How true blue Thatcherism helped paint society pink

Much has been asked about Margaret Thatcher’s contribution to feminism during the past week. But what of lesbian and gay equality? Two moments last week made me wonder.

Chris Creegan writes on equality and social justice and has previously worked at NatCen Social Research

Much has been asked about Margaret Thatcher’s contribution to feminism during the past week. But what of lesbian and gay equality? Two moments last week made me wonder.

The first was Alex Massie’s Spectator article, Margaret Thatcher: An Accidental Libertarian Heroine. Massie argues that the triumph of economic liberalism begat the victory of social liberalism as exemplified by the shift in support for gay marriage.

The second was during the debate in the House of Commons when Mike Freer, the Conservative MP for Thatcher’s former constituency, spoke. Openly gay, Freer is emblematic of the shift that Massie refers to.

I’m grateful to Massie and Freer for reminding me of the gains and the losses on lesbian and gay rights during Thatcher’s premiership. For me, four powerful memories stand out.

Important victories

The first took place in Rugby in 1984 where the council had decided that it didn’t want to employ gays. It was at a rally there that Chris Smith, the MP for Islington South, came out. It’s an odd moment in retrospect when the sexuality of politicians causes barely a murmur.

The second memory that stands out occurred when the 1985 Trades Union Congress passed a ground breaking motion on lesbian and gay rights from NAPO and NALGO. These days LGBT rights are an accepted part of the trade union agenda. Back then, however, things were different.

Just a month later, the Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights won a vote at Labour Party conference. One of the unions supporting the motion on both occasions was the NUM, which takes me to my third memory: Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM).

LGSM was counter intuitive and unprecedented. Lesbian and gay workers came together and forged a powerful relationship with miners and their families in Dulais Valley, South Wales:  old and new struggles finding common cause at a seismic moment in labour history.

Backlash against equality

The fourth memory is of course Section 28, which obviously represented defeat or at least a rolling back of progress. But it proved a galvanising moment for lesbian and gay equality and more than 20,000 people gathered in Manchester for a Stop the Clause demonstration.

In its attempt to halt the progress of lesbian and gay liberation, the Thatcher government met with organised resistance on a huge scale, the effects of which reverberate to this day, not least in the form of Stonewall which was formed the following year.

Massie’s argument is entirely plausible. And Conservative support for LGBT rights is a symbol of such social liberalism. But Thatcher’s passing is also a powerful reminder that the transformation in attitudes we’ve witnessed over the last 30 years owes much to campaigns spearheaded by lesbians and gay men on the left.

In fact British Social Attitudes (BSA) data shows that during the Thatcher years attitudes worsened. Despite having been a supporter of decriminalisation in the 60s, Thatcher’s support for the new moral orthodoxy symbolised by Section 28 is on the record.

But even so two important things happened back in the 80s. First significant policy gains were made within the labour movement. Second the Thatcher government’s policies unwittingly brought about new alliances and campaigns for lesbian and gay equality.

The left may find Massie’s argument a slightly bitter pill, just as gay Conservatives may be reluctant to accept that the equality they now embrace has its roots at least in part in the labour movement.

But in the paradoxical thing we call progress, the two phenomena are not as incompatible as they might seem. And Margaret Thatcher’s death reminds us why.

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