September 26, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

1980s homophobia in the House of Lords

6 min read
A debate in the House of Lords on the Local Government Act reveals 1980s homophobia at its very worst as Tony McMahon discovers

I recently came across the record of a debate in the House of Lords on 18 December 1986 that took my breath away in terms of the homophobia freely expressed back in the dark days of the 1980s. During a heated exchange on the Local Government Bill, the peers of the realm let loose on what they really thought about gays and lesbians. It doesn’t make for comfortable reading. But I don’t think we should ever forget what a bigoted place Britain could be just 35 years ago. This was the age of 1980s homophobia!

The Earl of Halsbury’s comments are the most jaw-dropping. He begins by congratulating the Lords on throwing out an attempt to lower the age of consent for homosexual consent from 21 to 18 nearly ten years earlier in 1977. It would take until the 1990s for that to happen. He claimed it would encourage male prostitution, “debasement of morals and spread of venereal disease”.

He then makes a distinction between “responsible” homosexuals – invisible might be a better word – and those who the law must come down on. And for what reason should gay men be criminalised? Take a deep breath people – because this is the Earl of Halsbury in his own words:

“Those who make the worst of their situation are the sick ones who suffer from a psychological syndrome whose symptoms are as follows: first of all, exhibitionism; they want the world to know all about them; secondly, promiscuity; thirdly, proselytising; they want to persuade other people that their way of life is the good one; fourthly, boasting of homosexual achievements as if they were due to and not in spite of sexual inversion; lastly, they act as reservoirs of venereal diseases of all kinds. Ask any venerealogist: syphilis, gonorrhoea, genital herpes and now AIDS are characteristically infections of homosexuals.”

For Halsbury – like Victorian bigots before him – lesbians are OK. Why? Well, because basically he couldn’t imagine what they did to each other.

“They do not indulge in disgusting and unnatural practices like buggery. They are not wildly promiscuous and do not spread venereal disease.”

However, beware the seemingly harmless lesbian.

“It is part of the softening up propaganda that lesbians and gays are nearly always referred to in that order. The relatively harmless lesbian leads on to the vicious gay. That was what I thought then and what I still in part continue to think, but I have been warned that the loony Left is hardening up the lesbian camp and that they are becoming increasingly aggressive.”

Ah yes, those Trotskyist boot camps for toughening up lesbians! Where on earth did people like Halsbury get their information from or was this rubbish just spun out of thin air. For the record, I nearly always heard ‘gays and lesbians’ referred to in that order in the 1980s and not the other way round. Not that it really matters of course.

Halsbury viewed homosexuals as threatening and ungrateful characters who showed no gratitude for the legal freedoms they had been given – and instead wanted more. This was a constant refrain in the debate. ‘Emancipation’ had been handed down to homosexuals and other minorities – yet they refused to show due deference. And they weren’t recognising the limits within which legislators like Halsbury felt should remain.

Lord Campbell of Alloway took another bigoted approach. The deployment of pity. Ah yes – pity the sick, perverted homosexual. They just can’t help themselves.

“They are often sad and lonely people, unable to have stable relationships, and they are, I am sure all your Lordships will agree, worthy of compassion.”

But not too much compassion. Because homosexuals are threatening violence against mainstream families, claimed Campbell. Evidence? As with today’s accusations against transgender people that they are physically threatening anti-trans voices – the evidence was thin to non-existent.

DISCOVER: Bigoted judges in the 1970s and 1980s

The Earl of Longford – 1980s homophobia at its worst

And then the Earl of Longford rose to his feet. A long-time campaigner for the freeing of Myra Hindley, the Moors Murderer. He told their lordships that he’d extended so much “compassion and understanding” to gay people. He’d voted for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the 1960s but on the strict proviso that gay men didn’t engage in acts he found “nauseating”. In other words – so long as they didn’t have sex!

Here’s Longford in the same debate:

“Homosexuals, in my submission, are handicapped people…The tragedy of such people is that they cannot enjoy family life and they cannot have children. If only for that reason I suppose that not many of us—perhaps none of us—would wish our children or grandchildren to grow up homosexuals. But, as I think I indicated earlier, in so far as these people are handicapped they deserve our fullest compassion and understanding.”

Longford was a Labour peer. But by the time of this debate, the Labour Party was no longer the cheerfully homophobic organisation he’d joined! He moaned to his fellow peers about the ‘loony left’ in local councils. This was a tabloid trope of the 1980s. As a younger man, Longford was admired by former Labour leaders Clement Attlee and Hugh Gaitskell. But Harold Wilson, prime minister in the 1960s, once remarked that Longford had a mental age of 12.

1980s homophobia legitimises anti-LGBT legislation

In what was a very polarised political environment under Thatcher, she and her government pushed anti-gay legislation and in response, left-wing Labour politicians got right up her nose with overtly pro-LGBT policies. Many of which wouldn’t raise a murmur now but back then…

The arguments of these dreadful peers basically ran along these lines. Britain is a Christian country. Homosexuality is a disease and must never be seen as equivalent or equal to heterosexuality. Gays and left-wing local authorities are ‘promoting’ homosexuality to young people. Homosexuality was decriminalised and yet gay men have been both ungrateful and overly demanding in being accepted.

The London Borough of Haringey was repeatedly singled out for attack over its condemnation of ‘heterosexism’. It’s hard to convey to anybody under the age of 50 or 60 today how making a clear statement that gay people deserved complete equality was unacceptable to most politicians and the public in the 1970s and 1980s. Local councils who said this kind of thing were branded ‘loony left’ and came under relentless attack from the tabloid newspapers.

What is truly shocking, and depressing, is that this exchange of views in the Lords came at a time when AIDS was ripping through the gay community. But Lord Fitt had an explanation. If only people had never heard of homosexuality, they wouldn’t have done whatever it is those people do behind closed doors and contracted the virus.

“I have absolutely no doubt that a significant number of present AIDS carriers within our society were given positive education in homosexuality when they were at school.”

Finally, there was this idea – that persists today – that just talking about homosexuality, or other sexualities, makes more young people become gay. As if reading a pamphlet or going on a website could completely alter your sexuality.

Or as Baroness Faithfull put it:

“May I speak of adolescent boys and girls who, more often than not, go through a phase of experiencing deep feelings for older people of their own sex. It is a phase. If it is encouraged, if it is taught to be a way of life, there are some—and I say only some—who will not pass out of that stage, but will remain homosexuals and follow the homosexual way of life to their lasting unhappiness.”

This House of Lords debate might easily be dismissed as the rambling of a bunch of senile old timeservers. But two years after this appalling exchange, a clause was added to the Local Government Bill that forbade the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by local councils – especially in schools. What that actually meant was that being gay or lesbian could not be discussed with any young person even if they were looking for guidance or help. That was the notorious Clause 28 scrapped a decade later.

And how many speeches were made giving a robust defence of LGBT rights against this tripe? Zero is the answer. Truly this was the era of 1980s homophobia!

As an interesting postscript – Halsbury was a good friend of J R R Tokien, author of the Lord of the Rings. I throw that nugget of information in for no reason whatsoever.

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