A group of lesbians who fought Clause 28 have been given an Attitude Pride Award for their fearless protests.
Being gay or a lesbian in the early Eighties was completely different to today, says Booan Temple. She is one of the team who forced their way into a BBC News studio in 1988 to protest against Clause 28, the anti-gay legislation brought in by Margaret Thatcher to stop all discussion of homosexuality in schools.
Across the UK there were high levels of homophobia, reflects Booan. “Seventy-five per cent of the population thought that gay relationships were almost always wrong. “Appearing to be lesbian on the streets made you vulnerable to both verbal and physical attack. There were no safe spaces. Being [LGBT+] was simply a bad thing to be. It wasn’t criminalised but it was seen as a perversion to be hated and despised.”
This was highlighted by the media backlash that followed the discovery of a copy of the then-notorious children’s book Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin in a school library. A homophobic media went “ballistic”. The Daily Mail, Daily Star and The Sun accused gay people of trying to destroy the family. This led to the introduction of Clause 28 by Margaret Thatcher’s government, which sought to stop the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in British schools.
Clause 28 threatened to affect the lives of young LGBT+ people. “Children were going to be bullied because their parents were gay, or because they came from a same-sex couple family, regardless of their own sexuality. But also children of heterosexual families who were gay were getting no protection. Nobody was going to be able to look after them.”
The momentum against Clause 28 gathered pace. Celebrities started coming out, including Ian McKellen, who compared the lesbians’ stance to that of the suffragettes. But frustration grew as the media and politicians largely ignored the campaign — a situation that would lead to more direct action.
Sally Francis (aka Sally Forth and Charlotte Despard) was one of four women who abseiled into the House of Lords moments after a vote in favour of the legislation on 2 February 1988. Recalling the emotion after she heard about what Sally and the others had done, Booan says: “It was just brilliant, absolutely brilliant. “The public galleries were packed. You’d be amazed what MPs and Lords were saying: ‘They’re the bigots; they want to destroy the family’ — and that was a Labour peer.”
Three months later, on 23 May, the night before Clause 28 passed into law, still frustrated by the lack of publicity, four lesbians — hiding behind the names Sarah, Charlotte, Anne and Eleanor (Booan herself) — would create their own piece of history. As the BBC news began at 6pm, the four women invaded the studio, calling out: “Stop Section 28.” The programme continued with Sue Lawley reading the headlines as the disturbance was heard off-screen. Eventually, Lawley acknowledged the protest while, offcamera, her colleague Nicholas Witchell held the women back, famously sitting on Sarah.
You can see it all on YouTube. “We could not get the news to report on it so we thought, ‘Well, we’ll just be the news’,” says Booan. “We burst in — a lot of people in a very small space — and all hell broke loose. We were all arrested and carted off to Shepherd’s Bush police station. We just sat about and I think what was going on was that the Beeb were working out what to do.”
The four were never charged, most probably because, surmises Booan, the BBC didn’t want to give the incident any further attention.
Typical of the media of the time, however, the focus was more on the scandal than the message of the protest. “It was all about Sue Lawley and Nicholas Witchell and although The Independent and The Guardian had OK pieces, everybody else was just ‘loony lezzas invade the Beeb’. I was really pissed off. “But,” she adds, “it’s still being talked about so actually that moment is allowing us to speak about everything people were doing at the time, and reminds us how new — and vulnerable — our privileges are.”
Read the rest of the story of Lesbians Against The Clause in the August issue of Attitude, out on July 20.