Owen Jones published a column in the Guardian this week, collating diverse examples of a backlash against LGBT people, concluding that “progress in LGBTQ rights has not simply ground to a halt, it is screeching into reverse” and invoking “the crude, unapologetic homophobia of 1980s Britain”.
As one of the people directly involved in campaigning against Section 28, back in the dark ages of 1980s Britain, I am not convinced by this comparison. The context, the sources, and the content of the antagonism Owen points to are all very different from the 1980s. I don’t think we do ourselves any favours by glossing over these differences.
1. Cultural context
In the 1980s, public opinion was heavily influenced by the mass media. The combined circulation of the Sun, Mirror and Mail in 1987 was 8.8 million. In 2019, this total has tumbled by more than half, to 3.2 million.
Newspapers back then were able to effectively whip up hysteria, with headlines like ‘save the children from sad, sordid sex lessons’ (4th June 1986) and ‘bizarre truth about happy family in the gay schoolbook’ (22nd September 1986). With no real way of fact-checking, people were willing to believe these largely fabricated stories, built on the much less sensational fact that one copy of Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin was available for teachers to borrow from the Inner London Education Authority library.
With the shift to a more fragmented media landscape, it is more difficult to gauge from media headlines whether we are seeing a rise in hostility, such as the one we saw and experienced in the late 1980s. But research shows that there has been a profound shift in public attitudes since then.
The British Social Attitudes report 34 (published in 2017) looked at trends in public opinion on a range of ‘moral issues’. They noted that homosexuality is much more widely accepted than it was 30 years ago:
“There has also been a significant increase in liberal attitudes towards same-sex relationships since the introduction of same-sex marriages in 2014; the proportion saying that same-sex relationships are ‘“not wrong at all’” is now a clear majority at 64%, up from 59% in 2015, and 47% in 2012. Looking further back to when the question was first asked in the 1980s an even starker picture emerges. In 1983 only 17% were completely accepting of same-sex relationships. Attitudes hardened further during the late 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis; in 1987 just 11% said same-sex relationships were “not wrong at all”. At that time three-quarters (74%) of British people thought same-sex relationships were “always” or “mostly” wrong, a view that has fallen to 19% today.”
2. If you’re not with us…
Owen identifies a range of actors, lumping them all together as aspects of “the current threat facing LGBTQ people”:
- “homophobic protesters” campaigning against the No Outsiders programme in Birmingham schools, with the support of a local Labour MP.
- Esther McVey, suggesting that parents should be able to withdraw their children from sex & relationship education.
- Ann Widdecombe, raising the possibility of science finding “an answer” to homosexuality.
- the attackers of the lesbian couple who were beaten on a London bus, and the perpetrators of ‘hate crimes’ more generally
- Donald Trump, taking legislative action against trans people in the US military
- “Anti trans activists” and “much of the media” whose “tawdry, sinister campaign” “demonises” trans people and “legitimises and fuels” hatred and violence against them.
I am not convinced that this list adds up to the kind of concerted, state-backed campaign of hostility that we faced in the 1980s. In particular, I think Owen’s instruction at the end of the piece to “join the dots” is an unhelpful fabrication of alliances that do not exist.
There were indeed parents who campaigned against the alleged ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in Haringey schools in the 1980s. As now, their motivations were a complex mix of religious faith, prejudice and parental concern for the wellbeing of their children. But the Haringey parents in the 1980s had the backing of the government, mass media and public opinion, while today the parents in Birmingham are firmly outside the mainstream.
In the 1980s, Haringey Council’s Positive Images policy became mired in controversy and was eventually squashed by the introduction of Section 28 before it could even be fully articulated, let alone implemented (see this fascinating PhD thesis for the full story). The parents and politicians campaigning against it were largely opposing something of their own invention, while the council insisted that it was to be nothing more challenging than an explanation that gay people exist and discrimination is hurtful.
On the other hand, the No Outsiders programme is being delivered in schools, and it contains some concepts and ideas that I find troubling. I am reluctant to simply condemn the protests as homophobic.
In particular, I am unhappy with the presentation to primary school children of the notion of innate gender identity and the idea that sex is assigned (rather than observed) at birth.
