Bob Cant

Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.

– Margaret Thatcher, October 1987.

Shortly before Margaret Thatcher made the above statement, she had led the UK Conservative Party into a third consecutive term in office. The Lady knew that the party conference included her most adoring and loyal admirers. What better place to make a declaration of war on a stigmatised minority? But she was a superb political tactician as well and there was an exquisite cruelty about the way her remarks were directed towards the opposition Labour Party. For while the gay-friendly policies that she denounced had been introduced by some Labour councils, they were, at the same time, enormously embarrassing to many other members of that party.

Since the time of the Wolfenden Report’s recommendation to separate moral attitudes to homosexuality from legal practice, attitudes towards homosexuality had been slowly liberalising. Thatcher herself had voted for the partial de-criminalisation of male homosexual activity in 1967. One result of this change in attitude (unforeseen by many reformers) was that there was much more debate around the process of learning about homosexuality. Where once religious institutions had a hegemonic role in defining the sinfulness of homosexuality, a cultural shift had taken place and questions were being asked about many aspects of the homosexual experience.

Gay people became the subject, rather than the object, of discussion. “How does a gay person live a meaningful life?” “How should mutual satisfaction be achieved as a result of sexual activity?” “Should there be positive images of gay life, as a counter to the previously all-pervasive negative images?” The question, “What do gay people want?” morphed as a result of the debate into the more complex “What do lesbians and gay men want?”  Thatcher’s declaration felt like an attempt to shut down these debates and push lesbians and gay men back into a state of fearful silence.

Thatcher knew that she was speaking to an audience that wanted to hear such hateful remarks. This was an audience that was viscerally opposed to the policies and practices of left-leaning councils. Moves to present positive images of homosexuality in educational material and in public libraries were denounced by sections of the media as part of a ‘loony left’ menace to society. When the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) stocked one copy of a children’s book called Jenny Lives With Eric And Martin (1983) in a teachers’ resource centre, all hell broke loose; this fairly bland book about two gay men living with the daughter of one of them was denounced as a piece of homosexual propaganda and a menace to the innocence of childhood.

Opportunities for adults to learn about homosexuality were also under attack, albeit from different sources. When the offices of the London community newspaper, Capital Gay, were firebombed, a Conservative MP, Elaine Kellett-Bowman, welcomed it as indicating “an intolerance of evil”. The bookshop, Gays The Word, was raided by Customs and Excise Officers under the terms of the obscure Customs Consolidation Act (1876), and all the imported books in their stock were seized on grounds of obscenity. Not only did this include books such as The Joy of Gay Sex and The Joy of Lesbian Sex, but also works by Oscar Wilde and Armistead Maupin. There may not have been a conscious conspiracy to close down debate on “What do lesbians and gay men want?”, but there was certainly a climate that supported the idea of silencing those who wished to engage with this topic.

Gays the Word bookshop, London, in the early 1980s.
Gay’s the Word bookshop, London, in the early 1980s. (Image Courtesy of Gay’s the Word).

One of the contradictions of the time, however, was reflected in the fact that the same government was tentatively moving towards funding fairly sexually explicit health promotion materials designed to prevent gay men from being infected with what was then called AIDS. Initially, the publicity, with its use of tombstone images, had sought to terrify gay men into celibacy or very fearful sex; but there were clashes around the use of language in these messages. Eventually, the government decided to fund at arm’s length other bodies, such as the Terrence Higgins Trust, to promote information about models of safer sex. The involvement of gay men and other people who had been influenced by the politics of the gay liberation movement resulted, gradually, in a shift towards the use of direct terminology that engaged with the sexual narratives of gay men.

The conflicted situation showed that the partial de-criminalisation of male homosexual activity had not been the end of the story. The articulation by lesbians and gay men of their diverse needs and desires was indicative of a process from which a community – or communities – might emerge. It was one thing to accept the liberalisation of laws around sexual activity, but being witness to the politically active role of lesbian and gay networks was a step too far for many Conservative Party delegates. Once The Lady had spoken, some of them felt that they had been given permission to introduce new legislation to silence these voices. Two months after that speech, David Wilshire, a Conservative backbencher introduced a new clause or section to the Local Government Bill which became law in 1988; Section 28 of this law sought to outlaw “the promotion of homosexuality …. and pretended family relationships”.

Gramsci had said in his Prison Notebooks: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” This cry of rage on the part of some sexual traditionalists was one such morbid symptom.

Bob CantBob Cant has been a teacher, a trade unionist, a community development worker, a Haringey activist and an editor of several collections of LGBT oral history. He now lives in Brighton and his first novel, Something Chronic, was published in October 2013. Bob tweets from @bobchronic

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