LGBTQ+ Officer Beth Nott brings us our second installment of the intertwined history of the labour and LGBT movements, this week focusing on the 20th Century.

Under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, homosexual activity between men1 was illegal, but few arrests were made until the infamous trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895. After this, in the first half of the 20th century, arresting gay people became vogue. Arrests for

homosexuality (buggery, gross indecency and indecent assault) shot up from 622 in 1931 to 6,644 in 1955 (Lewis, 2016). During this time, Churchill attempted to suppress press coverage of convictions as to prevent a repetition of the sensationalist news coverage of the conviction of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu in 1954, but was convinced by Maxwell Fyfe that a “dispassionate inquiry” would be preferable (ibid., p. 6). This inquiry would turn out to be the famous Wolfenden report.

It should be noted here that liberation for LGBT people in the first half of the 20th century was not based on ideas of human rights, instead focusing on citizenship, privacy and individual freedom of choice under a laissez-faire system. Even after the Stonewall uprising of 1969, LGBT liberation movements were based on the socialist values of collective equality and liberation, rejecting the liberal individualist approach. Only in the 1980s was the language of human rights incorporated into the struggle (Stocks, 2015).

Over the course of three years, from 1954-7, the committee heard over 200 witnesses, with opinions ranging from that homosexuality should continue to be criminalised (mainly from those in law enforcement) to that homosexuality was innate and should cease to be pathologized at all (the view of sexologists). At the end of the process, “[t]he final report recommended that homosexual sex between consenting males over the age of 21 in private be decriminalized” (Stocks, 2015, p. 9). While the Wolfenden report was not without its critics, who alleged that it favoured middle-class masculine gay men and saw a very strict gay/straight dichotomy, it is undoubtable that it went a long way to, quoting Lewis, “pave the way for all that followed: decriminalization, gay liberation and the raft of twenty-first-century reforms culminating in gay marriage” (Op. cit.).

Parliament got round to debating the conclusions of the report a year later, and the man who commissioned the report, Maxwell Fyfe, was now in the House of Lords. Allegedly, he didn’t want to be “the man who made sodomy legal”, and it had become clear that Macmillan’s Conservative government had “no intention of acting on Wolfenden’s recommendations on homosexuality at this point or indeed in the foreseeable future” (Elliott & Humphries, 2017, chapter 5 paragraph 8).

It took the election of a Labour government to finally pass the recommendations of the report. During Wilson’s first government of 1964-1970, Labour MP Leo Abse introduced the Sexual Offences Bill, a private member’s bill co-sponsored by Conservative Peer Lord Arran (Iglikowski-Broad, 2017). Society’s attitudes had changed by this time: a 1965 poll in the Daily Mail showed that 63% of people did not believe that homosexual acts in private should be criminal (ibid.). The Bill was put to a vote, with no whip on either side of the chamber as it was seen as a vote of confidence, passing The Labour party response was not all it should have been, however; then-home secretary Roy Jenkins said in the debate that “those who suffer from this disability [homosexuality] carry a great weight of shame all their lives” (Dowell, 2007). It may further come to a shock to many readers that those in support of the bill included Margaret Thatcher and notable racist Enoch Powell, not those generally associated with this kind of legislation. Their reasoning is libertarian: that the government should not intervene in purely private matters such as this. In the end, the Bill passed with 101 votes to 16 after a long night of debates (Parliament.uk, 2020). While undoubtably a win for the LGBT community, this victory cannot be purely attributed to the Labour party, and we should recognise that the Tories can sometimes do good things.

However, we should not view the passing of the 1967 Act as the end of criminalisation of LGBT people. The Act explicitly only permit private acts of homosexuality, and as such the crime of public indecency continued to be used against gay people. Arrests for public indecency actually increased after the Act was passed (ibid.). The fight was not over.

The HIV/AIDs crisis in the 80s and 90s hit the LGBT particularly hard. The pandemic of today shows the lengths government will go to to protect the public against a deadly virus, provided they show sympathy to the people who are dying. In contrast, the AIDs epidemic was seen as exclusively a “gay disease”, and Thatcher’s government was very happy to let our community die in some kind of moral retribution for our sins. “In the epidemic’s early years health administrators often found themselves battering their heads against a brick wall trying to convince Conservative politicians to take the epidemic seriously” (Rayside, 1992), while Labour councils (especially in metropolitan areas) were “provid[ing] conselling and other services for gays and lesbians”.

Immortalised by the incredible film Pride (2014) is the story of how Labour resolved in their 1985 Annual Conference to criminalise discrimination against LGBT people, due largely to a block vote from one key union – the National Union of Mineworkers. This was in solidarity with the LGBT movement, especially the group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), based out of the London bookshop Gay’s the Word (still open today as the only LGBT bookshop in England, founded by socialists), who supported them monetarily during the miners’ strikes of 1984-5, even when their support was not welcomed by the miners themselves. This historic moment in the history of the LGBT community within the Labour party could not have been possible without the solidarity formed between oppressed groups supporting each other when nobody else would (Kelliher, 2014).

