Monday, 8 April 2013

28 reasons I won't mourn the Iron Lady

An elderly woman has died. And although she lived to the ripe old age of 87, she still leaves behind a grieving family, who are no doubt wishing they’d had just a little more time to say their goodbyes.

Tributes are flooding in, as one might expect. So, too, are the condemnatory opinion pieces. And this may well be one of them. Because when you’re as divisive a figure as Margaret Thatcher, your death is as likely to be celebrated as the life you led up to that point.

There will be countless writers, I’m sure, who possess a much more comprehensive understanding of the political climate that emerged around Thatcher’s election and took hold during her three terms in power. They’ll speak eloquently and persuasively about her gradual disassembling of this country’s heavy industries. They’ll explain in detail how she attempted to take apart the NHS. And they’ll probably have a pop at her about the milk.

The fact is, communities all over the UK still bear the scars of her eleven years in power, a circumstance made all the worse by the fact that the coalition seems determined to finish what she started. Which leaves the rest of the country feeling like the battered wife who finally breaks free, only to eventually settle down with another serial abuser.

Growing up in 1980s South Yorkshire, I was fully aware of the impact that Maggie’s leadership was having in the region. Whole villages suddenly found themselves out of work, and once the industry died, so too did the communities that fueled them.

But there was another area of life where her cast iron grip really hit home. But unlike the miners and steelworkers, who at least had each other to rally around, this was one we had to endure alone. And it’s the reason I walked home with a spring in my step this evening.

Clause 28 was originally introduced into local government in 1987 by Tory MP Dame Jill Knight, under the auspices of protecting children from homosexual propaganda. By May of the following year, the legislation was passed into law as Section 28, and explicitly forbade the “promotion of homosexuality in schools.” It was, predictably, trumpeted by those on the right as a triumph of common sense and old-fashioned values, over the needs of militant homosexuals.

Had anyone bothered to raise much of an objection at the time, any one of Maggie’s cabinet would have been primed to talk about how they were just thinking of the children. A fine principle, in theory, but for the fact that it was the kids who suffered as a direct consequence. Whilst the Tories loved to scapegoat and scaremonger, creating the illusion of an extended homosexual recruitment drive in our nation’s classrooms, the fact remains that the only children who needed protection were the ones at risk from bullying. And more often than not, they were the gay kids. Kids who wind up homeless, because they’re kicked out by intolerant parents. Kids for whom verbal abuse and beatings are a daily occurrence. Or kids like the one I knew, who bled to death on his bedroom floor after sticking a kitchen knife in his stomach, because he was worried he might be gay.

No-one knows the true extent of gay teenage suicide, partly because many of the cases go undocumented. Even so, a number of studies indicate that gay kids are around 40% more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. These days, there are a lot more resources available to young people, so suicide no longer seems like the only option. And yet the statistics are still depressingly high.

Now, think back to the late eighties, and consider the options. With most teenagers lacking the internal fortitude to broach such a taboo subject with family or friends, it stands to reason that they’d turn to their teachers or student counselors for advice. They, in turn, should be able to explain to them that liking the same sex doesn’t have to be the end of the world. Except that the government effectively issued them with a gagging order. 

As if the cruelty of the clause itself wasn’t toxic enough, the wording was even more heinous. You see, the Tories were smart enough to recognise that most people are inherently tolerant, so they phrased their noxious Clause in such a way as to be virtually inarguable. Faced with the question “Do you think that homosexuality should be promoted in schools?” it stands to reason that most people would answer no. Largely because the notion of promoting something as innate as sexuality, is nonsensical at best. Now, let’s try that again, only from the point of view of the kids Clause 28 was supposed to be protecting. “Do you think children who are being bullied or are unsure of their sexuality should be able to approach their teacher for support and guidance?” Put that to a referendum, and see how phrasing can skew the results.

Clause 28 was finally repealed by the Labour government in 2003. Because no criminal act was created, not a single prosecution ever took place. Instead, schools dramatically limited their activities and, by extension, the support they were willing or able to offer. Many people argue that Clause 28 was largely symbolic, however its legacy can still be felt today. Homosexuality may finally have been legalised in Scotland and Northern Ireland under Margaret’s rule, but that does nothing to excuse the fact that her government still found a way to actively write discrimination into British law. They made bigotry acceptable. And they demonstrated that if you want to push through divisive and objectionable legislation, you can get pretty much anything passed, just as long as you word it carefully.

No doubt someone’s already attempting to calculate the number of elderly people who’ve died in fuel poverty, since Mrs Thatcher spearheaded the privatisation of all those vital utilities. But I hope they’ll also spare a thought for the other victims of her callous policies – the unknown number who died long before they’d ever have to choose between heat and food. They heard our country’s elected leader rallying against “positive images” of gay people at the Conservative Party Conference in 1987, complaining that “children are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.” It’s no wonder they felt they had nowhere else to turn. 

Mrs Thatcher, I’m sure you’ll understand why I won’t be paying my respects, since you never afforded me the same privilege. 

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