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Gay in the 80s: From Fighting for Our Rights to Fighting for Our Lives

26 July 17 words: Colin Clews
illustrations: Chrissy Curtin

The eighties was a period of mixed fortunes for Britain’s LGBT+ communities, or lesbian and gay communities as we were known then. Sustained campaigning throughout the seventies had, by the turn of that decade, seen LGBT+ rights moving into the mainstream political agenda, but the emergence of AIDS in 1981 hit us on both a personal and political level...

illustration: Chrissy Curtin

On a personal level, we experienced immense loss as well as increased physical and verbal abuse. The latter was down to the tabloids labelling AIDS as “the gay plague”, implying that we presented a risk to the community. It was this mentality that informed responses on a political level. Opportunistic politicians and moral entrepreneurs drew on, and often fed, alarmist media reporting to create the new shorthand “Gay = AIDS”, and this notion was rolled out in Nottingham when activists sought to enshrine lesbian and gay rights into local authority, equal-opportunities policies.

The equal-opportunities battle began in earnest, and almost by accident, with the election of gay activist Richard McCance as a Labour City Councillor in 1983. It was almost accidental because the Labour Party leaders hadn’t expected him to win. He’d been selected for Forest Ward – seen as a safe Conservative seat – so Labour could field a full slate at the local elections. Then, four days after his election, Labour lost the previously safe South London seat of Bermondsey in a by-election where the sexuality of their candidate, Peter Tatchell, had dominated the campaign.

Labour’s share of the vote dropped from 63.6% at the previous election to 26.1% after a vicious smear campaign against Tatchell and left-leaning Party leader, Michael Foot. The tabloids labelled Tatchell “Red Pete, the gay rights campaigner” and argued that his selection was yet another of Foot’s leadership failures. Meanwhile, his political opponents happily bought into the witch hunt.

Four days after the Bermondsey defeat, Richard McCance attended his first Forest Fields branch meeting as a candidate. And, despite the local Labour manifesto clearly committing the party to equal opportunities for lesbians and gay men, calls for him to keep quiet about his sexuality began immediately.

These intensified a few days later, when surveys suggested that the Forest Ward might actually be winnable for Labour. Even some of those who’d previously declared their support for lesbian and gay rights joined the chorus of “This is not the time to be raising these issues.” But McCance continued to resist the pressure: this wasn’t about “raising issues,” it was about being open about who he was. “It was about being out rather than ‘found out’.” Party members even proposed a resolution that he shouldn’t be allowed to mention his partner in any publicity material. The resolution was defeated by a very narrow majority, but the election agent promptly resigned in protest.

Ultimately, a compromise of sorts was reached in which McCance was allowed to be open about his sexuality but could only use the term “partner” when referring to his... partner. The objective of this compromise is not entirely clear, but it was sufficient to bring the election agent back to the fold and allow campaigning to continue.

What happened next more than vindicated McCance. He and his running mate, John Taylor, converted a Conservative majority of 400 into a Labour majority of 470. Elsewhere across the city, Labour lost five seats and retained control of the council with the slimmest majority of one. Whatever message the Labour group took from that result, it couldn’t be that gay rights was a vote loser.

Lesbian and gay activists then pushed Labour to honour its manifesto commitment to equal rights. This led to a council-sponsored, one-day conference at the International Community Centre on 3 December. Various initiatives came out of this, including the creation of lesbian and gay men’s subcommittees of the Equal Opportunities Committee, plus the appointment of a gay men’s officer and a lesbian’s officer. We were on our way. Or so it seemed.

Sadly, 1983 was significant for another, more negative reason. It was the year that AIDS hit the headlines. Even though the first British AIDS diagnosis had been recorded in December 1981, the media had shown little interest then or throughout 1982.

But on 25 April 1983, BBC Two’s Horizon programme broadcast Killer in the Village. This looked at AIDS in the USA and included a reference to infected blood supplies. The effect on UK media coverage was instantaneous. AIDS references in the national press increased by a factor of 25 between April and June, and this increase was sustained in subsequent months.

