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The Legacy of Margaret Thatcher
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 04/08/13
Last updated on: 04/08/13
 
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As Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990, Margaret Thatcher, who died on April 8, 2013, sought to stymie homosexual law reform and to restrict the existing rights of homosexuals. Her legacy in the area of gay rights is one of retrenchment and oppression and includes the notorious Clause 28, which established as a principle of British law the belief that homosexuality is a detriment to society. Enacted in 1988 and not repealed until 2003, it constituted a powerful symbol of the second-class status of gay and lesbian citizens in the United Kingdom.

In his authoritative glbtq survey of the struggle for equal rights in the United Kingdom from 1900 to the present, Richard G. Mann, characterizes the Thatcher era as one of "moral retrenchment." As he notes, the Thatcher's government systematically sought to halt the progress of gay rights.

Upon taking office in May 1979, Thatcher's new government announced that it would not extend the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967, which decriminalized homosexuality, to Northern Ireland. On March 6, 1980, the government rejected an amendment to a Housing Bill that would have given gay and lesbian couples the security of tenure already accorded to heterosexual couples. Later that year, it summarily rejected a petition requesting that discriminatory employment laws be reformed.

Even after the European Commission unanimously ruled in September 1980 that the sexual laws in Northern Ireland violated the European Convention, the Thatcher government refused to change the laws until the case was reviewed by the full European Court.

In 1981, the long awaited Report of the Criminal Law Reform Committee proposed that the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967 should be extended to servicemen and that the age of consent for private sexual acts between two men should be lowered to 18. However, no action was taken on these proposals while Thatcher was Prime Minister.

In October 1982, the government announced its intention to intensify prosecution of homosexual acts outside the scope of the 1967 Act. In that month, the Metropolitan Police raided a private party in West London and arrested 37 men, who were charged with engaging in homosexual acts.

After her landslide victory in June 1983, Thatcher emphasized her determination to secure passage of the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill (enacted 1984), which extended police powers of arrest in matters involving perceived affronts to public decency to a level not seen since the 1950s.

Even as the Bill was being debated, police activity against gay men increased. For example, on March 11, 1984, over 50 officers raided The Bell, a popular and cruisy gay pub in Camden (London), for a supposed infringement of licensing laws.

On April 10, 1984, Customs and Excise agents raided Gay's the Word, London's only gay bookstore, and confiscated thirty percent of its stock. Police held the store's directors and manager for questioning without access to lawyers. Later in April, a similar raid was conducted against Lavender Menace, Edinburgh, then Scotland's only gay bookstore.

As the Conservative Party shifted to a repressive moral stance, London Mayor Ken Livingston committed the Greater London Council (GLC) to opposing discrimination against homosexuals. In 1984, the GLC affirmed gay rights as part of its anti-discrimination policy and established the London Lesbian and Gay Centre.

Labour-dominated councils in other cities, including Manchester, Southampton, and Birmingham, instituted programs similar to those of the GLC. Incensed, the Thatcher government passed the Local Government Act of 1985, which abolished the GLC and other councils, effective March 31, 1986.

Influenced by the policies of the councils, Labour Party conferences of 1986 and 1987 supported motions to commit any future national Labour government to outlaw discrimination against gay men and lesbians. In the 1987 General Election, which was won by Thatcher, Conservative candidates routinely attacked Labour's pro-gay policies, using it as a wedge issue.

At the Conservative Party Conference held in October 1987, Thatcher expressed concern that children were being taught that gay lifestyles were acceptable. In December 1987, she announced her support for Clause 28, a law that prohibited government-supported institutions from teaching the normalcy of homosexuality and from making available any materials depicting homosexual relationships positively.

Stung by defeat in the recent election, Labour leaders initially refused to challenge this proposal, but the Party affirmed its opposition to the amendment by the beginning of March. The Association of Art Historians and other arts organizations also expressed their opposition to Clause 28. Coming out in the course of a BBC radio interview, prominent Shakespearean actor Ian McKellen emerged as a leader of the opposition to the amendment.

Reacting to the homophobia underlying Clause 28, gay men and lesbians throughout the country were roused to political activism. Over 10,000 lesbians and gay men participated in a march in London on January 9, 1988, two days before the House of Lords debated the measure. Even larger protests were held in subsequent weeks. After the House of Commons passed the legislation on March 9, protests against Clause 28 continued, including one held on April 30 in London that attracted more than 30,000 people.

By establishing as a principle of British law the belief that homosexuality is a detriment to society, Clause 28 constituted a powerful symbol of the second-class status of gay and lesbian citizens.

Although no one was prosecuted for violating Clause 28, the law achieved its goal of making local authorities cautious about funding material or events dealing with homosexual issues. Moreover, it proved very difficult to repeal, particularly because of its support in the House of Lords. The government of Prime Minister Blair was able to accomplish the task only in 2003.

If Margaret Thatcher's legacy is one of oppression and the misuse of state power, her policies also unintentionally led to a large number of glbtq people embracing political activism in response to her assault on their rights and dignity.

 
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