iron Lady

Margaret Thatcher's Legacy on Gay Rights

Very soon, we won't be able to move for tributes, memorials and denunciations of Margaret Thatcher, Britain's longest-serving postwar Prime Minister and probably the most divisive politician of modern times. I have little to add myself (this piece by the Independent's John Rentoul broadly reflects my feelings), but there is one aspect of her legacy that is likely to get short shrift in most remembrances: gay rights.

Here, as with most of her achievements, it's a mixed bag. As a member of Parliament (MP) in the 1960s, she was one of only a handful of Conservatives to vote for the decriminalization of homosexuality, a truly forward-thinking and brave gesture that she deserves a great deal of credit for.

Sadly, as Prime Minister, she would squander much of that credit (ironically enough, for a politician who put such stock in thrift) by lending her support to one of the nastiest anti-gay measures of modern times: the infamous Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which forbade schools from teaching "the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". This was despite the open secret (among Westminster insiders, at least) that several prominent members of her government were themselves gay, albeit in reinforced-steel closets. It remains one of the darkest spots on her legacy.

History, however, always proceeds with a good dose of unintended consequence. It was Section 28, more than anything else, that galvanized and mobilized the modern British gay rights movement which, in just a quarter of a century, is on the verge of securing full legal equality for gays and lesbians. In her heart, I doubt Thatcher really regretted that development.