On returning home to march for our rights — and Never Going Underground

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It’s half a lifetime ago but I can conjure it up in a moment. On February 20th, 1988, more than twenty thousand of us marched through the streets of Manchester against Clause 28. The largest national demonstration its streets had seen for a decade turned the city pink on a dull day. And yet perhaps it’s a generational thing, but for all the razzmatazz, the moving images in my mind’s eye have always been black and white.

I grew up on the edge of Manchester in the 60s and 70s. Not so much black and white as grey. And more than occasionally, just a bit wet. I went to my first concert at the Free Trade Hall in 1975. To my lifelong embarrassment, it was AC/DC. Heavy metal was the thing. I didn’t get it but I went along with the boys. When you’re 14 that’s what you do.

But hardly known to me the double entendre in the band’s name was prescient. This was also the year I developed my first big crush. On a boy. And crushing it was. My emerging sexuality was confounding the norm around me. Girls were a boy thing too and I couldn’t fathom that at all.

Over the next few years, Manchester became a trailblazer for new wave. The city of the Buzzcocks, Joy Division and John Cooper Clark. Of Tony Wilson and So It Goes. This music made much more sense, not least because it was all about alternative. Yet sex became even more confusing. I had persuaded the boys I was one of them and not ‘one of them’. I even had girlfriends. But none of that was true.

I left home for university at the end of the summer of ’79, just a few months after Margaret Thatcher came to power. It was rites of passage summer. Schools were out. I had just voted for the first time — and not for Maggie. I made my first tentative steps towards coming out too. Childhood was done. Innocence, of a sort, was about to give way to experience. I had come of age. And it happened in Manchester.

February 20th, 1988 wasn’t the first time I returned to Manchester in the cause of gay rights. I went to my first NUS gay liberation conference there in October 1980. It was a baptism of fire for a boy from the country who hadn’t even known what lesbian feminism was just a year earlier. Within a few months, I was back again for my first gay rights demonstration on February 28th 1981, almost seven years to the day before the Clause 28 march.

The 1981 march was organised by a group called Gay Noise in support of the Campaign Against the State Repression of Lesbian and Gay People. Groups came and went in those days, a world away from the slickness of lobbying today. Handwritten placards and hastily assembled banners made out of sheets were our identikits. And yet for all its handspunness, that the city should host such a demonstration was no accident.

Manchester was already ahead of its day. The North-Western Homosexual Law Reform Committee, out of which the Campaign for Homosexual Equality was founded in 1971, had its first meeting in Manchester in 1964. What we now know as Canal Street, made famous by Queer as Folk, was already there, albeit just a handful of pubs on the edge of a post-industrial wasteland by the Rochdale Canal.

By the time Clause 28, previously Clause 27 and later Section 28 (or 2A in Scotland), reared its head in 1987, Manchester had consolidated its status as a pioneering city on lesbian and gay rights. The presence of openly gay councillors was instrumental in the development of its equal opportunities policies. The Manchester gay centre which established itself in Bloom Street in 1981 was a facility that few other cities could boast. The council set up a dedicated lesbian and gay officer team in 1984, before many London councils.

And Clause 28 was a response to precisely that sort of initiative. Because nearly 20 years after the birth of gay liberation, we were getting somewhere. Despite all the scaremongering and the setbacks — this was the height of the AIDS crisis after all — we had put ourselves on the agenda.

Clause 28 wasn’t merely about taking us off the agenda though. Its attack on the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality and ‘pretended family relationships’ was a concerted attempt to undermine the fabric of our everyday lives. We should be in no doubt, we were not normal. We were deviant and immoral. Its cause was never summed up better than by Margaret Thatcher herself in October 1987:

‘Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.’

Thatcher’s words came in the wake of the infamous remarks about HIV/AIDSmade by Manchester’s Chief Constable, James Anderton, the previous year. According to Anderton, we were, along with drug addicts and prostitutes, ‘swirling in a human cesspit of (our) own making.’

Anderton’s remarks were widely condemned. Yet he was able to count on the support of Thatcher and her Conservative government. According to documents released in 2012, Thatcher had used her position to prevent an inquiry into his conduct. Although his words may have cost him an appointment as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Anderton was knighted in 1990.

Manchester’s gay provenance made it the perfect place to protest in 1988 — not least as a rebuttal to Anderton who had pursued every opportunity to prosecute gay men cruising in the Canal Street area. Despite — perhaps even because of that notoriety — the city’s credentials to hold a national demonstration were impeccable.

How extraordinary, I reflected as I made my way there on the train from London that day. This was the place I had grown up hiding my shameful sexuality. It was scarcely a homecoming I could have imagined as a ‘poof’ in the playground the previous decade.

I was there with other activists from the white-collar local government union, NALGO – marching behind our national banner. I’d co-chaired its fledgeling national lesbian and gay committee since its inception in 1984. Our members were in the eye of the storm and many a meeting was spent debating strategies and tactics. Should we refuse to co-operate? What would that mean in practice? How might we look beyond the clause?

But that one day in Manchester was a moment when we found common ground. It was a day when stars and politicians joined grassroots activists as one. At a rally in Albert Square, we listened to Tom Robinson. This was a day to be Glad to be Gay.

Ian McKellen, Michael Cashman, from the other Albert Square, led the march. Sue Johnston, aka Sheila Grant of Brookside, stood four square with us. And we applauded Graham Stringer, the leader of Manchester City Council, as he embraced our cause. The finale was a festival in the Free Trade Hall itself.

I returned home accompanied by Everything but the Girl’s, Baby, the Stars Shine Bright, on my Sony Walkman. Whenever I think of that demonstration, I hear the velvet tones of Tracey Thorn singing Don’t Leave Me Behind. And boy, had the stars been aligned that day.

Clause 28 was an attempt to stop us in our tracks. And in one sense it did just that. We responded by saying louder than ever before that we weren’t going anywhere. One of the campaign’s lasting legacies was Stonewall itself, born the following year. We were here to stay. We were Never Going Underground.

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