Paul Burston: There was a lot to be angry about in the mid-80s
I was born in 1965 – two years before the passing of the 1967 act. I was raised in south Wales – at that time, a place hardly known for its progressive attitudes towards sexuality. Homophobia was rife. I was bullied at school a lot. Kids were calling me “poof” and “fairy” long before I knew what those words meant. They also called me “tog”, which was a local term for queer. I didn’t know I was queer. I knew I was different but I didn’t know how or why.
I was 10 when The Naked Civil Servant was shown on TV. My mother was working nights as a nurse and my stepdad and I watched the programme together. Afterwards he turned to me and said, “Your mother is worried you might turn out like that.” Not half as worried as I was. Looking back now, I can appreciate Quentin Crisp for the trailblazer he was. Aged 10, I was terrified of him.
Gay relationships are still criminalised in 72 countries, report finds
I left Wales in 1984 and moved to London to study and become the person I knew I wanted to be. In 1985 I attended my first Pride march and I heard my first marching slogan. “Give me a G! Give me an A! Give me a Y! What does it spell? Gay! What is gay? Good! What else is gay? Angry!”
There was a lot to be angry about in the mid-80s. The age of consent for gay men was 21, which meant the law was being broken on a regular basis. Section 28, with which the Thatcher government outlawed the promotion of homosexuality in schools, was just around the corner. And soon a big disease with a little name would claim the lives of many of my closest friends.
Around this time I had a friend called Tom, who was in his 60s and who would often tell me tales of life before the 1967 act. He and his partner had been together for many years but slept in two separate single beds. As he told me, “You could be put in prison just for loving someone.” The day the act was passed he and his partner went out and bought a double bed. Every time he told me this story, my eyes would fill with tears.
It’s a commonly held misconception that the 1967 act legalised male homosexuality. It didn’t. It partially decriminalised it under certain conditions. In the years that followed, gay sexuality was policed more aggressively than before and the number of men arrested for breaching those conditions actually rose considerably. As research conducted by Peter Tatchell recently found, in 1966 some 420 men were convicted of the gay crime of gross indecency. By 1974, that number had soared by more than 300% to over 1,700 convictions.
Policing in the 80s and early 90s was virulently homophobic, whipped up by hysteria around Aids and gay-baiting newspapers such as the Sun, Daily Mail and News of the World. Manchester’s police chief, James Anderton, penned a tabloid column about Aids in which he described gay men as “swirling in a human cesspit of their own making”. Gay saunas were raided. “Disorderly house” charges were pressed against gay bars and nightclubs. At the Royal Vauxhall Tavern one night there was a raid by police wearing rubber gloves. The drag queen Lily Savage – also known as Paul O’Grady – encouraged everyone to resist arrest.
I’m not saying that the 1967 Act wasn’t revolutionary. In many ways it was. For men such as my old friend Tom, it meant a change of life. Finally he got to sleep with his partner in a double bed!
But it was also very limited. It allowed the law to go on punishing us for things heterosexuals took for granted – the freedom to have sex at 16, the freedom to express our love in public, the freedom to be ourselves.
Stephen K Amos: The only thing in my closet is my clothes
Looking back over your shoulder in fear, embarrassment and shame is not a good state of mind. Self-doubt, leading a double life, masquerading as a person you’re pretending to be: the tone is set for an unfulfilled life, anxiety and mental health issues. Over the last 50 years battles have been fought, lives have been lost and undoubtedly saved. Equality is always just around the corner.
There are many of us who remember the hatred, the discrimination, the abuse. Yet as we commemorate the advances we must be ever mindful that those attitudes still exist today, not just in other countries around the world but also right here on our doorstep. We live in a more tolerant society now but ask yourself, whoever you are: do you want to be tolerated or do you want to start off on an equal footing?
Hatred of LGBTQ people still infects society. How can we celebrate? | Owen Jones
The past five decades years have seen laws that allowed people to be criminalised, demonised, and barred from serving their country or marrying the person that they love slowly chipped away. It is remarkable, as a gay man, moving from the underground to a higher level of visibility. The first pride marches were more like political rallies, resulting in near-riots and violence. Today it is a massive street party, attended by thousands of people of all genders, races and sexual orientations, closing off a significant section of central London.
What most people want is acceptance and equality. Full stop. I recall during our debate about gay marriage, a Ukip councilllor, who is a grown adult, an educated man, genuinely said that if the UK legalised gay marriage, we would be “beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war”. And guess what, in the last couple of years we’ve had some of the worst floods in history. So maybe he had a point, for it is written in the Holy Book, that after the flood there comes a rainbow.
To be able to write this in a national newspaper is huge. To have official organisations commemorating this change in legislation when remembering all the battles over Section 28 is extraordinary. To be able to be me is living. The only thing in my closet are my clothes. I thank all those people upon whose shoulders we stand for not keeping quiet. And if one young person, going through the trauma of finding out who they are, can be encouraged and made to feel they are worth something, it has all been worthwhile. I’m holding off on using the word “celebrate”. The battle is not yet won.
