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Community spirit Power and leadership

Sexuality, politics and freedom: What have we learnt?

In response to David Boyle’s essay and timeline on a history of community development, writer and broadcaster Simon Fanshawe traces the trajectory of gay rights in the UK and what it tells us about the power of community.

The only real weapon of progress in social and political terms that lesbians and gays have is visibility. Either of us or of our spaces. We’re either ‘out’ so everyone knows we’re here, or we’re in the closet, so no one does.

The 1967 Act which de-criminalised homosexuality between men, for all its shortcomings like the discriminatory cruelty of an unequal age of consent at 21, gave us a crucial tool in the fight for lesbian and gay equality. It finally meant that, if you wanted to, you could be ‘out’. It didn’t stop daily discrimination but it did enable free association. For all the harassment that continued, at least gays could meet without, just for being gay, getting arrested or breaking the law.

The meaning of freedom

Fifty years on, as part of a BBC documentary I made to celebrate the anniversary, we filmed in one of the old police cells in what is now the Brighton Town Hall. The crew were setting up the shot in the corridor. On my own I sat on the slatted bedframe and a great sadness poured through my body. I pictured a man in that exact spot, barely nine years before I had started University in the same town, captured and soon to be punished for his love or even just for his lust. Maybe head in hands, he would have been cold from fear at his imminent exposure and the condemnation that it would bring, possibly from family, definitely from some friends and most certainly at work.

The lifting of that immediate sanction of the law for just being, catalysed an eruption of social and political gathering.

The lifting of that immediate sanction of the law for just being, catalysed an eruption of social and political gathering. Gay rambling clubs, lesbian conscious raising groups, Gay Switchboard, Lesbian Line, pubs, clubs, campaign groups, literary evenings, drag shows, polemical theatre, newspapers and magazines multiplied into a heady and vibrant sub-culture. You could yacht, walk, dance, sing, write, read, drink or march with and for other gays and lesbians. Just as the bars that used to be almost always in basements, guarded by a little window of enquiry that slid back when you rang the bell, gay life was elevated one storey up, from underground to pavement level.

When politics and sexuality intersect

This was enormously significant because over time gays and lesbians wove an infrastructure of help, support and fun that, when the Eighties dawned we would draw on deeply and with confidence to fight back against two separate but related attacks on our health and our freedoms.

From comedians to rabble rousers attacking gays had always been a quick and easy route to applause from most crowds. Politics was no exception.

In 1981 the riots in Brixton and Toxteth catalysed the Conservative government’s approach to regeneration which ran through the eighties and which, as David Boyle’s essay points out, were “based on rising property values and/or belief in them – though, almost by definition, none of these models was interested in democracy…” While inner city communities reacted to those riots a very significant event occurred for the gay community – the first gay man died of an AIDS related illness in the UK. A little over six months later Terry Higgins died and the Terrence Higgins Trust was formally constituted in August of the following year.

Four years after that came the next blow. Two Conservative MPs, David Wilshire and Dame Jill Knight, introduced Section 28 of the Local Government Bill. It said that a Local Authority “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.”

Weaponizing sexuality

They were undoubtedly motivated by a profound aversion to homosexuals and homosexuality – both of them demonstrating in the rest of their parliamentary careers an unwillingness to vote for any moves towards fairness and equality for gays and lesbians. It was also however that gays were a handy stick to beat the, particularly London, so-called “loony left” Councils, who at the time had taken to supporting lesbian and gay groups.

We were a handy and effective target for the Right wing in Parliament to use.

From comedians to rabble rousers attacking gays had always been a quick and easy route to applause from most crowds. Politics was, and in many parts of the world still is, no exception. In The first round of the British Social Attitudes survey in 1983, 70% of Britain thought “sexual relations between two adults of the same sex” was “always, mostly or sometimes wrong”. We were a handy and effective target for the Right wing in Parliament to use.

What surprised everyone was not just the strength of the response by lesbians and gays to these insults to fairness, equality and access to decent healthcare, but the maturity of it. Most politicians thought gays either irrelevant or too shameful to be a threat. Most men on the Left thought gay men were too sissy to join the revolution with any seriousness. Many women on the Left were lesbian till graduation, when they retreated to marriage and rather less stridency. Dykes were still only equivocally welcomed into mainstream feminism.

