Saturday, 2 February 2013

Abseiling Lesbians

February is LGBT History Month and 2 February 2013 marks the 25th anniversary of a remarkable event in British LGBT history.. the storming of the House of Lords by abseiling lesbians.  This is my little tribute to them.

"Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin"

For anyone lucky enough not to remember, here's some quick background.  In 1981 a straight Danish woman, Susanne Bösche, wrote an illustrated children's book called "Jenny lives with Eric and Martin".  It covered, for example, a trip to the laundrette, a surprise birthday party, and an incident of homophobia in the street.  Her aim was to show to children that it's perfectly fine that some people grow up with different family situations.  As she puts it "It's not possible to go through life without meeting people living in different ways, and they shouldn't come as a shock to anybody" Here's an excellent radio piece from the BBC on it and a lovely Guardian interview with Susanne, in which she describes her gentle, incredibly reasonable, intentions.

When the book came out in English translation, there was uproar from the British tabloid press.  In 1983, the Mail reported that a copy had been found in one school library in Labour-controlled Haringey and a storm developed with the press reporting that outraged parents didn't want their children subjected to "images of semi-naked men in bed with a 7 year old girl".  A cultural gulf between Nordic countries, where families routinely have breakfast in bed together, and 80s Tory Britain where they apparently did not, was about to have explosive results.  The Sun, the Star and the Mail led the hectoring and onslaught of prejudice and hate-speech against gay people.  The book was apparently "blatant propaganda for homosexuality".

Only one copy of the book was ever found in that one school library.  There is no evidence it was ever lent out, nor that a single schoolchild ever read it.  If they had, the homophobic lobby would surely have highlighted it.

This was a ghastly time for many in Britain.  Thatcherism was causing enormous social and political upheaval. Terrence Higgins had in 1982 become the first gay man in this country to die of Aids. Several Labour councils were pilloried for taking the (radical!) step of including sexual orientation in a list of discrimination policies, and the Labour-controlled Greater London Council, headed by Ken Livingstone, was attacked for funding the London Lesbian and Gay Centre which occupied a  building in Farringdon.  Bear in mind also that it was only in 1980 that sex between consenting adult males men stopped being a criminal offence in Scotland, and in 1982 in Northern Ireland.
"Pretend Family Relationships"

The Thatcher government's response to all of this was to introduce Clause 28 of the Local Government Bill.  Dame Jill Knight, a leading supporter of the amendment, claimed that gay lobby groups were aiming to "abolish the family".  Tory MPs claimed that gay people were attempting to "indoctrinate" children into becoming homosexual.  It's been said many times, but how anyone can influence anyone to do anything with someone of a person of a gender they're not attracted to is beyond me.

The Clause was vile, spiteful and designed to offend the LGBT community with its use of the words "pretend family relationships".  It provided as follows:
A local authority shall not:
(a) Intentionally promote or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality.
(b) Promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality in a pretended family relationship.
Protestors Take to the Streets

There was a huge amount of protest over the Clause. It led to Ian McKellen's coming out just over 25 years ago, on 27 January 1988.  He did so on Radio 3 as a result of it and featured on the front page of the Gay Times.  It's extraordinary to think that "coming out of the closet" was such a political act back then for an actor.  It wasn't THAT long ago.. and it's weird to think that today Gay Times has pictures of 19 year old straight Olympic divers happy to get their kit off for their adoring gay male fans.

"Out of the closet and fighting"

Here are some pictures from rallies against the Clause.  These first two were in Manchester when LGBT protestors occupied Albert Square and Piccadilly Plaza.  Some had to be removed by firemen and weren't going to leave quietly:

Albert Square, Manchester, February 1988

Defiant Manc Lesbian taking on the Coppers

"Gay Proud + Angry"

Five lesbians chained themselves to the gates of Buckingham Palace on 8 March 1988 to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Suffragettes doing the same, and were joined by other protestors, some in period costumes!

Abseiling Lesbians

The two most high profile protests, however, were the abseiling into the House of Lords 25 years ago on 2 February 1988, and the invasion of the BBC Six O'Clock News (more on that later).

What happened in the dusty old House of Lords (remember, this was before the Blair reforms, when literally hundreds of ancient Tory hereditary peers could be wheeled in to fall asleep on the benches), was that the peers had just had a two hour debate on the Bill.  They voted 202 to 122 to pass it.  A group of protestors in the public gallery began heaping abuse on them, while four lesbians attached wires to the ironwork and unfurled two thin wires.  Three of them abseiled down into the chamber, shouting "LESBIANS ARE OUT!"  Three House of Lords Ushers, all retired naval warrant officers, tried to quell the protest and in the chaos two of the three abseilers walked out of the chamber.

