Gays at Work: Sexual Orientation, Trade Unions and Equal Opportunities

Picture this.

Me. May 1976. Buxton, in England’s Peak District.

At the Annual Conference for NATFHE – the union for teachers in colleges in England and Wales.

I’m standing centre stage at the podium speaking to about one thousand fellow delegates, mostly male lecturers in ties.

I utter the words “gay”, “lesbian” and “homosexual” for the first time ever at this union’s conference. I also come out as gay myself in my speech.

I feel my underarms getting increasingly damp.

Why am I doing this? You’ll have to follow me closely on this.

I don’t have a photo of me at the podium, but here’s one of me in Buxton with my queer badge and big collars

This annual conference is voting on a motion which would require our union to negotiate with our employers, that is, colleges, to include an anti-discrimination clause in our Conditions of Service.

The anti-discrimination policy would specifically mention that there should be no discrimination on the grounds of sex, sexuality, age, family status, race, nationality, creed, political belief or record.

Myself, along with my intrepid partner from our fledgling gay and lesbian group within this union, Bob Cant, had persuaded, with some difficulty, our branches and our regions to make sure that sexuality (the word we used for sexual orientation back then) was on that list. We were aware of the growing number of cases where people had been dismissed solely on account of being gay/lesbian. And we wanted people to be able to come out without fear of consequences or shame.

I know what you’re thinking. Why didn’t we include gender identity and gender expression in the list while we were at it? Perfectly reasonable question but you’re asking it from 45 years later. We weren’t there yet and we were not yet sensitized to trans issues.

You wouldn’t think that this motion would be a hard sell. But, remember, this was 1976 and having gays and lesbians as teachers was still controversial – even in colleges – much less defending them if they were fired.

We needed the Rank and File of our union on our side

We had begun this endeavour by getting the Rank and File of the union (called RAFTT) on our side as allies because they had a big influence as we certainly couldn’t have done it on our own. How to do that? We needed to join them first. Which we did.

Who were they? Many were Trotskyists (hard left/socialists) from the “1968 Generation” who belonged to organizations like the Socialist Workers Party. Because sexual politics had not made any major inroads into the hard left – many of the men were still, well, “unreconstructed” and we had to work to convince them to be on our side.

We were still dealing with arguments like “what does what you do in bed have to do with you as a teacher?”.

The women who were feminists in Rank and File were our strongest supporters as they knew that “the political is personal” and that homophobia needed to be tackled along with sexism.

After some persuasion, the Rank and File (these lefties) did take this on and, because they had considerable power in our union, they, along with us, worked in their branches and regions to include this list in the motion and to get it onto the conference’s agenda. And that’s the motion I was now speaking to.

Are you still following?

My Outer London Region delegates, many of whom were supportive “lefties”

I was able to find what seems to be a draft of that speech I made to the conference. Here’s a paragraph from it that is relevant here:

“Let’s make it quite clear that this motion means that there should be no discrimination against homosexuals in internal or external appointments. As a homosexual myself, and I’m sure I’m not the only one at this Conference, much less in our entire union, I want to be assured that we will receive equal protection from the union as would any other member. Also I would like Conference to assert that they do believe that homosexuality is irrelevant to teaching.”

Much to our surprise, the National Executive of the union, who were sitting in their suit and ties in a row on stage behind me, submitted an amendment to this motion asking that the list of grounds of discrimination be taken out. Their argument was along the lines of “we don’t need such a long list – we should just say that there should be no discrimination. Full stop”.

What we, and what many others at that conference knew, was that they were wanting to make sure that the union did not have to end up protecting us lesbians and gays. And therefore they did not want us on that list. And, instead of moving to delete just us (which would not look good), they moved to delete the whole list.

The floor was open to debate and we heard passionate speeches for and against keeping this list or not.

We had to argue that being a gay or lesbian teacher was not just “a private matter” and that their members’ sexuality, like their race, sex, nationality, etc. was the concern of this trade union.

We and our supporters in the Rank and File explained that heterosexuals take it for granted that they can “come out” as heterosexual in the classroom by, for example, talking about partners or children. That’s all we wanted too. We didn’t want to have to lie at work and we needed to be protected from having to live in secrecy and shame.

Because it was clear that the vote was going to be very tight, it was decided that we needed to have a card vote instead of the usual hand vote.

My anxiety was hitting the roof.

