Lesbian and Gay Pride March 1983 through the streets of central London escorted by police. June 1983. Picture credit: Carl Bruin/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Artillery Row

This is not the 1980s

The comparison between section 28 and the current trans debates is false — and insulting

Move-over all you selfish migrants crammed into dinghies, make-way attention-hogging grooming victims — we all know the most oppressed people in modern Britain are the self-styled queers. And not the old-fashioned boring gay type, those for whom the cry “queer” was swiftly-followed by a boot to the head, but the really marginalised queers; people who identify as trans and non-binary. As Labour peer Baroness Chakrabarti so movingly stated when arguing for the placement of males in women’s prisons, such brave souls are “newcomers, migrants to their sex”.

Today, across the political spectrum pundits compete to bemoan the plight of this fashionably marginalised group. From right-wing GB News presenter Tom Harwood to agitprop writer Owen Jones, identifying as trans in 2022 is routinely and erroneously compared to being out as gay and lesbian thirty years ago. In a 2017 spittle-flecked rant for the Guardian Jones warned “those who resisted gay rights have been damned. The same fate awaits bigots who dismiss trans rights.”

But in reality, there are no laws discriminating against those who identify as trans any more than there are against those who identify as budgies. Furthermore, the thankful lack of murders in Britain is starting to get a bit embarrassing for the local councils dutifully raising flags on “Trans Day of Remembrance”. 

To bridge the gulf between the claims of trans activists and the stubborn facts, the memory of historic injustices have been weaponised. Section 28 of the Local Government Act was a vicious piece of legislation, purportedly designed to prevent the “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities. It meant that youngsters bullied at school because of their sexual orientation couldn’t turn to teachers. When it was introduced in 1989, just 17 per cent of the public believed homosexuality was “not wrong at all”. 

Simon Edge is the author of a novel satirising Stonewall; The End of the World is Flat. He worked for Capital Gay in the early 1990s and vehemently rejects the comparison between the struggles of his youth and today.

It was a time of genuine hatred. The chief constable of Greater Manchester said gay men with Aids were swirling in a human cesspit of their own making. Being openly gay meant you could be sacked with impunity. Politicians either amplified the worst homophobic prejudice or were afraid to challenge it. Poof-jokes were a staple of primetime TV.

Roz Vecsey, a lesbian who campaigned as part of Derby Stop the Clause, said:

Lesbians were invisible, the only time you heard about us was if it could be sensationalized in the tabloids, like having your kids taken away. I cannot remember any out lesbian role models; we were hidden and we hid.

Dennis Kavanagh, legal commentator for Lesbian and Gay News, recalls seeing friends “covered in blood” following the queer-bashing that was common outside gay bars. He adds: “to compare modern healthy debate to section 28 is frankly offensive.”

It is not the same as the generation who feared to reach for their partner’s hand in public

Under the intensely hostile conditions of the 1980s and 90s a strong community of lesbians, gays and latterly bisexuals, was forged. Over the years substantial gains were won; from the equalisation of the age of consent for homosexual men to equal adoption rights. The final legal barrier was overcome in 2013 with the introduction of same-sex marriage.

And yet, those who purport to speak with authority on the issue of “trans rights” continue to make the false comparison with the era of section 28. It is worth noting that one of the newest media voices to make this claim, Tom Harwood, was less than a year old when the law was repealed.

Let’s be honest, the concerns of trans activists ooze privilege. Most people don’t have the luxury of fannying about musing on their gender identity; not so for non-binary activist Christie Elan-Cane. Elan-Cane has battled for 25 years through the courts for an “x” to be added alongside “f” and “m” on passports. Other trans campaigns include increased access on the NHS for cosmetic surgery, and for wigs and make-up to be made available to “transwomen” prisoners. Arguably, being reminded that one is in fact male or female might cause upset, but it is not the same as the generation who feared to reach for their partner’s hand in public.

Britain is by and large a tolerant country; having learned from the bad old days of section 28, most don’t really care how people refer to themselves or what they wear. The sticking point is when, by dint of an assumed identity, one group encroaches on the rights of another. 

Thirty years ago, out gay men faced arrest for “importuning” if they caught another man’s eye in public. Lesbians like Linda Bellos OBE, lost custody of their children. And yet now, those accused of “misgendering” risk a police record and parents live in fear of being reported to social services if they fail to affirm the identities of their offspring. Arguably, there is a new era of state repression and intolerance, but trans people are not its victims.

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