Collaboration between the procedurally correct trade union movement and the playful street theatre of the gay liberation movement was never going to be easy.
My own trade union, National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) provides a case study of events typical of trade unions in the late 1970s/early 1980s; a fuller account is available from the Millthorpe Project Sound Archive in the British Library. Once the union got over the shock of realising that it had openly lesbian and gay members, it adopted, in 1976, a Wolfenden-consciousness policy; in other words, it opposed discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation but the lesbian and gay members were seen primarily as victims in need of protection. The union didn’t know how – or didn’t want – to go any further to integrate the concerns of these members into the everyday life of the union.
When Scarborough Council refused to hire out its conference facilities to the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) on the grounds of nothing more than prejudice, a call went out to other organisations to boycott these facilities. It seemed like a straightforward civil rights issue about the right to assembly, and the right to assembly is always important to the trade union movement. But it was an issue that was beyond the political – or perhaps the ethical – grasp of the leadership of NATFHE. They had held conferences there before and they decided to hold their annual conference there again. Resolutions of protest were debated and leaflets of opposition were distributed but the delegates still gathered there in May 1980.
Many delegates, particularly those in the unofficial gay group and a socialist group called Rank and File, decided to draw upon the customs and practices of the gay liberation movement and to zap the conference. We asked delegates to wear stickers saying Glad To Be Gay In Scarborough and two thirds did so; we handed out song sheets containing the words of Tom Robinson’s political anthem, ‘Glad To Be Gay’, and asked people to start singing during the Mayor’s welcome address; three of us draped a Gay Teachers Group banner over the balcony and heckled the startled councillor. It felt more like a celebration than a protest but the spirit of gay liberation was, for two minutes, right there in the faces of the NATFHE delegates. The Scarborough News reported our actions under a front page headline: ‘Gays are people too’.
It marked a turning point in the relationship between the trade union and its lesbian and gay members. Considerable anger was expressed to the zappers on the day but our status changed from being perceived as victims to becoming agents of change. It marked the beginning of a process whereby this union moved from problematising the sexuality of some of its members to problematising the structures that sought to marginalise and exclude people on account of their sexuality. Lesbians and gay men could begin to participate in union activities to make the workplace habitable for everyone.
Bob Cant has been a teacher, a trade unionist, a community development worker, a Haringey activist and an editor of several collections of LGBT oral history. He now lives in Brighton and his first novel, Something Chronic, was published in October 2013. Bob tweets from @bobchronic
NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at www.notchesblog.com.
For permission to publish any NOTCHES post in whole or in part please contact the editors at NotchesBlog@gmail.com