In a sense, the vote was whether or not gays and lesbians should be protected by our union or not.

How did the vote go?

I’m happy to report that the National Executive’s amendment to our motion was defeated. The list of all 9 grounds stayed with “sexuality” still on it.

I am not happy to report that the National Executive’s amendment lost by only a measly 4 votes. But, still, it was a victory because it’s very rare that the National Executive does not get what the National Executive wants.

What happened next?

To be honest, nothing happened. It took at least two more years after this vote before the union even began to meet our group (at that point we called ourselves the Teachers in Further and Higher Education Gay Group) and for them to even think about how to bring up discrimination based on sexuality with employers.

In November, 1980, our group picketed a NATFHE National Executive’s meeting to protest the delay in producing a Gay Rights policy. This brochure was produced by the group in the early ’80s to push our case.

Shamefully, on our side, it even took us until after this booklet was published to add “lesbians” to our name to become TFHELGG (Teachers in Further and Higher Education Lesbian and Gay Group).

And it took until 1986 (10 years after the conference motion) for the union to begin to actively defend queers in the workplace and sensitize its members to these issues. They produced this booklet (see below) in 1986. Although it was a good effort, they wrote and published it, shockingly, without once consulting our group. It just appeared in our branches!

It took 10 years after the 1976 conference to to get brochure written and our group wasn’t even consulted

But things did start moving. By 1988, NATFHE was very supportive in the campaigns against Thatcher’s horrific Clause/Section 28.  Those were a series of laws across Britain at that time that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities, especially in schools.

And since entering the 21st century, this union of 120,000 members (now called the University and College Union – UCU) has done some progressive work around queer and trans issues for teachers and they even organize a conference specifically for LGBT+ members. I guess these things do take time – and need both loud protests and quiet lobbying and slogging.

Let’s backtrack a bit: How had I gone in 4 years from being a hippy-dippy Gay Liberationist to moving motions on sexuality at a National Conference?

For those of you who have been following my story, you’ll know that my experiences in the Gay Liberation Movement in Sydney and London had energized and politicized me. I’d learned that Gay is Good and the importance of Pride. I’d learned that Coming Out could help to lessen the shame that we’d absorbed growing up feeling different from others. Finally I’d learned the importance of Coming Together, in that we had to mobilize, work and fight together to combat our oppression and to challenge the status quo.

Everything seemed possible. “Absolute freedom for all”, we optimistically declared, opposing all oppression and standing in solidarity with everyone everywhere facing discrimination and abuse.

The initial euphoria began to soon fade as we realized that things were very slow to change. As well, splits along many different lines began to occur in the Gay Liberation Movement – lesbians from the gay men, socialists from the counter-culturalists, Old Left vs. New Left, Reformists and the Revolutionaries, bisexuals and the gays, whites vs people of colour, working class vs middle class.

The energy dissipated and the movement declined. Optimism turned to pessimism.

But it was enough to radicalize me and many others touched by the GLF experience. We needed to move on and work on narrower and potentially more achievable areas of concern.

Where would I put my energies?

I certainly was influenced in my thinking when I attended the inaugural meeting of the International Gay Rights Congress held in Edinburgh in December 1974 (which I wrote briefly about here). This motion was passed and it certainly made sense to me:

“This conference urges its delegates to become involved in the working class movement in their own nations as the only practical means of eliminating sexist oppression in society through a socialist revolution and, at the same time, change the sexist attitudes often found in that movement”

That thinking, along with my readings and experiences with the Gay Left Collective (which I wrote about here), gave me that focus and I, along with many others, moved ahead in the only direction that made sense to us post-GLF: diving into left-wing politics and, most importantly, becoming activists in our trade unions.

I’m a Joiner…

Given this new focus on gay workers rights and activism and given that I now worked as a lecturer at Uxbridge Technical College in Outer London, I:

  • joined the Gay Teachers Group in London which was a very helpful support group me and for other teachers in the London area to compare strategies and experiences as gay teachers in the schools and classrooms;
  • attended national Gay Workers’ conferences in England where, at one on February 14, 1976, a Gay Workers’ Charter was set up
  • not only joined, as I said above, the union for us lecturers called the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) but I also became a branch officer at my college (Uxbridge Tech) doing my bit to help out at the local level, including working to get a creche/daycare set up for the children of teachers and students – and being Branch Treasurer (I still have the minutes of all the meetings held at the college, as I was the one who wrote most of them!)
  • joined the lefty Rank and File Tech Teachers (RAFTT) that was pushing the union to take on more radical positions as it had tried to do at that 1976 conference

I found this notebook which reminded me that I used it to take notes at the meetings of all these different groups with each group having its own number..

