Monday 24 July 2017

We still have a long climb for LGBT equality, say 1988 House of Lords lesbian abseilers

The activists, who made headlines in the 1980s, say we have come a long way in 30 years – but there is still a way to go.

Pride in London 2017 (Jonathan Brady/PA)
Pride in London 2017 (Jonathan Brady/PA)

By Francesca Gosling, Press Association

If you were anywhere near central London last weekend, you would have struggled to escape the fervour of the Pride parade that overtook the capital in all its rainbow glory.

Whether it was men dressed up as renaissance princesses, others body-painted as superheroes or wearing little more than sparkly pants and roller blades, the thousands who either marched or watched from the sidelines put on a spectacular show of colour, music and love.

But while we may be free to wave our multi-coloured flags of sexual freedom in 2017, there are still lessons to be learnt from the last 30 years of movements and milestones that got us here.

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The many faces of Pride (Jonathan Brady/PA)

In the late 1980s, actor Sir Ian McKellen came out as gay, the Aids crisis dominated global healthcare issues and a group of passionately political lesbians abseiled into the House of Lords to protest against the now repealed Section 28 (Local Government Act 1986), which banned authorities from “promoting” same-sex relationships.

Almost three decades on, and marking 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, those women were presented with an Attitude Pride award.

Sally Francis and Booan Temple picked up the prize at a star-studded Knightsbridge event last week, joining others from around the world who have faced prejudice and abuse as they fought just to be themselves and help others do the same.

According to Francis, who first cut her activist’s teeth at the Greenham Common Women’s Camp, Pride still signifies a call to action against ongoing discrimination.

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Gok Wan, Booan Temple, Sally Francis and Cathy Newman (Wendy Guest)

“There is still a long way to go with how we are perceived,” she tells the Press Association.

“You can enshrine things in law, but there must be something deeper going on within society for there to still be such low self-esteem among gay people.

“Children pick up on attitudes and if you are brought up with a lower opinion of yourself, you are much more vulnerable to self harm, whether literally or in the form of addiction.”

Sexual equality campaigners Stonewall last year published findings that young gay and bisexual men were almost 30% more likely to experience depression than their older counterparts, nearly 25% more likely to suffer anxiety, and a worrying 6% more likely to attempt suicide.

For Francis, the answer is to pump funds into mental health support services that are constantly beleaguered by cuts.

“But we are still some of the most privileged in the world,” she says.

“Next month is Pride in Brighton and there are over 100 in the UK in total. If you try to hold a similar event in Moscow you will get attacked by the crowd, and if you try in Istanbul you will get attacked by the government.”

Born in Borehamwood, the 57-year-old owns an ecological decorating company and lives in Brighton with civil partner Wendy.

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Sally and friends chained themselvs to Buckingham Palace railings (Sally Francis/PA)

She came out aged 16 and admits there were times when she felt physically unsafe because of her sexuality, both in England and while living in Greece, where she and her friends were often violently assaulted by gangs of men.

Speaking of that memorable February 1988 night when the Lords decided to back the controversial Section 28, she remembers: “About 10 of us went and eight got in.

“A certain Lord signed four of us into the guest gallery, which directly overhung the chamber… He didn’t know what we were going to do, but he got a lot of flak for it afterwards.”

Then, with those waiting outside keeping tabs on security, Francis and her friends threw a washing line over the balustrade.

“After the Lords voted for the clause, we encouraged the first one over. About half of us were thrown out on to the street and the others were put in a cell by Big Ben until about 8.30pm, but none of us were charged in the end.”

Other actions by Francis’s friends over the same period saw them dress up as suffragettes and chain themselves to the Buckingham Palace railings on International Women’s Day, and march in on a live BBC news broadcast.

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A glimpse at BBC Lime Grove (PA)

Francis remembers with a chuckle: “A few weeks before that, 25 of us had invaded the BBC Lime Grove studio, not realising that was not where they did the news.

“We ran around the building, into studios, hiding in broom cupboards, trying to find something going on air. At one point we climbed through Esther Rantzen’s window – it was like an episode of Keystone Kops.”

So why were these very public forms of action needed?

“Section 28 felt like a direct and personal attack by our own government, saying that queer people shouldn’t be talked about in schools and that queer families weren’t real families,” says Francis. “They were saying: ‘You are less valid, you are a second class citizen’.”

Public reaction was mixed and, while some TV news reports described “unprecedented” scenes of “pandemonium” in the Lords, others took a more tongue-in-cheek approach.

She says: “There was a ‘Lesbians invade the Lords’ headline the next morning and a cartoon of an ugly, mannish woman swinging on a rope to catch a cuddly Lord.

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Sir Ian McKellen attended the Attitude Pride awards in 2015 (Jonathan Brady/PA)

“The British like an underdog, but it didn’t really change anyone from thinking we were just man-hating lesbians.”

That, Francis says, is another thing that still needs work. “Lesbians had always been, and still remain, more invisible than gay men, as women generally are in society. It is connected to the big gender privilege gap.

“But that’s why it was so great to be recognised again,” she said of the Attitude award.

“Hearing all those stories, I feel inspired to be politically active again.

“We are going to go and support a really small Pride abroad and some of us who DJ want to put on fundraisers for multicultural LGBT charities.”

A Stonewall spokesman summarises: “Actions like Francis and Temple’s played a vital part in bringing attention to the injustice that LGBT people faced, and we owe so much of what has been achieved to people like them.

“Progress since then thankfully means that more institutions and businesses support lesbian, gay, bi and trans equality than ever before.”

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