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.
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?
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!
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..
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.
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.