The notebook I carried with me to take notes at meetings
I pity the poor archivist who has to go through all this a century or so from now!

From re-reading these notes, I’m reminded that I was often the Minutes Secretary in these groups. It was a role I was comfortable with and often I was the only one who owned a typewriter at that time – those clunky machines certainly weren’t as universal as computers are today. I also had to become proficient at using those infamous Gestetner or Ditto machines to copy the minutes out in the pre-photocopier days.

But I didn’t want to join this group

One group I didn’t join, which some of my GLF friends did, was the International Socialists (IS) which later became the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – a far-left party formed mainly with Trotskyists. Their goal was to work as the “Rank and File” within whatever trade union they belonged to, pushing the union to accept more radical proposals with the ultimate goal of bringing about a class revolution.

Those friends who did join IS not only had to work on changing those attitudes of people within the party – many of whom believed that “homosexuality won’t be a problem after the revolution” but they also had to sell their Socialist Worker newspaper outside chilly tube stations in the early morning to reluctant buyers. Not for me. But I admired my friends’ patience and perseverance.

Bob, one of those friends who worked tirelessly within IS for a few years to raise the visibility of us homosexuals, was able (eventually) to get an article printed in the Socialist Worker about us gays – the first one ever. We conspired to keep the issue in the paper by me writing a Letter to the Editor praising his article and wanting more. Re-reading this, I remember that they hadn’t even started to use the word “gay” yet.

I will tell you that Bob eventually left IS as it became clear that change was taking too long.

My letter to the Editor of Socialist Worker

Given all these meetings, I’m not sure how I had any time to prepare classes and work, much less go out dancing and cruising, which I certainly did. Ah – the energy of youth.

Where am I politically now – 45 years later?

I could take a whole post to answer that question, but the short answer is that, surprise, surprise, I’m not a revolutionary socialist anymore. To be honest, I don’t think I ever was one. That’s not because I don’t think that late stage capitalism isn’t fraught with huge inequalities, horrific living conditions for millions of people, environmental disasters, volatile health care and systemic racism and much more which all need addressing. We certainly need a better system that shares resources more fairly.

It’s just that a revolution in the sense of a complete overthrow of capitalism worries me. What would its replacement look like? Would it not also inevitably mean that, to get to our new enlightened society, we would also have to put lots of people in jail, if not shoot them?! We know the resistance that would be put up to the kind of society we’d like. And we know many examples of where revolutions have led to those dictatorial scenarios.

I end up thinking that the most we can hope for is to constantly work hard to get the best sort of progressive democratic socialism possible.

Is this what they mean when they say that we get more conservative as we get older? That could be because we begin to understand as we get older that, to paraphrase a certain rock band from my era, we can’t always get what we want.

Your thoughts and comments on this would be appreciated.

Thanks very much to Bob Cant for reminding me of some details of that conference and the early days of our activist actions as well as reviewing this post. Bob also wrote about this same 1976 conference here so you can get his take on it. FYI, in his version, he gives me the name of “Brad”. Below is a photo of Bob at that 1976 NATFHE conference in Buxton.

My friend and comrade-in-arms, Bob, in Buxton

34 thoughts on “Gays at Work: Sexual Orientation, Trade Unions and Equal Opportunities

  1. Pierre says:

    This is great Gregg! I’m enjoying reading your posts. I really appreciate all the work you’re putting into this site. Keep up the great work!

  2. Rowan Woodmass says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience… and for all the work you did (and still do!) to secure rights for all of us. I’m inspired.

    1. Gregg Blachford says:

      Your comments are so much appreciated, Rowan, especially after I received yesterday’s email from you. Thanks very much to you for being the web designer who helped me so profoundly when I first set up this website. Will PM you more later. 🤗

  3. Tyrone Deere says:

    Thanks Gregg and Bob for your story and “sing, if your glad to be gay “singer. Any progress in understanding and acceptance has come only after years of hard work by people like yourselves.
    There is still a long way to go, especially in various societies and professions.

