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.

The appalling treatment of Peter Tatchell as a Labour candidate in 1983


Peter Tatchell – the prolific human rights campaigner – first came to national prominence as the Labour candidate in a by-election held in Bermondsey, south London, in 1983. If ever an episode in politics revealed the prejudices and bigotries of the age, then it was this one. Even to look back on it now just makes me depressed.

The reason for the by-election was the decision in 1981 of old Labour stalwart Bob Mellish not to run again for the seat.  Mellish was a die-hard Harold Wilson loyalist who once announced in 1976 that he was NOT an “anti-racialist” and opposed letting the Malawi Asians in to the UK, in spite of the fact they had UK passports and had been forcibly expelled by the Malawi government. It’s worth noting that 1976 was, in this humble scribe’s view, the high water mark of National Front activity and attacks on Asians in Britain – particularly those who had come from Uganda, fleeing Idi Amin.

Needless to say that Mellish did not appreciate the Bennite and Militant swing to the left within his constituency party in the early 80s. First he announced his intention not to run again, then decided to sit as an Independent MP before finally finding a home with other Labour renegades in the newly formed Social Democrat Party.

Just to stick up a final two fingers to the Bermondsey comrades, he resigned his seat precipitating a by-election in 1983. And several Labour councillors joined his desertion to the SDP.

His constituency party had already selected Australian born Peter Tatchell. It should be noted that contrary to some misinformation, the Militant Tendency did not support Tatchell – they had their own preferred candidate who if my memory serves me right had an impressive 80s mullet.

Tatchell’s opponents would go on to use his place of birth and sexuality as door-to-door campaigning issues. The Liberals – now the Lib Dems – squirmed on this issue for years but if you’ve ever campaigned against a Lib Dem candidate (I have), you won’t be surprised by any tactic they employ. I’m not going to repeat the anti-gay slogans and innuendos – just Google away and you’ll find them.

From his selection in 1981, elements in the Labour Party goaded on by their former colleagues now in the SDP tried to get rid of Tatchell – trying to rule him out as a candidate in Bermondsey. In 1981, Tatchell penned an article on his political views that advocated direct action against the Thatcher government.

The inappropriately named Labour turned SDP MP James Wellbeloved rose to his feet in parliament and asked Margaret Thatcher – and Labour leader Michael Foot – to denounce this call for extra-parliamentary action.

What Tatchell had written was no different to what many MPs and Labour activists advocated at that time but the vehemence towards him was, to my mind, very much tinged with the casual homophobia of the era. There was a sneering vitriol employed towards him – and he’s spoken since of the threats he faced as a candidate.

Michael Foot, in a reaction that even surprised me at the time, denounced Tatchell and said he would never be accepted into the Labour Party, let alone run as a candidate. Needless to say those words and no doubt his hat were force fed to the party leader at a later date as Tatchell did indeed run – though he would be defeated by Liberal Simon Hughes (who subsequently declared his own sexuality decades later).

 

 

The last years of the Greater London Council and the battle with Thatcher


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Campaigning to save the GLC

The whole saga around the Greater London Council in the early 80s doesn’t exactly cover Margaret Thatcher in glory. It’s arguably the worst example of her political centralising tendencies.

In 1977, the GLC had switched from Labour to Conservative control – under the flamboyant Sir Horace Cutler. Under him, many of the ideas that would become national Conservative policy after Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 General Election were tried out – in particular, the sale of council houses. Cutler also transformed Covent Garden from a fruit and veg market to a chic shopping experience that incidentally banned shops selling denim!

By 1981, Londoners were ready to bring Labour back and the party won under Andrew McIntosh. In a very daring and controversial move, Ken Livingstone representing the left of the London Labour Party then deposed McIntosh and was installed as the new leader of the GLC.

This began several years of Livingstone taunting Thatcher over the rising level of unemployment and a very strident defence of minority rights. There was also a campaign around keeping London Underground fares down.

Thatcher detested the GLC and in 1986, she abolished it along with six other metropolitan county councils – Merseyside council for example. Even by the standards of the time, this was a shockingly partisan move – an attack on authorities that were all Labour controlled. Needless to say the official excuse was that bureaucracy was being trimmed. But I don’t think anybody bought that line.

Camping it up in Chelsea in 1981


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Strong LGBT presence in Chelsea in the 1980s

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.