Also in 1984, Chris Smith became the first MP to come out while in office. He narrowly won the seat of Islington South and Finsbury in thr 1983 General Election. At a protest in Rugby against the Conservative-run council allowing discrimination on the basis of sexuality, he was asked to deliver a speech as shadow National Heritage minister (later renamed Department of Culture, Media and Sport), where he delivered the following unplanned coming out: “My name is Chris Smith. I’m the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, and I’m gay.” (Campbell, 2005). He received a 5 minute standing ovation. Smith later became the first openly gay cabinet member, serving under Blair as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Smith also became the first MP to come out as HIV positive in 2005, helping show that, as the spokesperson for HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust put is, “it is possible to live with HIV and you can lead a normal life” (Grice, 2005).

One major step back for LGBT people in Britain came with the introduction of Clause 28 of the Local Government Act of 1988, colloquially known simply as Section 28, that required sex education to “uphold the values of ‘normal family life’” (Rayside, 1992). This prevented the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools, including not allowing schools to “promote the

teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” (Local Government Act, 1988). Before this point, councils around the country had been fiscally supporting LGBT groups, notably that the Greater London Council and 10 boroughs in London are estimated to have issued more than £600,000 in grants to small LGBT groups in 1984 (Sunday Telegraph, 1985). With Labour councils all over the country doing bits for LGBT rights, the Conservative party ramped up their homophobic campaigns, saying that Labour would put books in schools that taught children as young as 5 the ins and outs of gay sex.

Kinnock: The Movie – 30 years on – Tides Of History
Figure 1 (Broxton, 2017)

An anti-Section 28 demonstration took place in Manchester, led by left-wing gay rights campaigner John Shiers, attended by 25,000 people. Section 28 led to the formation of groups like Stonewall (UK) by Ian McKellen and OutRage!. Although no-one was ever prosecuted under the law, the effects on education are innumerable. There will not be a single teacher of our generation that was not in some way affected in what they talked about by Section 28, as it was only repealed in 2003; it is not hyperbole to say that every LGBT person in the UK grew up under its shadow. Shropshire County Council halted its funding of an LGBT youth group, citing Section 28 as the reason, and it was far from the only LA to do so (BBC, 2000b). Speaking personally, homosexuality wasn’t talked about in my primary school until an early proto-No Outsiders programme was started – and swiftly repealed by conservative parents.

Section 28’s repeal wasn’t without pushback, of course, even though most of its guidelines had already been covered by further legislation. Notably, Theresa May said at the time that an early defeat of the repeal was a “victory for commonsense”, while Blair called it a “piece of prejudice”, saying “the government will not stop doing what is right” (BBC, 2000a).

It should be noted here that liberation for LGBT people in the first half of the 20th century was not based on ideas of human rights, instead focusing on citizenship, privacy and individual freedom of choice under a laissez-faire system. Even after the Stonewall uprising of 1969, LGBT liberation movements were based on the socialist values of collective equality and liberation, rejecting the liberal individualist approach. Only in the 1980s was the language of human rights incorporated into the struggle (Stocks, 2015).


BBC, 2000a. Ministers back down on gay ban. [Online] Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/850113.stm [Accessed 27 05 2020].

BBC, 2000b. When gay became a four-letter word. [Online] Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/611704.stm [Accessed 27 05 2020].

Broxton, A., 2017. Kinnock: The Movie – 30 years on – Tides of History. [Online] Available at: https://tidesofhistory.wordpress.com/2017/05/21/kinnock-the-movie-30-years-on/ [Accessed 27 05 2020].

Campbell, D., 2005. The pioneer who changed gay lives. [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2005/jan/30/uk.aids [Accessed 27 05 2020].

Dowell, B., 2007. Channel 4 to mark homosexuality legislation. [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2007/feb/15/broadcasting.channel4 [Accessed 26 05 2020].

Elliott, S. & Humphries, S., 2017. Not Guilty: Queer Stories from a Century of Discrimination. s.l.:Biteback Publishing.

Grice, A., 2005. Christ Smith praised for HIV revelation. [Online] Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/chris-smith-praised-for-hiv-revelation-489002.html [Accessed 27 05 2020].

Iglikowski-Broad, V., 2017. The passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. [Online] Available at: https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/sexual-offences-act/ [Accessed 26 05 2020].

Kelliher, D., 2014. Solidarity and Sexuality: Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners 1984-5. History Workshop Journal, 77(1), pp. 240-62.

Lewis, B., 2016. Wolfenden’s Witnesses: Homosexuality in Postwar Britain. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Local Government Act 1988, n.d. c. 9 Part IV Miscellaneous Section 28. s.l.:http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1988/9/section/28/enacted.

Parliament.uk, 2020. Sexual Offences Act 1967. [Online] Available at: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/relationships/collections1/sexual-offences-act-1967/sexual-offences-act-1967/ [Accessed 26 05 2020].

Rayside, D., 1992. Homophobia, Class and Party in England. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 25(1), pp. 121-149.

Stocks, T., 2015. To What Extent Have the Rights of Transgender People Been Underrealized in Comparison to the Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Queer/Questioning People in the United Kingdom?. International Journal of Transgenderism, 16(1), pp. 1-35.

Sunday Telegraph, 1985. 6th October 1985. s.l.:s.n.

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