One clue to the sudden interest can be found in the Mail on Sunday’s front-page story on 1 May: “Hospitals Using Killer Blood.” The thrust of this article – which was subsequently declared “alarmist” by the Press Council – was that AIDS was now a threat to “innocent” people as it was seeping out of its host community: gay men. The language and terminology in some reports implied that, not only had we brought it upon ourselves, but it was the “gay lifestyle” – whatever that was – that had actually spawned the disease.

Headlines like “It’s Spreading Like Wildfire” (The Sun) and “Kiss of Death” (The Star) suggested, erroneously, that the disease was highly infectious. Other headlines such as “BANNED! AIDS-fear Club Ousts Gay Couple” and “Pub Ban on Gays in AIDS Panic” effectively signposted and endorsed extreme responses.

And Nottingham was not spared such responses. When Nottingham AIDS Information Project (NAIP) rented a small office in the Sharespace building in the Lace Market, they were forbidden from displaying their name on their office door. A neighbour had complained that it would drive customers away from his business. The fact that he rarely brought customers to his office was irrelevant; he clearly felt he needed to join the throng of righteous indignation. And so the NAIP office, tucked away on the second floor and at the end of a labyrinthine corridor, became “Office 1”.

In 1986, when the council considered a proposal for designated sessions for gay men at council-run swimming pools, a full-scale moral panic ensued.

The Evening Post published an editorial on 28 November declaring: “Persecution and victimisation of gays should never be tolerated in this day and age, but there has never been a scrap of evidence that it was happening anyway.” In fact, there was masses of evidence, but the editor wasn’t interested, even when it presented itself in a letter published by The Evening Post themselves. On 9 December, a governor of the Jesse Boot School opined: “I would like to take up a point made by the council, namely ‘gays are everywhere.’ Sadly, this is true. It’s one thing knowing one or two of them have used the water, but I draw the line at a whole army of them.”

This letter was referring to the decision by some schools to cancel swimming sessions in light of the proposed gay-men-only sessions. The tabloids reported the issue with headlines like “AIDS Scare Halts Swim Sessions” (The Times) and “Pool Ban on Kids in AIDS Fear” (The Sun).

There was absolutely no risk of AIDS transmission, but there was too much political mileage to be had by suggesting otherwise, and it was another opportunity to portray a Labour council as loony lefties. On 11 December for example, The News of the World opined: “Some Labour councils encourage AIDS with grants to homosexual centres. So do Labour education authorities telling children that homosexuals living together are as stable as married couples.”

Homophobia, crafted on a carefully cultivated AIDS-phobia, became a vote winner for the Conservatives. Locally, the scaremongering around the swimming sessions handed them control of the council at the 1987 local elections and they promptly scrapped all lesbian and gay initiatives.

That same year, Margaret Thatcher won her third general election and quickly derided the notion that young people had “an inalienable right to be gay.” A year later, homophobia was enshrined in legislation; Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act, prohibiting “the promotion of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” The Tories were jubilant. The lesbian and gay communities were outraged. The Labour leadership hardly seemed to have noticed.

No prosecutions were ever initiated during its lifetime, highlighting the irrelevance and unworkability of the prohibition. Nonetheless, some local authorities banned lesbian and gay organisations from their premises, while another withheld money from student unions that funded lesbian and gay societies. Section 28 remained in force until the Blair government extinguished it in 2003; David Cameron claiming its repeal would be “deeply unpopular.”

As AIDS-phobia decreased over the years, so too did the political mileage. But sadly, the spirit of Section 28 has been reborn with the devolution of education to local academies; the curricular freedom allows some institutions to introduce their own prohibitions on teaching about homosexuality. And so it begins, again.

Colin Clews is the author of Gay in the 80s: From Fighting for Our Rights to Fighting for Our Lives (£14.99, Matador), available in local bookstores.

Gay in the 80s website

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