Sadly no pictures of the protest exist, even though this was after filming was introduced in the House of Lords. This piece in the Guardian records it.  It has also entered this list of high-profile historic protests in parliament and has achieved somewhat legendary status.  They are still remembered fondly today:

So who were the abseiling lesbians?  Very little is known about them.  Click on this link if you want to see a copyrighted picture that shows the four women.  The woman on the right is Janet McLoughlin (not Jane as it says in the caption).  The tall woman at the back is a German woman who went by the name of Tim.  A third woman was Stella Blair (also quoted in the Guardian report) but it's not clear from the caption which one is Stella.  And the fourth remains nameless.  If anyone knows what they are doing now (and PLEASE check that they're happy for that information to be made public), do add a comment below.

Labour Peer Lord Monkswell, who had obtained passes for the women, was forced to apologise to the House a few days later.  His apology was reported in the Guardian.  He doesn't exactly sound sorry though: he declines to condemn the action, and he quotes a 12 year old girl as saying "This is just what Hitler did to the Jews."

BBC Six O'Clock News

The second famous protest was the invasion of the BBC Six O'Clock News on 23 May 1988.  This was the day before Clause 28 was enacted into law as the notorious and hated Section 28.  One woman managed to chain herself to Sue Lawley's desk and another was sat on by Nicholas Witchell.   It really is worth watching this video: Sue Lawley's composure is absolutely remarkable.  Do watch to the end because there's also an interview with the two women who invaded the studio.


(Direct link here if your browser doesn't work.  Firefox properly supports Blogger)

Even more amusing is this little sound clip (just for the first part). A man can be heard saying "Oh f*cking hell, we've got a nutter in the studio! Get them out!... Get security. Get security quickly!"


(Direct line here)

The final priceless thing from this event is the front page of the Daily Mirror the following day:

A Long Road

And there we are... it all seems like another world to me, though I remember 1988 incredibly well.  I was in the lower sixth form and struggling with my sexuality.  You can imagine what the grotesque manifestation of homophobia from the then Tory party did to young gay people of my generation.  I'm not sure I've ever forgiven them for it.

One immediate result of Section 28 was the setting up of Stonewall in 1989 to work within Parliament as well as outside to make sure nothing like this ever happened again, and of course to campaign for the repeal of Section 28 and other discriminatory laws.

Labour first tried to repeal the Section in 2000.  The Liberal Democrats and the Green Party also opposed the Section.  The attempt passed the Commons, but was defeated in the Lords following a campaign by Baroness Young (Conservative).  It was at this time that David Cameron defended Section 28 and publicly accused Tony Blair of being anti-family.  He added that Blair wanted to "promote homosexuality in schools". 

Section 28 sent out a message that the Government sanctioned homophobia; it endangered vulnerable children (because it appeared to prevent teachers from intervening in homophobic bullying); and it implied that gay people were dangerous to children.  Not one prosecution was ever made under it. The Section was repealed under Labour by the Local Government Act 2003. 

Michael Howard, who voted for the Bill, was Tory leader in 2005.  He told Attitude Magazine that "I thought, rightly or wrongly that there was a problem in those days" but added "Nobody’s fussed about those issues any more".  Never mind the damage it caused.  In 2006, Tory Chairman, Francis Maude, who himself voted for it, told Pink News that the policy was wrong and a mistake.

David Cameron voted against the repeal of Section 28.  In 2009, 21 years after its introduction and 6 years after its repeal, he finally apologised on behalf of the Conservatives for the Section.  He accepted it had been "offensive to gay people".

A Different World

It is a different world in this country today.  There is still bullying in schools, there is still homophobia in the workplace and we have seen a disgusting amount of it from (certain) Church figures relating to the issue of marriage equality.  There's also an enormously long way to go in the fight against outright violence towards trans* people.

However, the days when people were openly proud of their homophobia have gone.  We have an equal age of consent and anti-discrimination work protection.  It's no longer permissible for a hotel owner to shout in someone's face  "We'll not have any of that here" as happened to my friend Henrietta and her girlfriend not so long ago.  People go to lengths to deny they are homophobic, even if the content of what they are saying blatantly is.

My experience is that young gay, lesbian and bi people are growing up feeling much more secure, balanced, and happier than ever was the case.  It's not across the board, but I genuinely think it is the case broadly speaking... and it is a wonderful thing.

Marriage equality is of course going before the House of Commons on Tuesday.  The Prime Minister supports it, despite a groundswell of anger from grassroots Tories.  I wonder how many MPs who do vote against the proposals will look back in 25 years on marriage equality, as the likes of Howard and Maude do now on Section 28?  Let's hope the hateful rhetoric of those times will be a thing of the past during the debate, that the measure will pass, and that we don't even have to call on the help of abseiling lesbians into the House of Lords during the process :-)

Huge thanks to my friend Anya (@anyapalmer) for suggesting and editing this post, and for providing me with loads of the source material. 

1 comment:

  1. the one in the leather coat was called 'Red' and the one to the left was her girlfriend