Changing attitudes, changing the world

Submitted by Matthew on 7 September, 2016 - 11:43 Author: Peter Tatchell

The 1967 Sexual Offences Act (which partially decriminalised sex between men in private) was a very partial limited reform but nevertheless progress all the same. However, many Labour MPs opposed that legislation and as far as I know no trade unions supported it.

Many other social groups did support law reform in 1967, but no trade union, and even the Society of Socialist Lawyers took a hostile view. Socialist lawyers did begrudgingly accept that there should be some sort of decriminalisation but they also advocated increased policing and repression of the LGBT community to ensure that this “contagion does not spread”. Even here there was a lot of deep seated homophobia.

I remember Allan Horsfall, one of the great LGBT pioneers in the 50s and 60s. He set up the first LGBT organisation by and for LGBT people, the North West Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, which became the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. Horsfall was a Labour councillor in Nelson in Lancashire. He tried to get his local party to support the Wolfenden proposals [which led to the 1967 Act] and he was shunned and treated as a pariah. That was the story around the country.

In 1970, the Gay Liberation Front was formed in London and that was a watershed moment. For the first time you had an LGBT movement that was run and led by LGBT people, and where coming out was the cornerstone. The words equality never passed our lips; we weren’t interested in equality, in the status quo, we wanted to transform society and we had a social transformation agenda rather than an equal rights agenda.

The GLF also had the concept of “united we stand divided we fall”. We had and demonstrated solidarity with other liberation movements — the Irish freedom movement, the women’s liberation movement and the black rights movement in particular. In 1971, when the Conservative government introduced the Industrial Relations Act to constrain the rights and powers of the trade unions, there was a huge march in London of maybe over 250,000 people. The GLF went along to show our solidarity but unfortunately the solidarity was not reciprocated. Not everyone, but a lot of trade unionists, shouted homophobic insults, the group were pelted with projectiles, beer cans, banner poles — all from trade unionists even though the GLF had gone in solidarity to support the trade union movement against the Tories!

At that time there were no left wing groups that supported LGBT rights and no trade unions. Some of the left groups were openly hostile. They would say homosexuality was a product of degenerate capitalism, that homosexuality was a bourgeois perversion and that homosexuality would disappear in a pure socialist society. All those kind of ideas were straight out of the Stalin textbook from the 1930s.

LGBT people often had a really hostile treatment within those left groups. When members of what was then the International Socialists (now SWP) tried to organise an LGBT group, they were forbidden by the leadership and were put into a position where they had to leave. The Communist Party endorsed the traditional Soviet Bloc line that homosexuality was anti-socialist and so on.

The GLF continued to show solidarity with other causes. We went on Troops Out (of Northern Ireland) protests in 1971, 72 and 73. The GLF got quite a hostile reaction from Irish groups, from trade unionists and again from left groups. When the Mangrove 9 were on trial in 1971 [black rights activists arrested after clashes with police in West London], the GLF were the only non-black group to stand in solidarity with them at the court. We got very mixed reactions; some black activists welcomed us, others wished we would go away, to many we were an embarrassment. We supported the struggle against the Greek colonels [military junta 1967-74] and would be abused by Greek activists, who would often call the colonels “pousti”, which is the equivalent of “faggot”, so there was deep-seated homophobia there.

In 1973, things began to change. John Lloyd, a friend of mine who was also a member of the Young Communist League (YCL), pioneered and drove a policy within the YCL to support LGBT rights. I would say the response (within the YCL) was not overly supportive, but people seemed to embarrassed to oppose, so it went through. Likewise the National Union of Students (NUS) passed a gay rights policy in May 1973. The left groups within the NUS were not overtly hostile but none were overtly supportive. Some individual members did speak up — to their credit — but as party blocs they did not support us.

Then came the World Festival of Youth in 1973 in East Berlin, East Germany. I was amazingly given a delegate pass to go and represent the GLF. This only happened because the organiser of the UK delegation was in the YCL and had pressure put on him by John Lloyd. Out of 140,000 people who went there I was the only [openly] gay delegate. I planned to lay a pink triangle wreath at Sachsenhausen concentration camp in memory of the gay and bisexual men murdered there. Members of the CPGB and other left groups got wind of this and they dobbed me into the Stasi (East German secret police). Can you believe it! This was to stop me from doing what they said would be an embarrassment and a shame to “socialist” East Germany!

