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Margaret Thatcher’s Mixed Legacy: Gay Rights, an F; AIDS, an A

by Steve Weinstein
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Monday Apr 8, 2013
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The death of Margaret Thatcher has unleashed a torrent of comment worthy of one of the most important political leaders of the late 20th century. Even more than Ronald Reagan, Baroness Thatcher, it seems, can only be adored or despised. If, as she memorably put it, the lady was not for turning, neither are opinions about her legacy.

If there is one issue about which there can be little argument, it would have to gay rights. People on both sides of the political aisle can recognize that she stood against the winds of change in her implacable antipathy on the subject.

The proof is in one of most notorious acts of a long-running government that produced several. Thatcher forced through Parliament the first anti-gay law enacted in Britain in 100 years, Section 28. If its very name calls up Orwellian associations, its intentions weren’t too far from that either.

Tagged onto the innocuous-sounding Local Government Act of 1988, Section 28 (which affected England, Scotland and Wales, not Northern Ireland or the Channel islands) stated that local governments "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship."

Although there were no prosecutions under the offense, as noted in a Wikipedia entry, its very existence "caused many groups to close or limit their activities or self-censor. For example, a number of lesbian, gay and bisexual student support groups in schools and colleges across Britain were closed owing to fears by council legal staff."

As often happens with such reactionary policies, it had the exact opposite effect of its intentions. Rather than cowing the gay rights movement in Britain, it galvanized it. In its wake, Stonewall, still the major British gay lobbying group, came into being, as did OutRage.

On his blog, Dan Savage, who was living in London at the time, noted, "It felt like this law might the first of many anti-gay laws to come. Instead Section 28 was the beginning of the end for political homophobia in the UK."

To be fair, however, Welsh writer Tom Doran points out in the Daily Beast that in the 1960s, serving as a Conservative member of Parliament, Thatcher bravely bucked her party in voting for the decriminalization of homosexuality. Britain thus preceded the United States in making acts of "sodomy" not under the government’s purview a full four decades before the United States Supreme Court finally did the same in this country.

One of the more memorable results of Section 28 was actor Ian McKellan coming out in 1988. At the time, he said he felt the need to make a personal stand as a gay man. Two years later, Thatcher recommended him for a knighthood. When the 1991 New Year’s Queen’s List of honors went out and McKellen had agreed to be on it, some of the most prominent out-gay members of Britain’s arts community publicly disagreed with activist Derek Jarman, then dying of AIDS, who castigated McKellan for allowing Thatcher to recommend him to the queen. In an open letter in the Guardian newspaper, they agreed with Sir Ian that it would show younger people that someone could achieve such an honor while proudly being out of the closet.

Another actor, this one political, became well known because of his opposition to Section 28. On Thatcher’s death, Peter Tatchell, now Britain’s best-known gay rights activist wrote on his blog, "At the 1987 Conservative party conference she mocked people who defended the right to be gay, insinuating that there was no such right. During her rule, arrests and convictions for consenting same-sex behavior rocketed, as did queer bashing violence and murder. Gay men were widely demonized and scapegoated for the AIDS pandemic and Thatcher did nothing to challenge this vilification."

Parliament and regional assemblies eventually dismantled Section 28 in the early part of this century.

A Better Record on AIDS
On AIDS, the Thatcher government scores far higher.

In 1986, an ad appeared of a volcano erupting. "There is now a danger that has become a threat to us all," actor John Hurt ominously intoned in a voice-over. "It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure." Then came the message, "Don’t die of ignorance."

Although criticized by some for potentially causing panic and terrifying children, the ad campaign, as the BBC noted in a 2011 article, was extremely successful in bringing public attention to the epidemic and to condom use. The Post Office used "Don’t die of ignorance" on its letter cancellations, and the phrase became the basis of the largest AIDS public-awareness campaign up to that time.

The ad -- the first of its kind in the world -- went on to become a template for such campaigns around the world. Active government intervention and a lack of squeamishness about describing safer sex practices help keep the AIDS epidemic at lower per-capita levels than in other developed nations.

Although initially slow to act, the Thatcher government eventually pulled it together. In 1985, the government opened needle exchanges for drug addicts. "We did it in an extremely pragmatic way," Norman Fowler, the then-health secretary, told the Beeb. "We treated it as a public health issue."

The British action stands in stark contrast to the total inaction by the Reagan Administration on these shores. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop was the lone voice, and he was drowned out by the resolute silence by the president and his feckless Health and Human Services secretary, Margaret Heckler.

The president himself didn’t even utter the word "AIDS" until acknowledging the death of Hollywood buddy Rock Hudson, in 1985. It took another two years for him to make any kind of policy statement about fighting the disease.

It’s true that Britain in the 1980s didn’t face the political might of the newly emergent Religious Right here. Rather than being dominated by the Moral Majority and rabidly homophobic headliners like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the religious face of Britain was the Anglican Church. By the ’80s, the Britain’s establishment church had already begun moving toward a more accepting, moderate form of Christianity.

There was also the example of the most widely recognized personality in Britain at the time. As the then-Princess of Wales and a media mega-celebrity in her own right, Diana made headlines wherever she went. When she visited a hospital and pointedly made physical contact with sufferers of the disease, her simple act dispelled widespread fears that such contact would lead to exposure to HIV.

Putting all that aside, even given Thatcher’s own obvious personal distaste for homosexuality, It may have been her scientific background (she studied chemistry at Oxford) that allowed her government to make Britain a model for AIDS prevention worldwide.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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