LGBT flag at Sheffield Pride 2011. Photo Philippa Wiilitts
Unions: discovering a hidden part in LGBT+ history
Most LGBT+ people aren’t in a union and have little or no idea what unions do. Most LGBT+ people don’t think too much about how we got the rights we now enjoy. And most LGBT+ people (even those who know how hard we struggled) have not connected that progress with the role played by unions.
We need to do more to rewrite the history of the LGBT movement, and restore unions to their proper place in it.
There has always been a link between unions and campaigning on LGBT rights. It goes back as far as Victorian times, when the openly gay socialist Edward Carpenter promoted equality inside the labour movement. Unions sent support to lesbian novelist Radclyffe Hall when her book Well of Loneliness was banned in 1928.
Fifty years ago, male homosexuality was partially decriminalised. New movements (the Gay Liberation Front) challenged for equality on the streets. But lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers also began to organise inside their unions and workplaces, defending LGBT members against still-legal discrimination and endemic persecution.
The story of these pioneers has never been properly told.
The 70s saw the first self-organised groups of LGBT workers. Unions for the first time adopted policies against discrimination.
Over the following years, unions increasingly worked to resist attacks from reactionary politicians, a viciously homophobic mass media, religious fundamentalists and institutions of the state (chiefly the police), all trying to drive us back underground.
That the opponents of equality failed speaks volumes for the courage of everyone who stood up to them: including trade unionists.
A turning point came in the mid-1980s – the high peak of Thatcherism. Two big unions (NALGO, now UNISON) and the NUT were compelled by their own members to take radical steps towards LGBT inclusion. During the great miners’ strike of 1984-5 the solidarity created by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) helped win the first policy commitments to LGBT equality at TUC Congress and Labour Party conference. (Anyone who hasn’t yet seen the film Pride about this period really should do so).
The TUC created its own LGBT committee and conference (1998). These networks enabled the strong union challenge that pushed for the legal victories of the Labour governments (1997-2010) and for positive swings in public opinion.
OK, that may all be history, but it still matters. Everyone committed to equality and human rights fears losing our gains to the tide of right wing populism gaining ground in Europe and the USA.
In Britain, many LGBT people complacently think that because the Tories introduced equal marriage we are now immune.
Think again: look for allies, and you’ll find that the labour movement were true champions of equality before, and still are now.
On Sunday 26 February at 1pm, Peter will be speaking at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, about unions and LGBT+ equality. His book, Champions of equality: trade unions and LGBT rights, is published later this year.