A compromise was reached. I did have some supporters including some CP members, and it was agreed that I would be allowed to speak at a youth rights rally on behalf of the British delegation but could not lay the wreath. Of course when I began speaking about LGBT rights, all the simultaneous translations went dead and the organisers said you must finish and resume your seat please. I said, “No I have been allocated 30 minutes, and I will be speaking for 30 minutes thank you”. Then the Stasi tried to drag me off the platform, but they didn’t succeed!

The crowd, which was about 2,000 strong, had never seen the East German authorities challenged like this before and started cheering and clapping and booing the Stasi. In the end I was allowed to speak but the translations were not restored. Then they were, but all references to “gay” were removed. At the November NUS Conference that year a group of people mainly around the International Socialists (IS) supported a motion to remove key members of the CP who had been involved in blocking me at the festival.

This was entirely opportunistic as the IS had never expressed any support for gay rights up until this point. Nevertheless it forced them to come off the fence and support LGBT rights for the first time. The vote was very narrowly lost. Some of the senior people in the NUS were up for removal from their posts, which had never happened in NUS history. The CP were so embarrassed they soon after made a declaration of support for LGBT rights. The World Youth Festival is a turning point because after that most of the left embraced LGBT rights, the IS, CP and some of the smaller groups followed suit. It was seen that they could not be seen as not supporting this issue rather than an active, positive support for the principles.

Later I was involved with the GLF in a small group called Gays against Fascism to support the struggles and battles against the National Front. We would go along to the protest as openly gay people, sometimes we got support but often people were clearly embarrassed and at times we got overt hostility. When Tony Whitehead, a gay man, was sacked by BHS in 1976, no trade unions rallied to his support to defend his employment rights. When Susan Shell was sacked by Barking Council in the 1980s, initially no trade unions gave her support. In the 1970s no left groups or trade unions attended LGBT pride parades. In the 1980s we did get support from Ken Livingstone and the Labour-run Greater London Council. That was really the turning point within the broader labour movement. The leader of the London Council and his team were backing LGBT rights and funding LGBT organisations. Lots of councils followed suit. Then came the February 1983 Bermondsey by election, which most commentators describe as the dirtiest homophobic election in Britain during the 20th century.

I stood [for Labour] on the most radical gay rights platform of any parliamentary candidate up until that point, but got very little support from key people in the Party. This was partly because I was on the left and also because I was gay and supporting gay rights. I had lots of prominent left wingers who told me it was probably best not to make a big issue of gay rights. Wait until you’re elected.

I think one of the main reasons I got such a hostile reaction on the doorsteps was because of my support for LGBT rights. As you know, I lost the election but I think that, what happened during the election created such a revulsion in the labour movement and wider society that it strengthened the Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights and others who were championing these issues within Labour and the trade union movement. People felt that the election was so disgusting and had gone to such an excess that even people who were not sympathetic or supportive recognised a red line had been crossed. An amazing number of people started to speak out against homophobia that had never done so before.

Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners was another really pivotal movement, not only getting the NUM onside, but winning many other trade union and labour movement people. It was not entirely 100%. I was not directly involved in LGSM, but I was involved through Labour and LGBT movement activists in other areas with miners’ solidarity, mainly in Scotland. Again it was interesting as my support as an openly gay man changed, attitudes as with LGSM in lodges and miners’ clubs. In the mid 1980s, both the TUC and the Labour Party eventually formally adopted LGBT rights as a policy.

The lessons of Bermondsey

By Peter Tatchell

What Fleet Street really objected to [in the February 1983 Bermondsey by-election] was my radical socialism rather than my homosexuality. It merely played on my gayness to discredit my politics. It is within this context that members of the Bermondsey Labour Party have considered my future as their candidate. It has been their overwhelming view that I should not stand at the general election [of June 1983]. They feel that the falsehood and bigotry of the last 16 months has taken such a strong hold in the minds of so many Bermondsey electors that they could not be erased in the foreseeable future... I agree that winning back the seat is important, but at what price?

There is a lot of talk within the Labour Party about the need for more “suitable” and less “vulnerable” candidates. More “suitable” to whom? Doesn’t that effectively mean more “suitable” to the yellow press an more in conformity with popular prejudices? There are already too many clones from the Labour candidate factory: moderate, middle-class, middle-aged, married, macho and male. If we merely continue to reproduced that traditional stereotype we will never get an adequate representation of working class, women and black MPs — let alone any who are openly gay.

Instead of overcoming prejudices, we will end up reinforcing them. Allowing others to dictate Labour’s choice of candidates is only one step away from allowing them to determine our policies as well. If we permit ourselves to be bullied and liked and intimidated down that road, we will be colluding with the transformation of Labour into a “second eleven” for the SDP.

• From the Guardian, 18 April 1983