Explore a history of community power

Crisis strikes

Yet we rose to the occasion beyond even I suspect our own expectations. When AIDS struck, gay men and women set about becoming experts, often achieving in the first years a grasp of this new disease far beyond that of the doctors and researchers whose careers were supposed to be devoted to such things. The intensity and depth of their learning supremely equipped a movement to bring pressure on government, health bodies and research funding that was blatantly ignoring us. Their expertise and knowledge paved the way for the eventual life-saving advances in medication and treatment.

The gay community’s approach nationally and locally to this terrifying epidemic was a perfectly balanced three-legged stool: knowledge, care and money.

At the same time, while much of the rest of society chose condemnation over compassion, lesbians played a key role along with gay men in caring for those who were sick. And the wealthier, mainly male, gays gave money to THT and other charities to support the work. In Brighton that meant the establishment by the very visible gay community of the Sussex AIDS helpline (later Centre and even later subsumed into THT as its local branch). Then in 1987 the establishment of the Sussex Beacon Hospice. I remember hosting a fundraiser for the Beacon in the home of a, by then, quite elderly gay man. Even the Lord Lieutenant of the County was there and he laughed when I thanked him as the Representative of HM The Queen coming to support so many other queens. The wealthy host then stepped forward and put in my hands a personal cheque for (I think) either £25,000 or £50,000 – roughly £70-140k in 2021. Fortunately he also laughed when, as the thunderous applause for his extraordinary generosity on behalf of the place and its people came to an end, I asked him whether he had a bank card.

The gay community’s approach nationally and locally to this terrifying epidemic was a perfectly balanced three-legged stool: knowledge, care and money.

Visibility enables resilience

In response to Section 28, we built the broadest alliance not in favour of homosexuality (we were quite used to not being liked or morally valued) but rather against unfairness and for freedom of expression. On the 25 January 1988 what was at the stage called The Arts Lobby held a press conference at Playhouse Theatre in London to protest the censorship the Bill sought to enact. In pictures of the day you can see Jane Asher, Melvyn Bragg, Dawn French, Eleanor Bron, Sheila Hancock, Lenny Henry, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, Ned Sherrin among the hundred or so artists, actors writer and directors who came to show their support.

The social clubs and gatherings were the campaigning networks that those of us who founded Stonewall could rely on and motivate into action.

What does “promote” mean, we asked? Not to talk in schools about the gay artists, the lesbian writers, the gay musicians, the lesbian sports women? We fought a campaign on that most British of grounds – fair play. People were convinced that equal treatment under the law, whoever you were and whether they disapproved of you or not, was a fundamental value of their country and they didn’t see why any group should be singled out for exclusion.

The significance of these two interlinked responses lay in the way that the infrastructure, built through our visibility, was able to spring into action. The social clubs and gatherings were the campaigning networks that those of us who founded Stonewall could rely on and motivate into action. The “community” of lesbians and gays has less and less in common the more it wins victories for our equality. But it has absolute salience when we are under attack as a group. The rambling and the writing and the magazines and the parties are not political in themselves. But they were our tools of visibility. They exist explicitly out of the closet. They became our grid of communication when called to campaign and they were the troops who could mince or march to Parliament when the numbers were needed to make our point. It was that social groundwork that eventually provided the means to win political and legal equality. We were empowered by visibility which then transformed into mature campaigning.


We asked Simon: If you could add any other key milestones in the history of community development, what would they be?

  • 25 January 1988: Press conference at Playhouse Theatre introducing the Arts Lobby which was formed to fight Section 28, the UK law prohibiting “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities. The prohibition was intended to extend to gay-themed books, films, and artwork in libraries and schools. A group of actors, gay and straight, brought attention to the fact that the proposed bill (eventually passed into law) was an attack on art and literature as well as on homosexuals.
  • 20 May 1989: Press release announcing the establishment of “The Stonewall Group”. The press release included the following projects: establishing a Parliamentary group; organising a European Conference “Rights for All” in 1990; lobby Party conferences; several fundraising events including a performance of Martin Sherman’s play “Bent”; the appointment of an Executive Director.

This blog is part of a series responding to David Boyle’s essay and timeline on a history of community development. Explore more brilliant insights here.
About the author
Simon Fanshawe

Simon Fanshawe is a retired stand-up, and a continuing writer, broadcaster and diversity consultant. He started what his parents optimistically called ‘his career’ as a Community Worker at the Brighton & Hove Resource Centre in 1978.

In 1989 he was one of the founders of Stonewall in 1989. He is the co-founder of the consultancy Diversity by Design, is Chair of Hexagon Housing and sits on the Board of Powerful Women.

He was awarded an OBE in 2013 for services to Higher Education and made an Honorary Doctor of the University of Sussex for services to diversity and human rights.