1980s: A decade of state-sanctioned homophobia

Open season on queers by state, church, tabloids & police


London – Bishopsgate Institute blog – 7 November 2012


Peter Tatchell, Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, recalls the abuse of LGBT human rights in Britain during the 1980s:


The 1980s were a period of intensified homophobia, sanctioned from the top echelons of society: the government, church, police and tabloids. It was open season on queers.

The Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher was at war with the LGBT community.

She launched a series of homophobic and sexist moral crusades under the themes of “family values” and “Victorian values”.

Labour councils that supported local LGBT communities with funding and the use of council premises for events were denounced by the Tories.

The LGBT community became a political football. Homophobia was stirred up and exploited by the Conservatives. They appealed to the bigoted vote – and won it.

On top of all this, the AIDS epidemic was demonised as the “gay plague.” It was manipulated to blame and vilify LGBT people – and to justify increasing homophobic repression.

The Chief Constable of Manchester, James Anderton, abused gay people as “swirling around in a cesspit of their own making.” Police operations and arrests intensified.

At the 1987 Tory party conference Thatcher attacked the right to be LGBT; suggesting there was no such right.

The following year, her government legislated the notorious Section 28, which banned the so-called “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities; leading many authorities to impose self-censorship to avoid prosecution.

By 1989, the number of gay and bisexual men convicted for consenting same-sex behaviour was almost as great as in 1954-55, when male homosexuality was totally illegal and when the country was gripped by a McCarthyite anti-gay witch-hunt.

Unexpectedly, this homophobic repression was the making of the LGBT community in Britain. It mobilised people as never before.

The 1988 London Pride parade was double what it had been in previous years (it increased to 30,000 marchers).

Act Up London, Stonewall and OutRage! exploded into existence and began the successful fight back that led to a rapid decline in arrests for consenting homosexual behaviour and, a decade later, to the wave of LGBT law reform from 1999 – 2010.

It proved to be the biggest, fastest, most successful law reform campaign in British history.

But it is worth remembering:

The criminalisation of homosexuality in the UK was only finally ended in 2003, with the legislation of the first sexuality-neutral and non-discriminatory sexual offences code.

The queer category of “Unnatural offences” was scrapped; the 1533 law against “buggery” was finally repealed, as was the “gross indecency” statute that sent Oscar Wilde to prison in 1895.

These extraordinary reforms are the result of the stupendous collective effort by tens of thousands of LGBT people – and our straight allies. Campaigning gets results. Bravo!


Note: An edited version of this article was published in the website of the Bishopsgate Institute on 7 November 2012: http://bit.ly/VSDpAy