  4. jeffreyweeksjeffreyweekscouk says:

    Yet more great stuff Gregg. Enjoying it very much. BTW: I still prefer using ‘sexuality’ to ‘sexual orientation’.

    1. Gregg Blachford says:

      Thanks, Jeffrey. I’m very happy that you’re not only reading my posts, but enjoying them! 😁 Interesting your comment about sexuality and sexual orientation. I can’t remember when the latter started taking over from the former, but I do remember it taking quite awhile before sexual orientation became the preferred terminology.

  5. David Tacium says:

    Micro-history at its best! You take us into the nitty-gritty of what went down. I’m shocked to see that Britain in the 1980s wasn’t much more enlightened than Russia say is today. It takes guys like you to make it happen. Ultimately it’s up to us is what you’re saying and you’re right.

    1. Gregg Blachford says:

      I’m happy to get down to the nitty-gritty, David, and try to give a flavour of the times. Those certainly were different days and thanks for commenting on that. As for the Russia comparison, I can see what you mean. We’ll have to talk more about that when we next meet up.

  6. Craig Barron says:

    Oh, I regret not keeping my essay reconciling Marxism and Existentialism; written in 70s, age twenty with a view of the Otonabee River. Socialist posters of the era drawing attention to the Pinochet coup—otherwise would I have known about it? I recall no discussions of gay sexuality; however, sex before marriage was still highly controversial.

    Of the essay I only remember quoting King Lear—the long diverting influence of Gregg, as I head off to a second-hand bookshop seeking some Shakespeare or Sartre!


    1. Gregg Blachford says:

      Glad to bring back some memories for you even if they reminded you that you threw that essay away! I’m curious about who the other “Gregg” is. I didn’t know you back then. Or should I remember?

    2. Craig Barron says:

      I should maybe have been clearer with my aside-following-em-dash: better to say “your present long diverting influence, as I…” Maybe a generally clarifying coffee later in November?

  7. Dr Paul Simpson says:

    Cheers Gregg. Really evocative. I’m familiar with the cowardly sleight-of-hand the macho left uses to deny us rights and then deny that they were even denying us! “A bourgeois distraction from the real issues”. I even got told by some utter cock that my hairstyle was “bourgeois”. I still meet the macho left and, sadly, not all them are older men from that era. No surprise that women were more likely to be our allies. Gobsmacking even then that you had to picket your own union – shameful. Nice to see the word ‘radicalized’ used as a positive. My first union rep in my first proper job at ESRC (1980), also an authoritarian socialist, played a mean trick on me to out me. It made me mistrust my union and unions per se for quite some time A couple of years ago, I saw my tormentor on Facebook and levelled with the utter fucking coward. It felt good. I also recall, as a youngster, being harangued by some on the Marcusian left for my moderate politics – I’d never read Marx and was petrified of the idea of his work but now find myself, as a libertarian socialist, upbraided by some of the people who were Marcusian but who have embraced centrism. Maybe I was wiser then than they are now? Oh, on a more positive note, I’m all for “Coming Together” 😉

  8. Gregg Blachford says:

    I’d love to see a photo of your “bourgeois hairstyle”, Paul. I’m sure it was fabulous, but what a dick/cock that guy was to say that. Thanks for, as usual, your comprehensive and illuminating reply to my post. Funny how you’ve been criticised over your lifetime for being both too moderate and too libertarian. Can’t win, can we?!

    At the end of my post, I have a link to my friend, Bob Cant’s, article about that same conference. He goes into even more details about now the “new” left used this sexuality issue against the “old” left. The old left were those ex and current “Commies” on that Executive table behind me as I made my speech.

    And, yes, let’s keep Coming Together Forever! 😘

    1. Paul Simpson says:

      Cheers, Gregg, I have read it. I’ve heard of Bob but never actually met him. Yes, funny how our difference can be weaponised by those professing an egalitarian politics. X

  9. Bob Cant says:

    Another vivid portrayal of a hectic episode in your life story. I continue to be impressed by what I used to think of as your squirrel tendency – your archiving of so many details of your life. It was particularly important to be able to read the notes for your speech at the 1976 union conference. It’s also useful to be able to read about the slow progress that we made towards the position that we are in now. The conference seemed like a major breakthrough but had there not been a gay group continuing to lobby for change there would have been no progress at all. Queer agency is often overlooked by mainstream historians. It’s also enjoyable to read your stories of queer agency.

