Monday, 6 May 2013

Labour Day

The recent death of Margaret Thatcher revived a lot of old differences from the time when she was Prime Minister. During her funeral there were protests from lgbt groups about Section 28, the Thatcherite law which banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools. There were also other groups who chose to recreate the hatred generated from resurrecting other long-gone political clashes. In particular groups from the trade unions and coalminers.

When I was asked to produce a display for LGBT History Month this February at Nottinghamshire’s County Hall the invitation came from a trade union, Unison. I was asked if I could include the history of lgbt rights in the British trade union movement. I found there was so much to research and so little time that I printed all my research material and put it in a folder instead of design a specific display panel.

With the start of May also being the traditional time of year for the celebration of working life and people this gives me my third reason to write up some of my research and present it here today. I will describe the campaigns by and for the lgbt community up to 1985.

The trade union movement has always been at the forefront of campaigning for the rights of workers. LGBT employment rights and equality was, however, originally led by a variety of non-union groups. These included the Socialist Workers, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, the Lesbian and Gay Employment Rights group, and the Gay Rights at Work Committee.

In the 1960s and 1970s homosexuality, even after it was legalised, was still often seen as immoral. Many British trades unions, fearful of losing many members, were reluctant to openly back gay rights at work. They perpetuated the Victorian stereotype of gay men as being effeminate and not of the working class.

This attitude was prevalent in the region where I grew up, where the attitude of “if you don’t go down the pit, you’re a puff” was the rule – and it wasn’t meant as a compliment! In February I spoke to a group of lgbt youngsters from the same area who were receiving an award from the Nottinghamshire Rainbow Heritage project and I told them of the bigotry I encountered when I was their age. I wasn’t really surprised to hear from them that it still lingers.

The National Council for Civil Liberties were possibly the first to publish material specifically offering advice to trades unions on making work-places less discriminatory. Even though a high-ranking Labour MP, Tony Benn, wrote the introduction, the Labour government of the day gave it a cool reception. Surprisingly, in light of future events, it was the Tory opposition (which included Mrs. Thatcher) who pushed for lgbt employment rights.

But all was to be turned of its head in the late 1970s. Social and trade union unrest at the Labour government led to the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979. In the 1980s Thatcher’s anti-union policies united the unions, but there was still no effort to address anti-gay abuse in the work-place by the government, employers or the unions.

In 1984 the National Union of Mineworkers went on strike in protest at plans to close unworkable mines. It had the biggest and most far-reaching effect on the country as a whole than any other since the 1930s. Thousands of people travelled across the country to join or support picket lines and violent clashes between pickets and police became commonplace. Most of the country seemed to be sympathising with the miners, especially groups like the lgbt community who were already anti-Thatcher.

During the London Pride march of 1984 a collection was made for the striking miners’ families. From this collection came the formation of the group called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM). During the course of the year-long strike the LGSM and a splinter group called Lesbians Against Pit Closures raised funds for the miners’ families and supported picket lines and protests. Even though the strike was centred on the Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire pits in my own area the main focus for LGSM was on the pits of South Wales because there were more personal links to that area among LGSM members.

However wide-ranging the politics of the members of the LGSM, from Marxists to liberals, from anarchists to Labour Party members, the group remained united in its cause. During the 2-year of it’s existence the LGSM raised £20,000 for the miners. Their support was rewarded the following year at the London Pride march of 1985. At the head of the march was a group of miners and their families from South Wales, proudly carrying the banner of their local lodge of the National Union of Mineworkers.

Later in 1985, at the annual Labour Party conference, a motion was debated which called for equal rights and anti-discrimination in the workplace for gay men and women. The party leadership opposed the motion but the united votes of the Trades Union Congress pushed the motion through.

Despite the general public backlash against gay men in the face of the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s the Labour Party and the trades unions continued to support lgbt rights throughout the remainder of the decade, though it could be said this was only politically motivated as part of their general anti-Thatcher policy rather than real belief in the idea.

1985 can be seen as a breakthrough year in the UK for lgbt employment rights. When the anti-gay Section 28 came into force in 1988 unified support for lgbt rights was already stable. By the time it was abolished in 2003 there was a well-planned course of action ready to begin by campaign groups. By 2006 lgbt rights in employment were finally put in place.

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