Owen claims that Esther McVey’s comments help “shift the political conversation, reopening debates that were supposed to have been settled long ago, reviving the phantom of section 28.” I must say, the article he links to, in which a parade of senior Tories line up to disagree with her and affirm their support for same-sex marriage, is somewhat weak evidence for this idea. In 1992, we couldn’t even get the Labour administration of Brighton Council to publicly defend their own decision to give us a grant of £5,000 for our fledgling Pride event. I think the political conversation has moved on quite far.
Anne Widdecombe’s comments, quoted in the piece Owen links to, are interesting, in fact. She said:
“there was a time when we thought it was quite impossible for men to become women and vice versa and the fact that we now think it is quite impossible for people to switch sexuality doesn’t mean that science may not be able to produce an answer at some stage.”
I was always wary, back in the day, of the insistence that homosexuality must be innate and of biological origin. I feared that it could lead precisely in this direction, towards the idea that if only the ‘gay gene’ could be discovered, it could be eliminated. I preferred to argue that homosexuality was not a problem that needed solving, and that its cause was therefore not something that needed to be figured out. I wonder if our “side” having wholeheartedly embraced a ‘born this way’ narrative for both sexual orientation and gender identity has been a tactical error, after all.
Unlike the rest of the cast assembled in this piece, Owen’s “anti trans campaigners” turn out to be feminists like Julie Bindel and Womans Place UK. Here, I have a real problem with the argument he is making.
3. Dots that don’t join up
Owen claims that the pressure on the NSPCC to drop Munroe Bergdorf as a face of Childline was motivated by a wish to “drive trans people out of public life”. But the reason given by the NSPCC was that:
“The board decided an ongoing relationship with Munroe was inappropriate because of her statements on the public record, which we felt would mean that she was in breach of our own risk assessments and undermine what we are here to do. These statements are specific to safeguarding and equality.”
They haven’t explained what they are referring to, but if you read this thread on Mumsnet, you can see the concerns emerging as women discuss why they find this appointment inappropriate. First, there is Munroe’s public backing for the 11 year old “drag kid” Desmond Is Amazing and her lack of concern about Desmond’s immersion in an adult and sexualised art form. Then there’s the issue of Munroe having encouraged “trans kids” to contact her privately on Twitter and Instagram.
These concerns about Munroe’s lack of awareness of basic safeguarding are not about driving trans people out of public life. They are about whether she is a suitable person to represent a children’s safeguarding charity.
Owen’s final example is this:
“The anti-trans activists who hounded Bergdorf are now demanding the sacking of a senior, gay NSPCC employee because they found pictures of him in fetish gear online, suggesting therefore he is not safe around children. This is the crude, unapologetic homophobia of 1980s Britain.”
But it wasn’t just pictures. It was a video, which the employee in question had published, showing himself in rubber underwear, masturbating in his workplace toilets.
Now, I don’t care what people do in their own time. But I think women raising questions about the judgment of somebody who thinks it’s OK to engage in exhibitionist fetish play while at work in a children’s charity is not remotely comparable to the unapologetic homophobia of the 1980s, and frankly I find it a bit insulting for Owen to suggest that it is.
We were up against a powerful mass media, the whole political establishment and the law of the land. We were living in a country where three quarters of the population thought being gay was always or mostly wrong. We were living through an epidemic that was killing young gay men and coping with the stigmatisation of our community as carriers of disease. Lesbians were scared of losing their children, many of us were scared of losing our jobs, just for coming out. We were fighting for basic human rights, not the freedom to have a wank at work and share it on the internet.
Prominent campaigners like Owen Jones appearing to defend inappropriate behaviour at work because the person concerned is gay seems to me to be entirely counterproductive.
Mumsnet’s feminism chat board is not in league with Donald Trump, Anne Widdecombe or Esther McVey. Julie Bindel is not causing a rise in violence against LGBT people (quite the opposite).
Women who have spent decades fighting for feminist and left-wing causes are not leaping into bed with the evangelical right, and it is really unhelpful to pretend that they are.
The history of Section 28 is important, but it’s not the only story we can ever tell about LGBT rights. Many of the people now sounding the alarm about the direction of the movement are veterans of that campaign. Pretending that they are somehow in league with homophobes is a misleading and unworthy way to avoid confronting a real difference of opinion on the left. We can do better than that.
