England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

LGBTQ+ liberation: Lessons from the backlash of the 1980s

A right-wing backlash against LGBTQ+ people, led by the Tory right, is now well under way. The drive to introduce a new ‘Section 28’ in schools must be resisted. In this article, a labour movement activist in the 80s and member of Socialist Alternative in South Yorkshire recounts those years, and the lessons they carry for the struggle today. 

By Steve Williams

Male homosexuality was partially decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967. Scotland followed in 1981, and Northern Ireland in 1982. However, this did not herald an immediate new age of freedom, as many discriminatory laws remained. The age of consent was set at 21 – among the highest in Europe – and sexual relationships between men could only take place within the privacy of their own homes, on the condition that no guests were staying in the same dwelling.

When I was a student in the early 80s, I had a lover who was three months older than me. Once he turned 21, it became an immediate threat that if we were caught together before my birthday, he would face prosecution under the backwards unequal age of consent law. We were both aware that my room in student halls did not qualify as a ‘private’ place. If we had been discovered, we know we would be in trouble. These were the kinds of clouds that all LGBTQ+ people lived under during this period. Many were forced to remain in the closet for the sake of their lives and careers. 

With the advent of HIV/AIDS later in the 1980s, a further layer of stigma was heaped onto the LGBTQ+ community, as the Tories and press used the health crisis to smear and defame us. James Anderton, the reactionary chief constable of Manchester described LGBTQ+ people as “swirling in a human cesspit of their own making”. In 1988, the Tories passed into law the infamous Section 28 clause, that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities.

Movements for liberation

Running counter to these currents was a growing LGBTQ+ liberation movement. Inspired by the Stonewall Uprising, which occurred in New York in 1969, following a vicious police attack on the LGBTQ+ community, London held its first Pride march in July 1972. 

Early Prides were protests. Mass ‘kiss-ins’ were held in defiance of public order laws that prohibited public displays of affection between same sex couples, and banners displaying slogans demanding LGBTQ+ liberation were prominent. In 1982, London Pride decamped to Huddersfield in solidarity with LGBTQ+ people in Yorkshire who were suffering persecution from the West Yorkshire Police. 

Prominent at Pride was the fight for HIV prevention and against Section 28. Lesbians and Gays Supports the Miners stood in solidarity with mining communities in the Great Strike of 1984-85. This strengthened links between LGBTQ+ people and the unions and led to the National Union of Mineworkers supporting pro-LGBTQ+ resolutions within the Labour Party and the TUC.

The backlash today

Since the advent of the twenty-first century, there have been some important gains for queer people. The age of consent has been equalised, Section 28 was abolished, while societal views have progressed significantly compared to the era of Thatcher. However, Pride has also become just a party instead of a mass protest. In order to secure corporate sponsorships, many Pride events have become sanitised and depoliticised. 

This comes at a time where the failings of capitalism are becoming more apparent daily. As the Tory government and their system lurches from crisis to crisis, the ‘culture wars’ are being waged ferociously. Targeting trans people, they have refused to fully ban ‘conversion therapy’, have undemocratically blocked Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill and now intend to force education workers to ‘out’ trans youth to their families, while legally protecting the ‘right’ to discriminate against trans students. 

Now is the time to bring politics back into Pride and to remember that our movement began as an uprising. LGBTQ+ people, workers, youth and all the oppressed must stand together in the face of all attacks. However this must be done with the understanding that the root cause of all oppression is capitalism, which seeks to divide and rule. Final liberation will only be secured by the building a socialist society, where the wealth that is created by the working class is used for the benefit of all, and not to satisfy the greed of the billionaires.  


No New Section 28! Fighting Tory Attacks on Trans Rights in Schools

Public Zoom meeting // Friday 1 September, 7pm



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