, things appeared to go into reverse in the 1980s.
The worst expression of this was Section 28 of the Local Government Act in 1988 that included the provision that local authorities were not to “promote homosexuality”. This has now been abolished and nowadays similar legislation only pops up in Putin’s Russia and certain African countries renowned for their homophobia.
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.
The 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.
As 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.
Gay skinheads – what’s not to like? Plenty as it turned out in some people’s eyes. By the end of the 70s, the skin look had been adopted by extreme right thugs normally associated with the National Front, British National Party, Column 88 and the British Movement. They were a menace and a danger to black, Asian and LGBT people.
This was sad because the look actually originated in Jamaican culture and music. And in the late 60s and early 70s the racist tag had not been automatically associated with skinheads. So what to do as the extreme right made the skinhead look their own?
Well, some gay men came up with a fine solution. Take the look back. Subvert it. Engage in a progressive act of cultural appropriation! Draw the sting out of the skinhead appearance by fully integrating it into the LGBT scene. And lo it came to pass!
So successful was the growing gay skin scene that a party was organised by the Gay Skinhead Movement at the London Lesbian and Gay Centre on Cowcross Street near Farringdon tube station. Don’t bother looking for it now – it’s a soulless wine bar for the local white collar droids.
The centre had been set up and funded by the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone in 1985 as part of its much mocked and reviled (in the tabloid press) pro-LGBT policy. From the outset though, the centre witnessed the sort of infighting that only the 80s could produce.
Lesbian mothers took issue with strident S&M lesbians. All of them weren’t sure if they wanted bisexual men in the building in case they hit on them. And, needless to say, gay skinheads were not welcome at all by those lesbians who thought the aforementioned appropriation was in poor taste.
So…when the gay skinhead Moonstomp Disco kicked off – all hell let loose. What is so silly about what happened next is that the event was a roaring success. And god knows, the centre needed the cash. It limped from one financial crisis to the next and so some gay skin wonga should have been welcomed with sequin-gloved hands.
But no. There were howls of protest that the centre was being “invaded” by Nazis. The report from Out magazine is below – read and weep. Unsurprisingly, the centre did not survive long into the 90s. Well done then to the identity politics crowd!
I once went to a curious function called Sadie Masie at the centre – which as you can guess was pretty much full on S&M. Not being a sado-masochist myself, I found the evening curious but made my excuses at some point and slipped in to the night.
Back in 1981, the King’s Road in Chelsea was a lot more cutting edge than it is today. Since the 60s, there had been very fashionable, niche boutiques. By the late 70s, Vivienne Westwood’s shop Sex – later World’s End with a large clock outside that went backwards – became a meeting point for punks.
What is a now a McDonalds was a night club. I went there around 1980 or 1981 and saw a New Romantic guy beaten up very badly by two or three denim clad heavy metal types. I still recall hearing his skull crack as a boot crashed down on his head. Horrible.
The Sloane Square end of the road was always very respectable. But the World’s End area felt a lot more run down. There were squats and the chunky Victorian villas were in a pretty dreadful condition. But the parties were great. And there was an eclectic mix of punks, Goths, futurists and a strong LGBT presence.