I have been puzzled by the sudden rise in deportations and Home Office attacks on black people who have been in UK for decades, such as the case of Albert Thompson, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, or the many similar cases now coming to light.
These people are not the stated target of the “hostile environment for illegal immigrants”, so why are they being picked on?
It’s not to appease a racist public – as far as I can see from reading online discussion of these cases, most people are convinced that they are a mistake. There is not widespread support for this action, or understanding that it is a direct consequence of current government policy which has turned landlords, hospital administrators, employers and bank managers into border guards.
I don’t believe the aim is to remove significant numbers of black people from the UK. Most of the people affected are parents and grandparents of British citizens. If the government were trying to stop them from becoming an integrated part of UK communities, they would surely have done it a long time ago.
It’s also unlikely to be pure sadism and cruelty, though I can see why it would appear that way to the families affected.
The Home Office isn’t yet staffed by robots, as far as I know – people are making these decisions. Even if the ‘hostile environment’ regulations seem to dictate the actions that are being taken, there could have been a management decision not to persecute this group of people who are clearly not, by any stretch of the imagination, “illegal immigrants”. (I am leaving aside for now the issue of the equally unjust impact of these new laws on people who are considered “illegal”, but that doesn’t mean that I think any of this is OK.)
So I was puzzled. But I recently came across a clue when I read about the government’s attempts to rebrand the ‘hostile environment’ as a ‘compliant environment’.
My theory now is that this is an example of an age-old trick of the ruling class – extend your power by testing out a previously unacceptable imposition on a disposable population, then rely on it being a fait accompli to persuade everyone it was always inevitable.
Liberty’s 2015 briefing for MPs on the issue of immigration detention explains how this kind of mission creep works:
Immigration detention has become such a policy mainstay, it is easy to forget what a constitutional novelty it was when powers to administratively detain were first set out in the Immigration Act 1971. In a move unprecedented in peacetime Britain, the Act reversed the principle of habeas corpus, removing the onus from the state to justify the deprivation of liberty, and introducing administrative detention for those subject to deportation. In the intervening decades, the use of detention has evolved from a mechanism designed to enforce removal or examination, to a free-standing immigration power routinely exercised for administrative convenience.
The hostile environment itself is a quintessential example – across all the areas where it acts to make life difficult for migrants, the core idea is that individuals must be prepared to justify themselves to authority on demand.
If you want to rent somewhere to live, receive hospital treatment or maintain a bank account, you must now prove that you have a legal right to reside in the UK. This means it is up to the individual to have their papers in order and present them to all kinds of people in order to do all kinds of ordinary things.
When I read online discussion about the cases of Caribbean elders now facing deportation, detention or denial of healthcare, there are a few people who present this as a reasonable expectation. Why have they not sorted out their documents, if they have been here all this time?
If they been here for so long why have they not applied for citizenship!!
— Tony (@VetteheadTony) April 1, 2018
Get real… You’re talking about people who in 40+years haven’t managed to get any documentation….
One person you give is trying to use a birth cert with a different name on it to get a passport – and they wonder why it was rejected! FFS….
— Martin Dooley (@martindooley) April 1, 2018
The idea of individuals being accountable to the state has already been thoroughly tested on another disposable population – unemployed people and people who are too sick or disabled to work. And just as the hostile environment is now being extended to people who are British for all practical purposes, Universal Credit extends the sanctions and testing regime to people who have so far been exempt from the label of scrounger.
People on low wages and self-employed people are among those hit most hard by the bizarre workings of Universal Credit. Not so long ago, these were the people championed by Theresa May’s party as strivers and entrepreneurs. Now, they have joined the ranks of those who are expected to show compliance to the demands of the all-powerful work coach.
By stealth, the whole way we look at things becomes inverted. Just as with the bedroom tax back in 2013, the most powerful and long-lasting effect of these vicious policies is not the impact on those directly affected, but the way they retrain all of us to think about public services.
So once we have become used to the idea that even people who arrived in the UK as children, as British citizens by virtue of the colonisation of their native countries by the British, must prove themselves if they wish to be treated with anything resembling respect, what next? Who is next in the firing line?
