Stonewall – born of the Thatcher era

David Green, a Riverside tenant,  reflects on the work of Stonewall and the issues still facing lesbian and gay men. In 1989 there were still many issues facing lesbian and gay men in society. Equality was not on the agenda for mainstream politicians. Undermining the gains that direct action had won in the 1970s was their immediate goal. In particular, the Prime Minister at that time, Margaret Thatcher, wanted to target many Labour controlled Local Authorities and the teachers they employed, who she believed, were standing in the way of her crusade against liberal values. In 1988 her government introduced Section 28, as an amendment to the Local Government Act. The amendment stated that a Local Authority: “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality,” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” Lesbians and gay men’s relationships were, with the stroke of Thatcher’s legislative pen, deemed unacceptable and abnormal. The propaganda of the time was fuelled by growing anti-gay prejudices, exacerbated by the emergence of HIV and AIDS. A disease that was claiming lives was used as an excuse to persecute the lives of those whose sexuality differed from what society had dictated as the norm. To combat the growing moral panic and tide of prejudice, a small group of dedicated men and women in Britain formed Stonewall, named after the Inn of the same name in New York. Their immediate aim was to force the repeal of Section 28, but the organisation developed more general policies and campaigns in pursuit of LGBT equality. It also switched track in terms of approach. Instead of being a member and activist based organisation like the GLF and CHE before it, Stonewall operated more like a lobbying operation, utilising skilled employees, or influential spokespeople, to shift opinion amongst the political classes. Following the election of a Labour Government in 1997, Stonewall’s lobbying started to pay off. Over the last twenty five years there have been many campaigns, both local and national, all with positive results for LGBT people.  The age of consent was lowered to 16. Pension for same sex partners was introduced in 1996, and after a long fight, the ban on lesbians and gay men serving in the armed forces was overturned. In the 60s and 70s who would have thought that my housing association would invite me to join an LGBT forum providing support for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans tenants.  Riverside also has an LGBT staff group, Spectrum, which works closely with the tenants’ group. They have a comprehensive Equal Opportunities Policy and zero tolerance of harassment and discrimination.  And over the last two years Riverside has been up there in Stonewall’s top 100 employers. The Gay Liberation Front kicked things off by raising the banner of lesbian and gay equality; the Campaign for Homosexual Equality kept the flame alive through tireless campaigning in the late 1970s and 1980s; Stonewall lobbied like there was no tomorrow to get the law changed, as the century drew to a close. There is still work to be done. But in doing it we are able to stand on the shoulders of these giants and see the culmination of a dream I had as a young gay man – equality in law and in life, never to be taken away.