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