No matter what you think about Margaret Thatcher on issues such as the poll tax, the Falklands and the economy there is one important area that has been left out of much of the TV discussion of the ex- Prime minister’s life over the last week and that is her relationship to and influence on the LGBT community.
The Pink News published an article which referred to Gilbert & George’s comments that Margaret Thatcher had been a gay icon during her time at the helm of the UK government. Maybe it was the meticulously co-ordinated outfits, the famous hair style and the handbags that have led to such claims, but it seems at odds with what a lot of LGBT people have been saying this week, even if some said that privately she actually liked gay people and, as many are surprised to hear, she even voted in favour of legislation to decriminalise homosexuality.
Regardless of the position of lesbians and gays on many of the more talked about, controversial issues that the Iron Lady became associated with, this week many LGBT people have suggested that we also remember the difficulties the UK LGBT community faced during the 1980s. Probably the biggest of these was the infamous Section 28, which forbade any local authorities from intentionally promoting ‘homosexuality or publishing material ‘with the intention of promoting homosexuality’ or promoting ‘the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’ (see here). Sir Ian McKellen, who was (perhaps surprisingly) issued a knighthood by the ex-Prime Minister, echoed the views of many in the LGBT community when he wrote on his blog ‘Lest we forget, this nasty, brutish and short measure of the third Thatcher administration, was designed to slander homosexuality, by prohibiting state schools from discussing positively gay people and our “pretended family relations”’
Section 28 was introduced at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the UK and was only repealed in 2003 by Tony Blair’s government. It took until 2009 for the Conservatives to acknowledge the inappropriateness of the legislation, with an apology made by David Cameron. So, in many ways the Tories under Margaret Thatcher were actively homophobic. An article in the Guardian last week added to this sentiment referring to a Conservative advertising campaign from 1987 which showed a man wearing ‘Gay pride’ and ‘Gay sports day’ badges with the text ‘This is Labour’s camp. Do you want to live in it?’. The Labour Party, who were generally much more pro-gay rights were criticised and political currency was often made from their less homophobic position.
In terms of HIV prevention the Thatcher government is often praised for setting up clean needle exchanges, which, although controversial at the time, have been credited with reducing HIV infection rates in the UK . This ‘harm reduction’ approach was progressive in many ways and provided the rhetoric for HIV prevention work globally in the years after the Iron Lady stepped down. However, the Tories have been criticised for their uncomfortable approach in the 1980s in which they simultaneously stressed solidarity with those affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but also introduced alarmist policy, such as Section 28 and made clear their view that same-sex relationships were not as valued as ‘normal’ heterosexual relationships.
Based on the above it might be difficult to argue that Thatcher’s Tories did much in the way to promote LGBT rights in the UK. The legacy of section 28 remains in many ways with some teachers unsure about the ‘appropriateness’ of discussing homosexuality as normal in schools, the wary nature successive governments have approached LGBT issues and, for many, the association of the Conservatives as a party that are less connected to the LGBT community. What do you think? Did you live under Thatcher’s government in the 80s? Maybe you have personal experiences that can add to the discussion. Feel free to leave a comment below to let us know what you think.
The GMI Partnership provides free sexual health services to gay and bisexual men in London. For more information on the services we provide see link or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the GMI Partnership.