During her premiership in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher famously asked of anyone outside her political circle, ‘is he one of us?’ At my secondary school during the previous decade, an often heard refrain from those who wanted to assert their heterosexuality was ‘are you one of them?’ ‘One of them’ was a ‘homo’, a ‘puff’ or some such.
The idea of homosexuality as the other was deeply entrenched in British society. Margaret Thatcher was referring to ideology rather than sexuality. But as the 30th British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey released earlier this week has reminded us, during the 1980s attitudes to homosexuality hardened.
The arrival of AIDS and the introduction of Section 28 both played their part and Thatcher’s 1987 Conservative Party conference speech made it very clear where she stood, asserting the need for children to be taught traditional moral values in relation to sexuality.
Thatcher doubtless had her gay supporters, but it’s hard to imagine that gayness would have been consistent with being ‘one of us’.
BSA provides a unique insight into the shift in attitudes to homosexuality that has taken place in Britain over the last three decades. The recent criticism levelled at Russia for introducing Section 28 style legislation, albeit more severe, was a powerful indicator of how remarkable that shift has been. The idea that the so called British value of tolerance now extends to sexuality may be contested.
However tolerance has clearly reached parts of the establishment in a way that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
But can we now claim that to be a truly inclusive society where sexuality is concerned, where to be lesbian or gay is to be ‘one of us’ rather than ‘one of them?’
The data shows that attitudes have become more tolerant among supporters of all political partners since the early 1990s.
However during the 1980s when attitudes in general were hardening, it was only Labour supporters who bucked the trend. This can perhaps be attributed to the fact that the pro-lesbian and gay rights lobbying of the period was within the labour movement and in opposition to Thatcherism.
Labour supporters today remain more progressive than Conservative party supporters (though slightly less so than Liberal Democrat supporters), but the gap in 2012 was less than half of what it had been a decade earlier.
Although a majority of Conservative supporters in 2012 supported gay marriage, overall they remained less likely to do so than supporters of the other main parties.
Religion was a key differentiator of attitudes to homosexuality in 1983 and remains so (table below). It is amongst those with no religious beliefs that attitudes have consistently been most tolerant and liberalised fastest. However, attitudes amongst Christians have become markedly more liberal too; perhaps surprisingly given the establishment line, the trend towards tolerance appears to have shifted more quickly amongst Catholics than Anglicans.
The outliers here are those with religious beliefs other than Christianity, where a majority believe that same sex relations are wrong, a figure that is in fact higher than it was in 1983.
The most striking feature of the liberalisation of attitudes is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the generational shift. Each generation has become progressively more tolerant of homosexuality. In fact, those born in the 1960s were more resistant to the hardening of attitudes in the 1980s than those of previous generations.
So, in 21st century Britain, to be lesbian or gay is increasingly to be ‘one of us’ rather than ‘one of them’. Religious institutions remain a brake on liberalisation but perhaps not to the extent that their establishments would have us think, particularly within the Christian church, where church attendance is in any case in decline.
In fact education is a slightly more significant differentiator, with graduates (who of course now exist in greater numbers) markedly more tolerant over time than those with no qualifications.
Since the 2012 BSA data was collected we’ve seen the debate over gay marriage. Interestingly the data shows that societal attitudes to homosexuality remain markedly less liberal than attitudes to pre-marital sex. Here too, however, the gap is narrowing.
Perhaps given the blurring in distinction between the status of heterosexual and homosexual relationships, that trend is set to continue. Indeed some would argue that the reason why gay marriage has been so controversial is because it threatens to break down the gap between ‘them’ and ‘us’ more than ever before.
This post was first published by www.leftfootforward.org