Politics Editor Connor Wade summarises the attitudes towards LGBT members of society in British politics in the past 40 years and how they have changed.
This month sees the celebration of LGBT History Month – celebrated in February in the UK because the first steps to repealing Section 28 were achieved in February of 2003. While I would hope that very few people remain today that consider the way that LGBT people live their lives a moral and political issue and not just a freedom and right that should be afforded to all, the actions of key figures in politics and in wider society instead suggests that there is still work to be done. This is why we have LGBT History Month. This February, we should take time to reflect on the torrid state of affairs just 40 years ago, and take pride in how far we have come – without forgetting our job as decent citizens to support each other and stand up to prejudice.
A name you probably haven’t heard before, Colquhoun was the first openly-lesbian member of Parliament, and was elected in 1974 as a Labour MP. She came out as lesbian in 1975, and divorced her husband. As part of the party’s left wing, she vigorously sought to combat gender inequality in society, and proposed various different bills throughout her time in Parliament like the Balance of Sexes bill which would have required public bodies to be split evenly in terms of men and women members.
Unfortunately, she was much too ahead of her time, and after her local party voted to deselect her because of obsession with “trivialities” such as “woman’s rights” in 1977 ( a decision which was later overturned), she was defeated by the Conservative candidate at the 1979 election which saw Margaret Thatcher swept to power.
She kept working in and around politics for the rest of her working life, and she unfortunately passed away on the 2nd February this year, at the not-too-shabby age of 92.
What was Section 28?
Section 28 was just one aspect of the Local Government Act 1988 which stated that local authorities (and by extension schools) “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”. Passed at the peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and rising stigmatisation towards members of the gay community, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government profited from existing discriminatory attitudes and heightened fear of LGBT people (sex between gay people only having been decriminalised 21 years before under Harold Wilson’s reforming Labour government). This prevented schools from teaching children about gay relationships, with the intention of only educating children about heterosexual relationships and promoting the existence of the atomic family. Of course, this policy worked under the assumption that local authorities were ‘promoting’ homosexuality (which was believed to be an immoral behaviour by those who supported Section 28).
Despite its controversial nature, Section 28 was retained for 15 years until its repeal by the Labour government under Tony Blair in 2003, after having failed to do so before in 2000. In fact, on the government’s failure in 2000, future Prime Minister Theresa May called it a “victory for commonsense”. Regardless, it was repealed and David Cameron eventually apologised for his party having supported such a policy, and would then go on to legalise sam-sex marriage – albeit with the support of the Labour party, with a majority of his own party having voted against it at every stage.
While a regrettable part of our recent history, we can still learn from this. It shows the power of the government when driven by strong moral beliefs (right or wrong), but it also highlights the power of activist movements – the Stonewall charity having been created in response to Section 28, which you can read more about here. In spite of a hostile environment in British politics (and abroad), others struggled against the system to help their fellow citizens in spite of all that was stacked against them.
So, what is the state of affairs today, and what is there left to do? The UK Parliament has 45 openly LGBT MPs, with more from the Conservative party (20) than in the Labour party (15), which shows a complete reversal of fortunes and suggests a change in attitude from the right of British politics (although the attitudes of Prime Ministers both former and current might suggest otherwise).
More and more countries are electing LGBT leaders – Ireland being one of them, electing Leo Varadkar as their first openly gay Taoiseach (head of government), and the world’s fourth openly gay head of government. Despite this, negative attitudes of course still remain in this country (among others), and many of us (including myself) are children of the generation to whom homosexuality was not to be taught and was considered immoral.
There is still work to do.
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