Twenty years is a relative bat of an eyelid. But the rapid advances towards lesbian and gay equality in the UK since the inception of the lobbying organisation Stonewall – two decades ago this month – form nothing short of a progressive social revolution. Advances have been especially quick since 1997, when most of the key legislative changes were made. However, it’s the next 20 years that hold the biggest challenges. Changing the law is only the start. Changing opinions will prove far tougher.
In May 1989, a crowd assembled in Limehouse, east London, to protest against Section 28, a poisonous piece of legislation that made it illegal to “promote” homosexuality in schools. Stonewall was born, with the aim of preventing discrimination against lesbian and gay people. It has grown every year since.
Over the past decade, gay equality is an agenda that the UK government has delivered on consistently. In 2000, Tony Blair equalised the age of consent, using the Parliament Act to overrule opponents to gay equality in the House of Lords – a rare move. And he repeatedly sent Section 28’s repeal back to the Lords until, on the third attempt, in 2003, it was removed from the statute books. Still, some believe that the Labour government should have gone further, sooner. In the current parliament, Angela Eagle is the only lesbian MP – hardly representative of Britain’s 3.6 million lesbian and gay people.
Historic steps forward have been made, but it’s crucial that we don’t become complacent: the law has changed, but society needs to catch up. Continuing intervention is particularly important in schools, where homophobic bullying is almost endemic. In a YouGov poll commissioned by Stonewall this year, nine in ten teachers told us that pupils experience homophobic bullying in their schools – and the same proportion reported that they had never received training in how to tackle the problem.
Stonewall is fighting back with FIT, a touring play that focuses on the use of “gay” to describe anything inadequate – making homophobia cool in a way that racism isn’t. We’re fundraising to make FIT into a DVD so every UK school has the resources to tackle the homophobia within its gates.
Twenty years after that crowd said “never again” in Limehouse, Stonewall is working with the next generation of equality campaigners, involving young people through our youth volunteering scheme. With their help, we won’t stop until every single lesbian and gay person can love without regret, live without fear and maximise their potential – at home, at school and at work.
Gary Nunn is Stonewall’s communications officer. To contribute to the FIT campaign, log on to www.stonewall.org.uk/FIT