If All The Angels Came Dancing Down To Earth

The 1980s began one of the most politically changing elections in American history, and ended with the establishment of the world’s fist same-sex civil partnership laws. In between, the gay rights movement was lambasted due to circumstance and the rise of an epidemic (AIDS post here).

The 1980 Presidential election marked a decided turn in American politics. With the election of Reagan, by a landslide (489 electoral votes to 49…44 states carried, 50.8% of the popular vote), the “conservative revolution” had hit America, due in large part to the Christian right. AIDS entered the American political scene at the same time that conservatism made a strong comeback, riding the coattails of the Christian right. The election of Reagan in 1980, and again in 1984, would set the political stage for American politics for the next 12 years. In the midst of the 1980 Presidential election, the Human Rights Campaign was founded, making it the largest civil rights organisation in the world working for LGBT rights.

While America was entering a new political chapter, so was the United Kingdom. The difference between American and British politics, however, set a different tone for gay rights in the UK. Although Margaret Thatcher was elected PM of the UK in 1979, and remained so until 1990, the conservatism of the UK had no where near the same impact as conservatism in America. In 1980, the Criminal Justice Act in Scotland decimalised homosexuality, setting the age of consent at 21..with the caveat ‘in private.’ In 1981, the European Court of Human Rights, in Dungeon v. United Kingdom struck down the law criminalising homosexuality in Northern Ireland, stating that it violated the European Convention on Human Rights (the UK had joined the EU legislatively, but not monetarily, in 1973). It was the first time the ECtHR had ruled on a nation’s homosexuality laws. Northern Ireland would legally decriminalise homosexuality in 1982 with the Sexual Offences Act, setting the age of consent to 21 and adding the caveat of ‘in private’.

In 1981, several nations decriminalised various aspects of homosexuality: in Victoria Australia (which is its own legislative state) and Columbia sodomy is decriminalised with a uniform age of consent, and in Norway a law was enacted which made illegal discrimination of homosexuals in housing, employment, and banking. At the same time that AIDS was finding its way into the public consciousness in America, so was Moral Majority. Moral Majority, a conservative Christian right political organisation, began its vocal campaigns against homosexuality. Although Moral Majority would dissolve after the 1988 Presidential election, its political posturing remained embedded in the Christian right’s campaign tactics. Moral Majority, along with the Christian Voice, the National Christian Action Coalition, and Religious Roundtable, would create the foundation from which the political influence of the Christian right built itself. The newly powerful conservative Christian voting bloc in America would show itself in the 1980 and 1984 Presidential elections, and only gain more power and prominence as the century waned.

New South Wales, Australia, in 1982, became the first Australian state to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. It would take several years for the remaining Australian states to decriminalise sodomy, and a decade before all of Australia legislated ant-discrimination laws. Also in 1982, France equalised the age of consent, and the first openly gay mayor in US history is elected in Laguna Beach, CA (50 miles south of LA). In September 1982, the CDC reported that 2 case of AIDS were diagnosed in the US every day.

As the United States was firmly entrenching itself in an era of moral conservatism (which stagnated LGBT rights), Massachusetts representative  Gary Studds revealed he was gay on the floor of the US House of Representatives. Studds, who had been elected in 1972, announced his sexuality in 1983 during a Congressional page sex scandal, admitting he’d had an affair with a 17 year old page. Although Studds became the first openly gay serving member of Congress (he would serve until 1997) his outing is less than ideal. The Christian right uses Studds’ admission, and the ensuing scandal, as fodder for PSAs for the 1984 Presidential, and congressional, elections.

Also in 1983, both UK Crown Dependency Guernsey and Portugal decriminalised sodomy. Moral Majority, led by Rev. Jerry Falwell, calls AIDS a ‘gay plague’ and encouraged the Reagan administration to not spend time nor resources on curing a ‘plague sent by God.’ A year later, during the 1984 Presidential elections, the Christian right would use Falwell’s message to take a decided anti-homosexual stance and demand the same from conservative politicians. Incidentally, during the campaign, debates, and media frenzy of the election season, AIDS was never mentioned as a campaign issue. Aside from the floating of a bill in 1982 by Congressman Philip Burton from California, the word ‘AIDS’ hadn’t been mentioned on a national stage, by any politician, and had not once been uttered by Reagan. If nothing else, the Christian right had established itself as a significant, and costly, voting bloc. The 1984 Presidential election showed that no politician could win amongst Christian right voters (of which there were a very large number, including entire districts and state demographic areas) without playing to the whims of God and morality. The conservative revolution in America had merged political conservatism with the political issues of the Christian right, a political movement that still plagues American politics.

In 1984, whist America was going through a constitutionally mandated election season, two more states in Australia decriminalised homosexuality: New South Wales and the Northern Territory. In the UK, Chris Smith became the first openly serving MP. In Berkley, CA the city adopted the first city wide domestic partnership benefits for same-sex city employees who complete the necessary paperwork, and the city of West Hollywood, CA was founded and elected the first city council in which the majority are openly homosexual.

Although several historians still debate whether a ‘gay holocaust’ actually happened, 1985 saw the first memorial dedicated to homosexual victims of the Holocaust. In Belgium, the age of consent was equalised and France passed legislation which prohibited discrimination based on lifestyle. The terror, and lack of education, surrounding AIDS hits the UK when the passenger liner Queen Elizabeth 2 cuts short a cruise because of the discovery of an HIV-positive guest. In America, a turning point in the political discussion of AIDS when actor Rock Hudson confirmed that he had AIDS in July. He’d been diagnosed the previous year. A personal friend of Ronald Reagan’s, Hudson was the first celebrity to admit to having AIDS. Hudson died in October 1985, a month after President Reagan first uttered the term AIDS in a national press conference.

Although Hudson’s homosexuality was one of Hollywood’s worst kept secrets, his death spurred the American public to see AIDS as the pandemic it was swiftly becoming. Hudson’s death showed the American public that AIDS was “a disease, not a moral affliction.” After Hudson’s death, the interest in AIDS as a cross-cultural disease rose. The American public was finally ready to accept that AIDS had spread outside the gay community. It was terrified.

By the mid-1980s, the world saw a pandemic heretofore unknown to human history, a conservative revolution sweep the United States, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in almost all of Europe. The second half of the 1980s would prove to be more fortuitous to homosexual rights throughout most of Europe, while finding those same rights stagnated or dismissed in the United States.

Part XXIII- Homosexuality, Politics and the 1980s- part 2


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