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From Section 28 to gay marriage: the Tories and homosexuality

On one level, David Cameron’s decision to legislate for equal marriage is a measure of just how far the Conservative Party has come since the 1980s.

Only a quarter of a century ago, it was still acceptable for a Tory local government leader to respond to the arrival of AIDS with a call for ‘90% of queers’ to be sent to ‘the ruddy gas chambers’ rather than be allowed to ‘trade their filth up and down the country’.

A toned down version of that rhetoric could be heard even at the very top. Margaret Thatcher herself told Conservative conference in 1987: ‘Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.’

The double standard was palpable. The government benches were full of closet gays, not least Maggie’s own parliamentary private secretary, the late Sir Peter Morrison.

Her predecessor as Tory leader, Ted Heath, was still in parliament at the time. Only after his death did it emerge that he had to be warned off his propensity for cottaging prior to his political career taking off.

Billericay Conservative Association went to great length to defend local MP Harvey Proctor – probably the most rightwing MP in Britain – from claims that he was not as other men, as the euphemism of the period went.

Inconveniently for them, the pretence rather fell through when the police raided his London flat and found him beating the hell out of an underage rent boy.

Yet none of this held back Tory determination to crusade against the evils of gay sex. A month after Thatcher’s speech, Conservative MP Dame Jill Knight added a pointless bolt-on clause to a local government bill then going through the Commons.

Section 28 – as it became known – specified that no local authority should ‘intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’ nor ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.

The legislation, targeted at the alleged activities of Labour councils, was frankly stupid. There was no evidence that any council ever promoted homosexuality, or indeed any convincing argument about how a council could ‘promote’ a sexual orientation had it wanted to do so.

So Cameron’s move to give same sex couples the right to wed could not be further from the policies that dominated in the bad old days.  It’s just that it is difficult to be convinced of the prime minister’s sincerity on this one.

If he is a genuine convert to the cause of LGBT equality, it has to be said that the volte face came rather late in the day. Cameron effectively opposed gay adoption in 2002, by voting for it to be restricted to married men and women couples only.

He voted against the repeal of Section 28 in 2003, and as recently as 2008, voted against permitting lesbian couples access to IVF fertility treatment. He also took the decision to line up Tory MEPs with Poland’s notoriously homophobic Law and Justice Party in the European Parliament.

The inescapable conclusion is that his current stance is motivated more by electoral calculation than deeply held ‘but because I’m a Conservative’ principle, with the green light coming only after the Tories witnessed the success of Obama in a US presidential contest in which gay marriage was a touchstone issue.

While there will be the political cost of alienating several dozen Tory backbenchers and a fair swathe of the core electorate, the evidence of the opinion polls suggests that it will pull in more votes than it loses, whatever the predictable fulminations from the likes of Peter Bone.

It will also bring with it the catchpenny political advantages of emphasising Cameron’s small-l liberal credentials, while giving Nick Clegg something he can sell to disgruntled Lib Dems.

Don’t get me wrong; of course I think equal marriage is a step forward, and of course I realise that governments should respond to changes in majority opinion. My point is rather that Cameron seems suspiciously happy to go whatever way the wind blows.

I guess the most depressing thing about Tory attitudes towards LGBT people in the Thatcher years was the sheer opportunism in pandering to prevailing homophobic prejudice.

And even in adapting to the thankfully more enlightened values of today, the most depressing thing about Tory attitudes towards LGBT rights now is the sheer opportunism still.


  1. Robert says:

    Few Labour MP’s if I remember right who are not happy with gays getting married, some I think are the religious types who see it as being against god f or something.

    We still cannot get past the point it’s up to people to choose what type of life they want to lead.

  2. David Boothroyd says:

    Dame Jill Knight was certainly one of the leading homophobes of her time but section 28 was actually the responsibility of Spelthorne MP David Wilshire.

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