An excellent recent thread on Twitter by Docs not Cops points out that we are already a fair way down the road towards declaring some people ‘undeserving’ of free NHS care. And of course, the hostile environment also provides fertile ground – and the practical infrastructure – for the introduction of widespread charging in the NHS. This result has been a long time in the making – Nye Bevan issued a very precise warning about it as long ago as 1952.
But these ideas are not inevitable. It is possible to change the direction of travel. The revelations about Facebook’s data breaches have opened up the issue of privacy in a way that I didn’t really expect to see again. These questions of accountability are the key battleground for the future of our public services. Are we residents with rights that derive from our humanity, or subjects who must prove our conditional entitlement? How do we redesign our public services to recognise our interdependence, our need for mutual support and care, and the contribution everyone makes to our complex society?
In the 1960s, many people arrived in the UK from its former colonies in the Caribbean. They were encouraged and welcomed by the British government, as workers in the growing public sector. [Edit: I have learned from a very informative and referenced Twitter thread published by Akala on 1st April 2018 that this is a myth, and that all postwar British governments implemented racist and exclusionary policies towards black people who migrated to the UK.]
Albert Thompson’s mother was one of these people. While she worked in the NHS, her son was left behind in Jamaica. I can only imagine how hard that must have been for both of them. Lucky me.
My parents arrived in the UK in 1970. Like Mr. Thompson’s mother, they were entitled to enter and stay in the UK as Commonwealth citizens. They brought their child with them.
In 1971, the UK government passed an Immigration Act which removed the automatic right of Commonwealth citizens to live in the UK. Nevertheless, the act stated clearly that people who were already settled in the UK, like my parents, would not lose their rights and were to be treated as having been given indefinite leave to remain in the UK. If Mr. Thompson’s mother had already been in the UK for five years by the time the Act came into force in 1973, she would have been given the right of abode in the UK.
In 1974, Albert Thompson came to the UK to be reunited with his mother. I cannot find the relevant regulations at that time, but I expect he either had a work permit or was given leave to enter on grounds of family reunification. He was 18 or 19. He settled in the UK, found work, married and raised his children here.
Also in 1974, my parents took their two children to Australia to visit relatives. The 1971 Immigration Act had granted them indefinite leave to remain in the UK, and this was duly stamped in their passports when they returned. This tiny stamp was the only proof of their (and my) right to live here. If they had not travelled abroad, I believe they would not have been able to easily demonstrate their status. Of course, they were never asked to.
In 1981, both major parties supported the British Nationality Act, which further redefined the status of citizens of Britain’s former colonies. Among other things, it:
- removed the automatic right of children born in the UK to be considered British citizens, if their parents were not British. If my sister had been born after 1983, she would not have had automatic British citizenship, despite having been born in the UK and lived here her whole life. The same applies to Albert Thompson’s children.
- removed the right of Commonwealth citizens to acquire British citizenship by a simple process of registration. After 31st December 1987, they would have to go through the more expensive and demanding process of naturalisation.
- made it impossible for Commonwealth citizens who did not already have the right of abode to obtain it.
My family joined the protests against this Bill, understanding it to be racist in both intent and effect. At that time (as now) racism was often couched in terms of concerns about immigration, but I understood very clearly that my own status as an immigrant was never considered relevant by the boys who carved NF into the desks at school.
The measures in the 1981 British Nationality Act did affect me, but I was not their target. As Imogen Tyler argues in this excellent 2010 essay, “Whilst race and ethnicity were never directly named, the 1981 Act effectively designed citizenship so as to exclude black and Asian populations in the Commonwealth while leaving ‘routes home’ for white nationals born within the boundaries of the empire.”
The 1981 Act was the foundation of a decades-long establishment consensus on immigration that has prevailed ever since. Each successive government has tightened the rules yet further, reinforcing and feeding on popular racist myths about scarcity, overcrowding and invasion. From the 1990s onwards, both Tory and New Labour governments focused their rhetoric on asylum seekers, laying the foundations for the shameful conduct of the 2016 EU referendum campaign.
Before the option was withdrawn, I decided to apply for registration as a British citizen. This took some time. I must have applied before 31st December 1987, but my eventual certificate of registration is dated 31st January 1990. It cost money (I can’t remember how much) and I had to relinquish my Australian citizenship. I had to send in all my previous passports, with the all-important indefinite leave to remain stamp. None of this was a particular problem for me.
