Exactly 30 years ago on this day, a small group of lesbians and gay men launched The Stonewall Group. Now simply called Stonewall, it’s gone on to change the face of LGBT rights in Britain. Stonewall has been responsible for helping drive most of the legal changes for equality, lobbying government after government to do the right thing and more recently working with major employers and schools to try and ensure our rights can’t be rolled back again.
We picked this day because it was the first anniversary of Section 28 passing into law – the first anti-gay legislation in Britain for a century. Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 said that lesbians and gay men had “pretend family relationships” and it barred local authorities from “promoting homosexuality” – by which they meant giving us the same rights and opportunities as others.
For many young people today, it’s hard to imagine a time when we could be sacked just for being lesbian, bi or gay, or have our children automatically taken away in any custody dispute. We couldn’t foster or adopt; we couldn’t marry; gay men weren’t supposed to have sex until they were 21. If we were outed while in the armed forces, we were “dishonourably discharged” and stripped of our medals. On top of that, Section 28 meant no support for LGB youth groups or even mentioning us in any school. Being in the middle of the AIDS crisis, this caused untold harm to efforts to prevent its transmission between men, the group most affected.
Stonewall was founded out of anger and love. We were angry that our country could treat us so badly, and that we’d failed to stop it doing so. But also out of love, we knew that all the people in our community deserved a fair chance at a happy life and the right to live it openly. From the start we were a diverse bunch in terms of class, race and life experience, from people like me who’d gone on marches and shouted a lot, through lawyers such as Debo Ballard and Peter Ashman to Margaret Thatcher’s former parliamentary private secretary, Matthew Parris, and a leading Shakespearian actor – Ian McKellen, not yet Sir, or Gandalf. We were determined to work together, across any differences, and our yardstick was equality. If straight people had a right, we should have it too.
So by that yardstick we measured every policy decision and every campaign. Stonewall has changed and grown immensely over the last 30 years, but the bottom line is still equality. We have employment protection now and the same age of consent as everyone else. We have families of all shapes and sizes, none of which are ‘pretend’. We can fight for our country without lying about ourselves and we can get married, or not, as we choose. We have more lesbian, gay and bi parliamentarians than anywhere else.
Things aren’t perfect. Trans people are facing ignorance, prejudice, and vitriol in the fight for their rights, sometimes from within our own community. Equal marriage is still being fought for in Northern Ireland and we’ve seen divisive debates about LGBT-inclusive education in the media, online and on our streets that are scarily similar to what happened under Section 28. Internationally, there is still a way to go in securing LGBT rights, and in making sure some of the hard-fought battles for rights are protected.
But when I look back to that day 30 years ago, when a small group of seriously fed-up people put their anger to constructive use, I can see how far we’ve come and how fast. We had no idea how far it would go when we sat down and planned that lobby group.
This evening I hope that all the founders who are still alive, and everyone who’s benefited from the work they’ve done in the last 30 years will raise a glass and toast Stonewall. Stand up for your rights – you never know where it may take you.
Lisa Power MBE is a British sexual health and LGBT rights campaigner. She was one of the co-founders of LGBT charity Stonewall