This LGBT History Month, the MP for Wallasey reflects on how much has changed since she entered parliament almost 30 years ago
BY ANGELA EAGLE, IMAGE BEN BLACKALL/CHANNEL 4
Hit Channel 4 drama It’s A Sin is an evocative reminder of bleak times for those of us who lived through the HIV/Aids epidemic and the casual anti-gay bigotry which was then commonplace.
I remember the fear and loathing for the patient and their relatives which accompanied any HIV/Aids diagnosis, whether the victim was gay or not. The workmates who walked off the job thinking HIV/Aids was easily transmitted. The police wearing surgical gloves to LGBTQI+ rights demos. The doom-laden voice and collapsing tombstone which featured in the Government’s crass “Don’t die of ignorance” ads.
Missing from any of this was any compassion for those succumbing to the mystery illness. Instead there was a rising moral panic accompanied by the drumbeat of grim satisfaction highlighted in the more lurid of the red top tabloids, that the victims were really just getting what they deserved as a punishment for their sexual transgressions.
Though the times were grim, and many people died shockingly young, the LGBTQI+ community came through the fire strong, resilient and radical.
Shunned by society, they organised in self-help groups to provide services that the State would not. They funded research and created charities to look after LGBTQI+ people ostracised by the prejudice the HIV/Aids epidemic turbocharged. And they decided that they would campaign to force society to deal with the civil rights deficit that HIV/Aids had highlighted.
When I entered Parliament in 1992, I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me that the House of Commons would be the “gayest parliament in the world” by 2017. I wouldn’t have believed that openly out and proud LGBTQI+ politicians would be present in every major political party on all sides of the House. I wouldn’t have believed that ParliOUT would exist to organise staff.
In 1992, we were yet to overturn the odious Section 28 which forbade the teaching of “pretend family relationships” and left vulnerable LGBTQI+ teenagers to the school bullies. We were yet to stand up to the tabloid “gay plague” bullying which kept most politicians, with the notable exception of the wonderful Chris Smith, firmly in the closet. The only known lesbian MP, Maureen Colquhoun, had been outed in vicious circumstances by the Daily Mail and lost her seat in the subsequent election. But just as things were really at a nadir, relief was on the way.
The 1986 Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth passed a comprehensive policy on equal rights for LGBT+ people seconded by the Miners Union. The story of how this came about is well told in the film Pride. Solidarity and affinity grew amongst those groups most oppressed by the Thatcherite times and they forged an alliance which would bring equality before the law and begin to roll back prejudice and discrimination.
I went through the 1987 election being told on the doorstep that Labour was only for “the blacks and the queers”. But when Labour won a landslide on 1997, the work of liberation could finally begin.
Angela Eagle is the Labour MP for Wallasey. Follow her on Twitter @angelaeagle.
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