    1. Gregg Blachford says:

      To be honest, Bob, I’m only now learning, as I write these posts, how much I have had squirreled away. There are still several TFHELGG file folders I haven’t thoroughly gone through yet. That’s for later!

      One thing we’ve learned is that, generally speaking, nothing much happens unless we fly the queer flag in people’s faces. We can’t expect others to do the heavy lifting for us – it’s up to us to do it. Thanks again for your help and encouragement.

    1. Gregg Blachford says:

      Thanks, Chris. Knowing that I had the support of many people helped me get up on that stage. Of course, it also helped that I don’t mind sometimes being the centre of attention! 😁🕺

  10. kdbrody says:

    Gregg: it’s so good to get to know you better through your blogs. You did a great deal to ‘out’ us until we could get ‘in’. You’re one of my heroes (I’ve lost count how many I have)… Keep up the good work.

    1. Gregg Blachford says:

      I’m certainly happy to be thought of as one of your heros. Thank you. I certainly didn’t feel like that on that stage in 1976! And, yes, I’m happy to get to know you – a fellow Canadian/Brit – even though you left the UK a few years before I even arrived in 1973. We did have that small world story about Saleem Kidawi, Truxx and the Salisbury where you would meet up with him when you were in London.

  11. Greg Reading says:

    Don’t believe the shit that we get more conservative as we get older. As a 79 year old 78er from Sydney, I don’t think it’s true. I never met you Gregg, but good on you!

  12. Fraser says:

    Another masterpiece from you Gregg! I realise I was wrong in mocking your religious keeping of a daily-diary routine and the endless photo taking (can you just take one more shot of me please….over here…. 😊). Just think what Samuel Pepys’s diaries might have been like if he had a camera….

    You ask for thoughts and comments on the generally accepted notion that people get more conservative as they get older. There is no doubt that it is a truism, but why? My thoughts are firstly along your lines– people move from the idealism of youth to the pragmatism of older age. However in observing this trend amongst an alarming number of my friends I also put it down to them becoming comfortable in their way of life and maybe having family responsibilities; it is therefore easier, and safer, to conform rather than confront. There is also a definite correlation between those friends and those who don’t like the pace of change (or any change) and wish the world could stay as it was 20/30/40 /etc years ago instead of ‘going to pot’.

    Whenever this topic crops up in my daily newspaper (the ‘I’) it is met with a flurry of letters from readers who are adamant that it does not apply to them, and I count myself amongst them. When we met back in the late 70’s(?) in the days of Thatcherism I was right of centre and you were way off to the left, somewhere. However many years later I have undoubtedly well crossed the centre line, aided along the way by our incumbent incompetents.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Gregg Blachford says:

      A very kind and thoughtful reply, Fraser. Thanks. I’m happy that you lost your “I’ll never comment on a blog” virginity to me. Don’t forget that I also took photos of people other than me – including of you!

      You’re right that, as we get older, it’s easier, if we’re not careful, to conform rather than confront from our upholstered chairs. But if I hear one more old guy say “kids these days…”, I’ll scream. My recent goal in life has to make sure I don’t become a grumpy old man. I’m completely energized by and admiring of the “youth of today”. Especially in comparison to what you delightfully call your “incumbent incompetents”.

      My next post is going to be about my year at Essex University and our torrid affair, amongst other things. And how shocked I was to wake up the next morning and see the Daily Telegraph on the breakfast table. It certainly led to some passionate debates. I’ll make sure to run the post by you before publishing it!

  13. Larry Baer says:

    Absolutely fascinating read. Not just your recollection of all these events but your reflections on them. Adding that last section on how your thinking has evolved was a really nice touch. Bravo, Gregg! Keep your posts coming.

  14. John Kildea says:

    Just read your post Gregg! What great stories. I had never heard of a Ditto machine before and who knew you were a socialist revolutionary (well not quite!). You must (should be) proud of what you did move our rights forward.

    1. Gregg Blachford says:

      In elementary school, whenever a teacher handed us an exercise on paper that had been freshly reproduced by a ditto machine, we’d all smell it because the technique involved using alcohol as a major factor in the solvent. Those were the days. To be fair, I think the term ditto was a North American one and not used in England. Ask your more elderly colleagues if they recall it! 😁

      Thanks for reading my piece and for commenting. As “veterans” of GLF, we all did what we could at the time. ❤️

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