September 28, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

It’s a Sin – LGBT in the Thatcher era

5 min read
The Russell T Davies series It's a Sin shows what it was like to be young and gay in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher and with AIDS
It's a Sin

Veteran screenwriter Russell T Davies has just penned a new TV drama – It’s a Sin – that takes us back to the era covered by this blog. It recounts the lives of several fictional gay characters in the early 1980s – though moving through the decade swiftly. And inevitably it delves into the emotional pain caused by the AIDS pandemic.

Channel 4 is broadcasting It’s a Sin, written by Davies and reflecting his own life experience from that time. The first episode begins in 1981, which was my first year at university. We see some of the characters arriving on campus as students while others are leaving home – or getting kicked out – and having to make their own way in life. It has all the Davies touches of joyfulness and sentimentality in big doses.

It’s a Sin and AIDS

Everybody who lived through those times has a different experience. But there were common themes. At the very start of the 80s, AIDS wasn’t immediately obvious as a threat. We’d just emerged from the disco-drenched late 70s. Pop music embraced androgyny and gay fashion. Despite huge discrimination and social attitudes that were exceedingly hostile, there were reasons to imagine that things could get better.

Then along came HIV/AIDS. This impacts in the first episode with a character dying alone in a hospital ward and treated by the staff like a leper. It’s uncomfortable viewing. What I found difficult to watch was the dramatising of how little sympathy there was in the first years for sufferers. In the media, political sphere and wider society, it was seen as a self-inflicted disease on a hedonistic, immoral underworld.

I can’t actually remember the first time I read about HIV/AIDS. I was certainly familiar with its existence by 1983. And all the stories of some American airline steward passing it on for the first time to an unidentified person in a London bar, etc, etc. AIDS only really became visible to me in the late 1980s when I returned from Liverpool University to London. Then I started to see and experience with my own eyes the evidence in Soho and elsewhere.

It’s a Sin: gay psychology

That whole era seemed to push LGBT rights backwards and encouraged many to remain in the closet. There’s a scene where the main protagonist is asked early on if he’s gay and at first denies it, then blurts out he’s “bisexual”. Before his new female friend drags him from the closet and the rest is history. That I’d say was a scene replicated many times in real life.

Self denial in fact was more psychologically damaging than the external threat of violence and discrimination. Though that shouldn’t be underestimated of course. Many straight people today think they were a lot more tolerant back in the day. But even on the political Left (Ken Livingstone and the London Labour Party aside), bigotry was mainstream. If you came out, it was goodbye old friends, goodbye possibly to your job or employment prospects and don’t even think about getting a mortgage or life assurance. Plus the risk of being ‘queer bashed’ on the streets.

So many young gay men lied to themselves. Maybe flirting with the ‘scene’ on the fringes and having the odd fling. Or simply keeping their real feelings a guilty secret. Some of course going the whole hog and getting married to a woman. This self denial was undoubtedly damaging.

The situation wasn’t helped by the lack of role models. For many gay men, of a more butch disposition, those role models on offer in the media were often unappealingly camp. Now, I’ve got nothing against camp. But for mainstream audiences in the 1980s, a gay man on screen was fine so long as he was a total screamer or in drag. The idea of a gay man being a regular guy – forget it.

Those celebrities who were out and proud were the subject of almost constant lurid reporting in the tabloids and ridiculous anecdotes in pubs and bars. Though I’d say there was and still is a conflicted view of all this among gay men. On the one side, it was tiresome to be depicted as seedy and perverted 24/7. On the other hand, many gay men wanted to undermine bourgeois morality and revelled in their shock value. At a time when the anti-Thatcher side of Britain wanted to be ‘alternative’, then being gay was about as alternative as you could get.

Thatcher and It’s a Sin

Watching episode one of It’s a Sin, I couldn’t help noticing the very popular poster at the time of Ronald Reagan holding Margaret Thatcher in his arms as a spoof of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara in the movie Gone With The Wind. And it did make me wonder: where’s the politics? Because like today, the late 70s and early 80s was an intensely polarised and politicised period. Gay people who were out were almost uniformly Labour or on the left.

There were gay Tories and even today, they’re still trying to convince us that Thatcher was both a feminist and gay icon. Her own actions and word suggest otherwise. Thatcher enthusiastically supported and spoke in favour or the loathsome Clause 28 outlawing the imaginary crime of “promoting homosexuality” by local authorities and schools. This piece of dreadful populist hate-filled legislation should never be forgotten. At the height of a pandemic that was decimating gay communities across the United Kingdom, the government stuck the boot in.

DISCOVER: The riots of 1981 – a long hot summer

So how did it all end?

There was a curious dialectic to gay history in the period covered by It’s a Sin. The HIV/AIDS pandemic was grim in its initial impact. Who could possibly forget Metropolitan police officers in 1987 raiding the Royal Vauxhall Tavern wearing rubber gloves? But it also brought gay people centre stage. It spawned a new and more vocal activism. And incredibly, by the early 90s, it forced social and legislative change.

Yes the late 70s and the disco boom were amazing. But it changed little in terms of societal attitudes. It took the hell of the 1980s to create a new world. Sad to say but it’s often war, plague and crisis that spur positive and fundamental developments. Make sure you catch It’s a Sin on Channel 4.

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