Here in the UK, February is LGBT History Month, and this year sees in a momentous anniversary. Fifty years ago homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales. The Sexual Offences Act, 1967 was given royal assent on 27 July, days before the UK’s most famous gay couple – Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell – were found dead. Orton, an enfant terrible revelling in his defiance of the norms of the time, would probably have had a very different creative life today.
In many ways, 1967 was a seminal year for the UK’s move into modern times. Besides the Sexual Offences Act, the year saw the introduction of the Abortion Act. Outside of the courtroom, there was the start of colour television and the birth of Radio 1.
I wasn’t around in 1967, and never knew those dark days of illegality. But social attitudes can take time to catch up with the law, and I do know how 20 years later, old prejudices persisted. For me, a closeted teenager in the ’80s, it was not a good time to know you were gay. Besides the hysteria whipped up by the AIDS scare and manifesto promises for cracking down on the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, the realisation that shocked me most was just how much people like me were hated by mainstream society.
In 1987 – 20 years after decriminalisation – the British Social Attitudes survey revealed that three quarters of the population thought sexual relations between two adults of the same sex were always wrong (64%) or mostly wrong (11%).
The ’80s were a strange, confusing time to become sexually and politically aware.
In the run-up to the 1987 General Election, the BBC’s flagship 9 O’clock News had a soundbite from a working class voter in inner London who couldn’t bring himself to vote Labour because he didn’t want his son ‘to grow up to be a queer’. The Labour initiative that had irked him so much was a teachers’ resource library stocking the book Jenny lives with Eric and Martin, a translation of the Danish story showcasing different kinds of families. This was the stuff of a culture war, with social conservatives evoking the bogyman of the left’s lunatic fringe – ‘perverts’ corrupting society, whilst endorsing liberation movements (or ‘terrorists’) overseas. At the same time, a radical economic agenda was being pursued by Thatcher and Reagan.
As for mainstream opinion, I think the majority wanted to cling onto the familiar socially conservative view, but embraced the new radicalism of Thatcherite economics.
Slowly but surely though, attitudes changed, at least on social issues. By 2001, Ken Livingstone, once part of the ‘lunatic fringe’ derided by traditional Labour supporters as much as elements of the tabloid press, managed to introduce a gay partnership register. Divisive as he may have been, his idea eventually got taken up nationally in a civil partnership law, superseded by equal marriage – pulled off by a Conservative prime minister to boot. One by one, those old ‘looney left’ ideas, as espoused by the GLC – equal opportunity monitoring in employment, equality of provision of goods and services, shared parental leave, disability rights – came to pass. Massively controversial at the time, today they don’t even raise an eyebrow.
Yet as social attitudes have shifted leftwards, the right-wing consolidated its control of economic policy. And, one by one, ideas that teachers at my comprehensive school branded ‘rabid right’ – privatisation, low income tax rates, outsourcing of public services, and high VAT – became entrenched. Few people starting work today and paying the 20 per cent basic rate income tax would accept a return to the 33 per cent of the late ’70s – and most would struggle to believe such a rate had ever existed.
Not only that, but ideas my teachers wouldn’t have dreamt of – zero hour contracts, the demise of final salary pensions, the gig economy – are now mainstream.
Which begs the question, in these populist days of Brexit and Trump, of economic uncertainties and a hardened social mood – are we facing another cultural crossroads? And what norm will future adolescents look to as they discover their sexuality?