30 Years On: the UK’s Biggest LGBT Rights Demo

Thirty years ago today Manchester saw the biggest queer rights demonstration the UK had ever witnessed as more than 20,000 people poured onto the streets to protest against Section 28.

It was twenty years after the partial decriminalisation of sex between men – and bar the extension of that law to Scotland in 1980 and Northern Ireland in 1982, precious little more had changed. Further, the arrival of HIV / AIDS in the public consciousness had given the tabloids an excuse to print ever more misleading hyperbole about the supposed danger that bisexual and gay people posed to straight people and mainstream society.

Section 28 sought to use that populist homophobic tide to win votes in elections. Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher endorsed it saying that, “children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life.”

The Liberal Democrats – then on around 2% in the opinion polls so perhaps with little to lose – opposed it from the start. Meanwhile the Labour Party fought shy of opposing the law in the early days for fear of how many votes it might cost them – an internal party battle had to be fought to bring the parliamentary party around. The Conservatives continued to champion the law through its 15 years on the statute book and did not shift their position until some time into David Cameron’s leadership.

After a parade from All Saints Park to the Town Hall, the Manchester demo included among its rally speakers bisexual singer Tom Robinson – best known at the time for hit songs “2-4-6-8 Motorway” and “Glad to be Gay”. A couple of years earlier he had been heckled copiously at London Lesbian & Gay Pride on account of a tabloid expose revealing that he (“Britain’s Number One Gay!”) was now in a relationship with a woman. Eastenders actor Michael Cashman was also part of the lineup.

The law itself was very vague – declaring that a local authority (council) “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”.

The campaign against the clause – which as legislation progressed bounced around between being number 27. 28 or 29 – is sharply illustrative of LGBT rights at the time. While it acted as a catalyst bringing gay and lesbian campaigning and community groups together, some of these then moved to expel bisexual volunteers from their ranks as a consequence of biphobia within the gay community. All the language used both by the supporters and opponents of the bill was entirely about straight and gay: as the state sought to eliminate its gays, bisexuals were even more invisible.

It entered law in May 1988: it lasted just 12 years in Scotland, where the Lib Dem / Labour coalition government abolished it in 2000, but in England and Wales where Labour had a working majority on their own it remained law for another three years until 2003. Fifteen years here, fifteen years gone, we don’t miss it a bit.