Has this been the decade of gay rights in Britain?
Ten years ago that infamous piece of legislation known as Section 28 – which banned schools from teaching about what was scathingly referred to as the ‘pretended family relationship’ of homosexuality – was finally consigned to the dustbin of history by the then Labour government.
Introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1988, Section 28 was the first explicitly anti-gay piece of legislation seen in Britain in over a century. It came at the end of a truly horrendous decade for LGBTI people, when every pillar of the British state seemed to be engaged in a relentless ‘moral’ war against the gay community. Thatcher herself told a cheering Conservative Conference in 1987 that she wanted a Britain where young people would be taught about traditional moral values and not that they had an ‘inalienable’ right to be gay.
Controversial Chief Constable of Manchester Police James Anderton felt emboldened enough in his anti-gay views to declare that homosexuals were ‘swirling in a human cesspit of their own making.’ The message emanating from Thatcher’s Britain could not have been clearer – if you happened to be gay, you could dispense with any notions of being treated with equality and respect. Section 28, with its harsh and uncompromising language, effectively gave official state approval to such anti-gay prejudice, and in a way that had a damaging effect even beyond the groups it directly targeted.
The passage of such a regressive law did, however, have the positive effect of galvanizing Britain’s gay community, with the formation of such groups as Stonewall and Outrage. Human rights activist Peter Tatchell, who founded Outrage, has remarked how in the 1980s, 20,000 gay men were convicted of consensual adult same-sex ‘offences’. Claims of men being entrapped by agent provocateurs or what were known as ‘pretty police’ were common.
Section 28 would prove to be the final straw for a community under siege.
Progress was made in the 1990s around the age of consent, and a judgment from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) lifted the ban on LGBTI military personnel, which took effect in 2001. That same year the age of consent was finally equalized at 16 for all, regardless of sexual orientation.
Incredibly, the law that sent Oscar Wilde to prison was not struck from the statute books until 2004, along with other discriminatory sexual offences. Laws protecting LGBTI people against discrimination were also passed around this time.
The public and political mood was clearly changing and what had been at best a limited, begrudging tolerance afforded to gay people was gradually being transformed into active support for real equality. The increasing visibility of openly LGBTI people in the streets, workplaces and TV sets of Britain was having a profound effect on social attitudes.
A comprehensive Civil Partnership law was enacted in 2005. But while highly welcome and progressive, officialdom was still unwilling to take that final extra step and grant gay couples full equality through civil marriage.
A clear indication of ongoing progress came at the 2010 general election, when even the Conservatives pledged to look at making marriage equal for all. This came from a party that had been adamantly anti-gay. But after 13 years in the political wilderness, new leader David Cameron correctly identified the need to modernize and ‘de-toxify’ the Tory brand to make them electable again. Indeed, Cameron publicly apologized to the gay community in 2009 for the fact that his party had introduced Section 28, which had belittled and demeaned an entire section of society.
Fast forward to July 2013 and the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, supported by strong majorities in all parties bar a divided Conservative Party (the parliamentary vote was an impressive 400 votes in favour, 175 against). Opinion polls showing that the Act had consistent backing from the British public show that the country has gone from being one of the worst places in western Europe to be LGBTI to being a global leader in LGBTI equality.
But while full legal equality has been achieved, the battle to eradicate homophobia and transphobia at a societal level continues. This must now be the primary focus of the LGBTI rights movement in Britain, along with solidarity for persecuted LGBTI communities abroad.