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Laurence Watts

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Love The Iron Lady, Not Margaret Thatcher

Posted: 12/13/11 08:00 PM ET

I'm a big Meryl Streep fan. I loved her Miranda Priestly in 2006's The Devil Wears Prada, a performance for which she rightly received her 14th Oscar nomination. I loved her just as much as Donna Sheridan in 2008's Mamma Mia, a film with the artistic integrity of a walrus and the plot of a cereal packet. Streep is the queen of acting, a true master of accents, mannerisms, and timing. If she pooped in a box, I would proudly hold it up as a work of art for all to see. To say I am excited about her new film, The Iron Lady, would be an understatement. Yet, at the same time, I am very nervous.

The Iron Lady is a film about Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first female Prime Minister. When assailed by my American friends over the continued existence of the British monarchy, I always bring her up. Yes, Britain might still technically be a monarchy 235 years after America ceased to be, but we elected our first female political leader in 1979. You guys couldn't even get Hillary into the White House a quarter of a century later.

Of course, my use of the term "we" is out of place. I certainly never voted for Thatcher. I was barely a year old when she became Prime Minister. I was 12 and a half when she eventually left office. As I slowly became aware of politics, I admired her, like many others did, as a "strong leader." It was only after I discovered I was gay and after I studied politics that I realized her policies were, in fact, anti-gay, like those of the rest of the Conservative Party at that time.

My apprehension ahead of The Iron Lady's release concerns how the film will depict Thatcher's politics. I haven't seen the film. I've seen trailers like everyone else and read a couple of reviews. However, unless I am hugely mistaken, the film will not be covering Thatcher's policy toward gay men and women. As a biopic it's mainly concentrating on Thatcher the person.

Because of this, I would hate for people to watch the film and come out of the theater feeling sympathetic toward her, or, worse, thinking she was somehow marvellous. By the time she was forced out of office, she was hated. That's why the Conservative Party ditched her ahead of a general election; there was simply no way they stood a chance of winning again with her as leader. Thatcher is still hated by many people, including a large number of gay men and women. I'll explain why.

Let me set the scene for you. Imagine it's the late '80s in Britain: the only things spreading faster than AIDS are fear of the disease and the vilification of gay men, who are seen as the rats that carry it; the age of consent for gay men is 21, five years older than for straight men; gay men and women are banned from serving in the British military; civil partnerships are nothing more than a dream; gay men and women are still being arrested for kissing or holding hands in the streets; and levels of homophobic violence are high. Set against this backdrop, what did Thatcher's government do to help? They introduced Section 28.

Section 28 was part of the 1988 Local Government Bill. It was a "don't say 'gay'" rule for schools that required local authorities not to "intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality," nor to "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship."

Section 28 remained law until Tony Blair's Labour government repealed it in 2003. The law itself did immense harm, but an unintended consequence of the law was that it galvanized the gay community. Boy George released a song called "No Clause 28" (which Section 28 was sometimes called), and Ian Mckellen came out and joined with others in co-founding an organisation called Stonewall.

Stonewall describes its foundation like this: "The aim from the outset was to create a professional lobbying group that would prevent such attacks on lesbians, gay men and bisexuals from ever occurring again." They did that and more. Over the years Stonewall lobbied for the repeal of Section 28, helped gain an equal age of consent and helped secure adoption rights and, finally, civil partnerships.

Even in the absence of Thatcher, however, Britain's Conservative Party fought the move toward equality tooth and nail. In 2003, when parliament voted to repeal Section 28, one of the 71 Conservative MPs who voted to block its repeal was the then-leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith. When the Conservatives tired of his leadership, they replaced him with Michael Howard, the very man who, as Local Government Minister, introduced Section 28 in 1988.

Finally, after tiring of Howard, the Conservatives chose David Cameron as their leader. He became Prime Minister in May 2010. Bucking the trend of Conservative leaders with homophobic policies, he has since argued in favour of legalizing same-sex marriage in Britain. One year before the election that would take him to Downing Street, Cameron became the first Conservative leader to speak at a gay pride event. He did something unexpected that day. Addressing the crowd, he actually apologised for decisions taken under Thatcher's leadership. "I am sorry for Section 28," he said. "We got it wrong. It was an emotional issue. I hope you can forgive us."

Thatcher herself has never apologized. Having suffered a series of strokes and dementia-related memory loss in her old age, an apology will likely never come, even if she is genuinely sorry for the pain she caused the British gay community when it needed her most. So, go and see The Iron Lady and what I expect will be another wonderful performance by Meryl Streep. Just please don't come out of it thinking Thatcher wasn't a great deal less than marvellous.

 

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