I was prompted to do this mainly because I wanted the freedom to travel and work within the EU, and because I didn’t fancy having to swear allegiance to the Queen as part of the naturalisation process. So I am now safe, unlike poor Albert, whose lack of documentation means he has been asked to pay £54,000 for his cancer treatment by the NHS.
Should anybody ask me to prove my eligibility for lifesaving treatment, I am ready. I had travelled abroad often, and had passport stamps to prove it. My parents haven’t moved house since 1974 and all the documents were easily available to me. I had enough money to pay the registration fee, and knew the deadline was approaching. All these things are a consequence of the dumb luck of being white and middle class.
I could have made different choices, had worse luck, been less well-informed. If I had, maybe I would be in Albert’s position.
But of course, nobody will ask me. Nobody has ever asked me to prove my right to live here. I acquired British citizenship purely for my own convenience, not because I was treated with suspicion and hostility in a country that would never truly acknowledge me as its own. That is the real privilege of my white skin.
Originally posted on 1st September 2012, at Reflections in the Greenhouse
Every year it irritates me, the way people are so slapdash about the history of Brighton Pride. This year, the papers are full of a “20th anniversary” story, which is odd, because the current run of Pride events in Brighton began in 1991, 21 years ago. I remember it well. I was there. I helped to organise it.
I know this makes me sound like a mad old aunt in the corner at Christmas, making nitpicking criticisms of other people’s family stories. Maybe that’s who I am, now.
I haven’t been to Pride for a few years now. It’s not really a fun family event for us and our kids. I don’t enjoy getting pissed in the daytime very much. I find the overwhelming commercialism hard to stomach. We might have gone down to watch the parade this year, but family commitments prevented it. As it turned out, I’m quite glad I wasn’t there to see the Queers against the Cuts contingent subjected to heavy-handed policing and treated like troublemakers by the parade organisers, while commercial firms like EDF Energy, Easyjet and Mastercard are welcomed with open arms.
Why does it bother me if people get the dates wrong? I think it’s because Brighton Pride in 1991 is the radical political root of the commercial tourism-fest celebrated today by the Argus, Brighton & Hove City Council and the Conservative Party.
By 1991, we had been campaigning against Section 28 for 3 years. We were tired, still angry, and proud of what we’d achieved. We hadn’t stopped Section 28 from becoming law, but we had begun to build a community that could lessen its pernicious effects.
We had spoken out about homophobia in schools. We had protested about the lacklustre police response to queerbashing. We had publicly remembered and mourned our dead. We had defined family our own way, declaring our relationships with lovers, friends and children to be as real as anyone else’s, whatever the law said about it.
That community defiance was what we were celebrating in 1991. Joining the Pride march was not a vote-winner in those days. There was no eight-page spread in the Argus. Hell, even the gay clubs didn’t join in. We didn’t have sponsorship money or council funding, we just had each other to rely on.
We had also begun to take our history seriously; the campaign against Section 28 spawned the wonderful Brighton Ourstory project. One of the highlights of Pride in 1991 was a walking tour of queer history in the city, led by Ourstory founder Tom Sargant. We knew that there had been a Pride parade in Brighton in 1973, but that the momentum had been lost and there had been no local Pride events since.
The Brighton Pride events in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995 were organised largely by political activists who had been closely involved in the campaign against Section 28. In 1993, after the previous year’s Preston Park event had over-reached itself and gone bust, Pride was coordinated by just two people, who thought it was important to keep the idea alive, to prevent the flame going out for another 20 years. I know this for sure. I was one of those two people.
I know things have changed. I’m not saying I want to turn the clock back. I’m happy that people can get married (if that’s what they want to do) and be out in the police force and win votes by supporting equality.
I guess all I’m saying is, let’s not forget how we got from there to here. Let’s not pretend that attitudes have changed by magic. Brighton Pride started in 1991 with a demo, not in 1992 with a piss-up. When it took some courage to join the Pride march in solidarity with LGBT people, many of the straight people who stood alongside us were socialists, like Queers against the Cuts and their supporters. They have every right to march in the parade now.