Terry Stewart: Prejudice continues to this day. We must stay vigilant
I grew up in the north of Ireland - at a time when, as I always say, it was almost as difficult to be heterosexual as homosexual. Attitudes to sexuality were deeply conservative, and as I began to become aware of my own feelings, I assumed that I was the only one who had them. Happily, I soon discovered I wasn’t. When I moved to London in the mid-1970s, Gay Liberation had begun, partly as a result of the 1967 act. I began living in a squat in Brixton with 40 other men, and discovered that openness, support – and, yes, sex – could be enjoyed in a society that was still hostile to people like us.
When the house was firebombed once, the police turned up, but after finding out we were “just queers”, they turned right around again. In the early 80s I was arrested for importuning in a public place – arrested by two officers who followed me into a public toilet. I was innocent, but was convicted by a jury and fined £20. Now, 50 years after homosexuality was supposedly “legalised” I have a criminal record for a crime that no longer exists, with no opportunity to apply for it to be expunged. It’s affected my health, and my career – I couldn’t apply for the jobs I wanted to because of the conviction.
Today I’m asking the home secretary to finally do right by the thousands of men in my position and begin to erase some of the hurt caused by so many instances of persecution. I’m grateful to be backed in this by my union, Unite. Yes, I’ll celebrate the anniversary - but I know that it’s not the whole story. Homophobia isn’t a thing of the past. Prejudice and unfairness continue to this day, and we’ve got to make sure we protect what we’ve already achieved. Remember: Section 28 came two decades after 1967, and Brexit means that a future UK government could backslide on human rights. Stay vigilant.
Julie Bindel: I would far rather come out today than in 1977
I came out in 1977, 11 years after the law changed. I had been bullied and harassed at school for well over a year prior to that for refusing to accept the label “slag” over that of “lezzer” (the only two options available).
The punishment was stark and swift: as a working-class girl from the north-east of England, I was meant to marry a local boy and have a brace of kids. When we speak of “forced marriage” we rarely look at the coercive control experienced by large numbers of girls and women from communities such as mine.
Being an out lesbian I felt constantly under threat. The feminist community I found in Leeds aged 17 offered not only protection but also pride and purpose. I wore my disobedience and resistance to heterosexuality like a badge of honour.
In between being sacked from jobs, thrown out of pubs, beaten up, sexually assaulted, and labelled a “freak” and “kiddy fiddler”, I was informed by some gay men and heterosexuals that lesbians were not oppressed because we were “not illegal”. I witnessed women having their children removed and placed in the custody of violent ex-partners; being raped by police officers as “punishment” when our clubs were raided on a pretext; and being cruelly rejected by families and childhood friends.
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The author Maureen Duffy, now 83, was the first lesbian in the UK to come out pre-1967 and speak against anti-gay discrimination. When I interviewed Duffy she told me that in her opinion there has long been an assumption that lesbians have historically not suffered as much direct prejudice as gay men because the criminal law, until Section 28, targeted only men. But mostly, says Duffy, as with sexual and domestic violence, lesbians often suffered silently and invisibly.
Criminal sanctions against gay men are always terrible, but the punishment of women who transgress and become lesbians – as with any women who reject the harsh rules of patriarchy – are, in many ways worse. Women are usually defined in terms of our relationships with men, so why would it not be more difficult to say no to heterosexuality? The change in the law had neither a positive nor negative effect on women as such, because oppression of lesbians will only end when oppression of women is a thing of the past. But I would far rather come out today than in 1977.
Joe Stone: We can’t lose sight of how far we still have to go
The strange thing about progress is that almost as soon as it happens, what went before becomes unthinkable. I’m 30 years old, and I can remember the age of consent being equalised and Section 28 being abolished. The idea that gay people in the UK would be denied the right to marry seems antiquated – let alone the idea that they would be jailed.
But if the last few years of political upheaval have taught us anything, it is that the path to equality is rarely a linear one. In America, nearly two thirds of LGBT people say they feel less safe since President Donald Trump took office. Closer to home, Theresa May has signed a coalition with the DUP, who feel marginally less warmly towards gay people than Taylor Swift does towards Katy Perry.
For gay men donating blood, the discrimination isn’t over – yet | Michael Segalov
Straight friends are shocked to learn that in the UK there are still significant restrictions on gay men giving blood, or that there are still 29 US states where it is legal to fire somebody for being gay (never mind the countries where it carries a death penalty).
That’s not to deny how much positive change has occurred - there’s never been a better time to be gay in the UK. But if the criminalisation of homosexuality feels like ancient history, it shouldn’t. The ripples of homophobic legislation are still being felt by the gay community, who are (depending on the study) between two and 10 times more likely than straight people to take their own lives. The kind of stigma that comes with being treated as second-class citizens takes time to recover from.
Few could have predicted, or even dared to aspire to, the sea change that has taken place in Britain in the last 50 years. For my generation, it is almost incomprehensible to imagine the fear and shame of being forced by law to hide who you are. It’s completely right that we should celebrate how far we have come – but it is also important never to lose sight of how far we still have to go.
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