During her eleven years as Prime Minister, Thatcher was frequently described as the ‘Iron Lady‘ and ‘the most powerful woman in the world.’ She was notably the first female Prime Minister as well as the first female head of any European government. Despite the fact that she oversaw three Conservative election wins, her own popularity dipped and peaked throughout her premiership. She was a controversial figure, with a 40% approval rating during her time in office. Eventually, she became so unpopular that her own party turned against her, with Helestine challenging her for the leadership of the party. She was persuaded to resign by her Cabinet and left Downing Street in tears. She is remembered for all the wrong reasons- the Miners’ Strike of 1984, the controversial Poll Tax and the Falklands War. However, perhaps her most lasting legacy was Section 28 of the Local Government Act of 1988.
This clause prohibited local authorities and schools from “promoting homosexuality’. In practical terms, this meant that teachers were banned from even suggesting the possibility of same-sex relations to students. Meanwhile, councils had to ensure that the libraries contained no gay literature or films in case they advocated anything other than the traditional family values that Thatcher wanted to impose upon the population.
At the time there was a new wave of prejudice against homosexuality sweeping the nation, due to the HIV/AIDS outbreak, which stigmatized not only those with the disease, but gay men too. It was assumed that it was most prevalent amongst them as they were thought to be promiscuous. This condemnation of homosexuality emboldened Thatcher to express her prejudices and pass the first homophobic law in Britain in a century.
This was a clear step backwards for gay rights in Britain. Despite the previous efforts of the LGBTQ+ movement in the 1960s and 70s and the passage of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, these homophobic attitudes prevailed for decades. This was exacerbated by Thatcher’s Section 28, which effectively allowed discrimination against gay children and encouraged their peers to bully them. It undoubtedly led to children and teenagers staying closeted for fear of judgement or discrimination. The fact that such a discriminatory law was introduced in a developed country in the 20th century is shocking. Even more shocking is that it was not repealed until 2001 in Scotland and 2003 in the rest of the UK. Up until that time, young people had to rely on celebrities and banned novels to teach them about being gay.
Notable examples of flamboyant celebrities around that time include Freddie Mercury, Elton John (who came out as bisexual in the 70s and then as gay twenty years later) and George Michael. However, it is significant that the majority of gay celebrities concealed their homosexuality for fear of the effect it may have on their career. So, without many openly gay role models to look up to and fearing what their peers would say or do to them if they came out, it is easy to imagine how scared and ashamed young people must have felt about their own sexuality.
However, there was significant pushback against this law which would have given young LGBTQ+ people some sense of hope. Sir Ian McKellan came out publicly for the first time in 1988 in order to voice his opposition whilst, in Manchester, over 20,000 people took to the streets to march against the law. The legal provision inspired two protest songs. These are Boy George’s ‘No Clause 28’ and Chumbawamba’s ‘Smash Clause 28! Fight the Alton Bill!’
Three lesbians abseiled from the public gallery of the House of Lords into the chamber; an astounding sight that was picked up by the national media. Protestors also stormed the BBC and managed to interrupt the six o’clock news, with one protestor chaining herself to Sue Lawley’s desk. Despite the negative effects of the law, it did seem to act as the catalyst for galvanising the British LGBTQ+ movement into action. It gave the gay rights community something to unite against. It also united all other political parties. All were opposed to it except the Conservatives.
Fortunately, by the time it was repealed, it had already been made largely redundant. The Education Act of 1996 and the Learning and Skill Act of 2000 had already transferred the regulation of sex education to the Secretary of State for Education. Still, for the twenty-five years that Section 28 was in place, it implied that homosexuals were dangerous to children as well as promoting discrimination and legitimising homophobia.
Thatcher was no hero. She promoted homophobia through legislation that linked homosexuality to paedophilia and doubtless caused many children and young people to stay closeted. No one should ever be afraid to be who they are, no matter what.