Stephen would call me at home in Hackney from a telephone box deep in west Wales in the mid-1980s. He had been given my number by London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard for whom I’d agreed to be a referral point on employment issues.
Stephen worked in an abattoir. His colleagues had discovered he was gay and he was being bullied. Not the occasional taunt or a bit of teasing — though neither would have been acceptable — but serious mental and physical harassment. On a daily basis. Sometimes they would make him strip and spray him down with a pressure hose.
I don’t know what happened to Stephen. I hope he made it through that hell.
I had agreed to help Switchboard because I was involved in the white-collar local government union, NALGO. Most of my time was spent running our local branch in Westminster where we were engaged in an altogether different daily battle with the infamous Lady Porter whose mission was to privatise anything that moved.
But I had also found myself agreeing to be one of the first two co-chairs of NALGO’s national lesbian and gay steering committee, set up following the union’s second national lesbian and gay conference, held in Manchester in 1984. It was a position that was rather less illustrious than it sounds today.
In those early days, our fledgeling self-organised lesbian and gay structures had no official union recognition. We raised money for national conferences from local branches and eked out of that what we could to fund the committee’s threadbare operations.
Minutes were usually handwritten. Postage was borrowed. We met wherever it was free. Conferences were underwritten by us. Supporters within the union’s hierarchy were scarce at the start and emerged only tentatively.
Detractors, on the other hand, were plentiful. At best the refrain was that the union should get back to ‘bread and butter’ issues. At worst the language was rather less appetising. By attacking us with that slogan, our opponents unwittingly gave us the best ammunition possible. What could be more bread and butter than daily survival in the workplace? Stephen’s story was far from an isolated incident.
And slowly but surely through the 1980s, we built our case for union recognition, relentlessly on the basis that our focus was on basic employment rights. Or rather the absence of them. It is worth remembering now, at a moment when ‘identity politics’ has come to be the left’s Achilles heel that, for us, it all started because we had no rights. None. It was legal to sack us for being who we were and employers did just that.
Peter Purton’s book, Champions of Equality: Trade unions and LGBT rights in Britain, recently published by Lawrence and Wishart, tells our story and those of others who fought alongside us. I haven’t read the book yet, but I was lucky enough to be interviewed by Peter when he was researching its contents.
Over the course of an afternoon in Unison’s headquarters at the end of 2016, armed with a pile of papers and sometimes hazy recollections, I did my best to help him piece together the contribution NALGO made in the 1980s and a journey which, for me, started at the first unofficial national conference held in a day nursery in Camden in 1983.
That conference had been born out of a protest on the Isle of Man at NALGO’s annual conference earlier the same year. Homosexuality was totally illegal on the island. It was a voyage that continued all the way through to the close of the decade. The seventh national conference was held in November 1989 with official backing in the relatively more luxurious surroundings of the Swallow Hotel in Peterborough during the weekend that the Berlin Wall fell.
The book’s blurb says that it’s an inspiring tale. For me, it was an unforgettable adventure. But to say it was an unadulterated pleasure would be misleading. Full support for our conferences only started to emerge in the late 1980s after a lot of argument.
To begin with, our union was in the vanguard but it wasn’t yet a fully signed up champion of equality. To make it so was our mission. And there were plenty of low points along the way but the victories were sweet and sustained us against considerable opposition and no shortage of bigotry both from employers and within the union itself.
It was a journey that took us all over the country and beyond the daily struggles in our own union to places many of us had scarcely imagined we would go.
It’s hard to single out just one highlight. Hearing Chris Smith come out on the steps of Rugby Town Hall in November 1984 would be a contender. We had organised a coach to go there to protest at the council’s decision to actively discriminate against us. The Sun said Rugby was a ‘brave little town’ for taking on the ‘sick nonsense’ of our cause. The council leader memorably said that he didn’t want men ‘turning up to work in dresses and earrings.’
The Pits and Perverts benefit concert organised by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and held at the Electric Ballroom in Camden a month later would be right up there too. The poster from that night remains one of my most treasured possessions.
Four years later we found ourselves in the eye of the storm and on the streets of Manchester protesting when the Thatcher government introduced the now notorious Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act. It was a decade packed with incident and one during which the foundations were laid for many of the gains we treasure today.
But if I had to choose one moment which captures both the highs and the lows, it would be the TUC Conference in Blackpool in September 1985. NALGO had agreed to second a comprehensive motion on gay rights brought by the probation officers union, NAPO.
On behalf of the national committee, we organised a fringe meeting the night before the motion was due to be heard. While our union’s official delegation stayed in the grandeur of the Imperial Hotel, we cobbled together some funding to pay for a meeting room at another hotel and accommodation in a nearby bed and breakfast. Attendance at the meeting didn’t even reach double figures.
The next day we managed to get hold of observers’ tickets and watched the debate from the balcony of the Winter Gardens. We may not have had the best night’s sleep but we didn’t care a jot about that when the motion was carried, not without some predictable and offensive opposition, but with the support of the mighty NUM itself.
It felt remarkable. In a small way, we had helped to make history. What an honour that was. We had taken the mantle of those who came bravely before us and I suppose, inadvertently, we were champions.
But we were something much more important than that. We were, for a while, the custodians of a movement whose cause was to help people like Stephen go to work and be nothing more than themselves.
First published on 8th February 2018