CASE STUDY Attitudes towards homosexuality: background
The following was the background to the research at the time.
Homosexuality in Britain has been subject to various laws. In 1533 an Act of Parliament was passed making homosexuality illegal and anyone proven guilty liable to be executed. The last execution was in 1836 and in 1861 the Offences Against the Person Act changed the maximum penalty to life imprisonment.
In 1885 legal sanction was extended against homosexuals when the Criminal Law Amendment Act also made 'gross indecency' punishable by two years imprisonment with hard labour. One of the first people convicted for gross indecency was Oscar Wilde, who spent two years in Reading Gaol. An attempt was made in 1921 to extend gross indecency to women but, although passed in the Commons, it was thrown out by the Lords.
Parliamentary opinion changed decisively following the 1966 General Election. The Sexual Offences Act was passed in 1967, which decriminalised homosexual activities in private by no more than two consenting adults over the age of 21 (Cook, 1990a).
By 1990 homosexuality had become legal in all of Europe with the exception of Guernsey.
However, despite being legal, homosexuality has continued to be a taboo issue. Homosexuality has been the of subject derogatory attacks and is the butt of crass humour. More seriously, the 1980s has seen an 'official' backlash against gay and lesbian rights. During the 1980s the Conservative Government attacked left-wing councils who spent 'ratepayers money' on things which appeared to promote gay and lesbian activity. Projects such as Haringey Council's initiative on positive images of homosexuality was widely attacked inside and outside Parliament. For example,
My Lords I beg leave to ask...Her Majesty's Government whether they approve of Haringey Borough Council's plans for compulsory lessons intended to promote 'positive images' of homosexuality in nursery, primary and secondary schools in the borough? (House of Lords, 28 July 1986, cited in Jones and Mahony, 1989)
This official attack shifted emphasis away from the more radical aspects of local authority policy. Promoting homosexuality was also counter to the Conservative Government's attempt to promote family values.
The culmination of the attack on homosexuality came in the Local Government Act of 1988 in which a Clause (number 28) was included which prohibited local authorities from actively promoting homosexuality. Clause 28 has thus been at the centre of recent controversies surrounding personal rights and freedom.
The media played a leading role in condemning any extension of tolerance towards homosexuality. An article in Today (2 September 1986) is illustrative.
There was a time in the dawn of the permissive society when enlightened liberals campaigned for an end to the laws which made homosexuality illegal — on the ground that they were a vicious discrimination against a minority. But by a law of human nature, once this reasonable concession was granted, some homosexuals could not stop there. Next they wanted homosexuality to be regarded as socially quite acceptable. Then they wanted actually to crusade for it, by having it taught in schools and written about in books for children as something quite admirable.
The issues surrounding Clause 28 have also been compounded by concerns about AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). AIDS is not a single disease, it is a 'syndrome', that is, a group of specific infections and cancers that occur because the body's immune system, which fights off disease, is not working properly. The immune deficiency arises as a result of infection by a Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) (Terrence Higgins Trust, 1990). There has been considerable media portrayal of AIDS as a condition closely associated with homosexuals since it was first reported in the USA. Between June and November of 1981 there were 159 reports of AIDS, 75% were in three major American cities and 95% were gay men. The first report of AIDS in Britain was in London in December 1981. Although AIDS did exist before 1981 it was exceedingly rare before the mid-1970s anywhere in the world, although recent research suggests it dates back to the 1950s. Most people, worldwide, with AIDS are heterosexual men and women but this has not diminished the view that AIDS is a 'gay plague'. The statistics for the United Kingdom reinforced this view (Terrence Higgins Trust, 1990).
In Britain, the majority of new cases of AIDS are now among heterosexuals. Nonetheless, some elements of the mass media have used the link between AIDS and homosexuality as an excuse for further stigmatising gays and lesbians. The backlash against the gay community has reached its most extreme forms among those who see AIDS as the retribution of God against those who practice 'sexual perversion'. The popular press represent this view. The Daily Star editor, for example, described AIDS as 'a gift from God – a stick to beat gays with' (Blackie & Taylor, 1987).
An opinion poll of MPs conducted for the television programme Out on Tuesday (6 March 1990) showed that 43.6% of a sample of 245 MPs favoured reducing the age of consent for male homosexual acts. Only 6% of MPs in the sample thought that homosexuality for men should be made illegal and this dropped to 5% for women. Reflecting the Conservative Government policy against homosexuality, 90.8% of Conservative MPs were against repealing Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 whereas only 11.5% of Labour MPs were against repeal (Cook, 1990b).