Fifty years ago today, the streets of London played host to Britain’s first ever Pride rally. That year, 1972, an estimated 2,000 people took part in the march, which was organised by the Gay Liberation Front. The demonstration was one part of the ushering-in of a new era of LGBT+ liberation activism, which was instrumental in improving life for LGBT+ people across the country and the world.
As the largest membership body in the country, the trade unions have long been and remain one of the most effective means of collective resistance. In his brilliantly insightful book Champions of Equality, veteran trade unionist Peter Purton, argues that ‘the labour movement offers solutions that are collective, not just the individual. It encourages people to work together to resist attacks or to move forward together to brighter futures.’ This collectivism was crucial to bringing the LGBT+ movement to its present victories—and if we want to continue the process of liberation, it will prove key to the future ones, too.
The Birth of an LGBT+ Labour Movement
Trade unions have had LGBT+ members for as long as they have existed. But the first days of modern LGBT+ trade unionism as we know it can also be traced to 1972, to the establishment of gay and lesbian worker branches of the National and Local Government Officers’ Association, or NAGLO, which would later go on to form part of UNISON in 1993. By 1976, these pioneering gay and lesbian workers had secured the adoption of a gay- and lesbian-inclusive policy position by the NALGO union as a whole, and published a newsletter called NALGAY.
This had practical as well as political implications. In 1976, members of the union would take industrial action against Tower Hamlets Council after it dismissed a gay employee who was a social worker on the grounds of sexuality: he was, according to his employers, a ‘jeopardy to the community’. It was only nine years since homosexuality had been decriminalised in England and Wales, and the press was hostile—the Daily Telegraph ran an editorial asking if gay men ‘are fit to be social workers’—but the workers stood firm and won. Ian Davies, the worker, was reinstated. Similar campaigns were run by other unions to reinstate sacked workers, including Jamie Dunbar, a COHSE member and hospital porter fired for wearing a pride badge at work.
The 1980s saw LGBT+ workers and activists mobilising against the backdrop of the Thatcher government. The 2014 film Pride tells the story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), an organisation that raised over £22,000 for the families of the miners out on strike in 1984 and ’85. The alliance formed between LGSM and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in fighting against the assault on working-class communities eventually spearheaded the national labour movement’s support for LGBT+ rights as a whole: in 1985, both the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the Labour Party adopted inclusive policy positions, with votes from NUM delegates—in showing solidarity with the LGBT+ people who stood by them during the miners’ strike—crucial to getting the motions over the line.
As the AIDS crisis continued to unfold through the latter half of the 1980s and early 1990s, many trade unionists supported workers who had received a positive diagnosis. Inhumane press coverage routinely targeted gay men impacted by AIDS, but the TUC established health and safety training courses to educate its members about the realities of the virus, specifically challenging the harmful misconceptions that were regularly splashed across the fronts of the papers.
Trade unions also joined the fight against Thatcher’s pernicious Section 28, which gagged schools from discussing lesbian and gay identities and left LGBT+ teachers fearful of losing their jobs should they come out at work. A focused campaign group, Trade Unionists Against Section 28, received the support of the NUM, further affirming that bond of solidarity between the LGBT+ community and the miners. This period represented a transition for trade unions, from fighting for the wellbeing of their LGBT+ members to fighting for the wider LGBT+ community, too.
When New Labour arrived in government, those unions had a seat at the table. When Blair’s proposals for pension rights for lesbian and gay couples didn’t go far enough, trade pushed the government to backdate payments to 1988. The TUC and UNISON also worked together to successfully stop the House of Lords pursuing wrecking proposals, paving the way to the repeal, at last, of Section 28. More recently, the TUC has condemned the government in its shameful exclusion of trans people from the planned Conversion Therapy Ban, and backed much-needed changes to the Gender Recognition Act.
This history should not be a whitewash: activists have spoken of the ‘machoism’ of parts of the trade union movement in the twentieth century, and at times unions have been too slow to change, not only on LGBT+ liberation, but on other inequalities including racism and misogyny, too. These views have no place in the movement and need to be rooted out. There is much more that needs to be done on LGBT+ rights, in both the trade union movement and society as a whole—but that we can now often count on mass democratic bodies to come out swinging for the community also shows how far we’ve come since the 1970s, when these bonds were forged for the first time.
Today’s anniversary comes, again, against a backdrop of growing industrial unrest. The government is waging a new war against both LGBT+ people, in particular trans people, and trade unions: its standing on LGBT+ rights is tumbling down international rankings year on year, and ministers are set to endanger the safety of the public by allowing agency workers to be used as strikebreakers.
But as inflation in the UK spirals, it acts as a reminder that the fight for LGBT+ people and for workers are one and the same. LGBT+ workers are going to be hit hard. There’s already evidence that LGBT+ people experience a pay gap compared to their straight counterparts, with one study in 2019 estimating the difference in earnings is almost £7,000 a year—around sixteen percent. This comes coupled with the discrimination LGBT+ people face in the workplace, with trans people and Black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBT+ staff particularly at increased risk of physical attacks at work.
At the same time, we are seeing a resurgence in the trade union movement. The TUC’s ‘Join a Union’ website shot up 800 percent last week alone, and new figures show trade unions are trusted by the public significantly more than politicians. The issues we face also present opportunities to fight together, and both history and the evidence are on our side: countries with high trade union membership have greater equality among their citizenry, and many, notably, have better protections for LGBT+ people.
Groups within the labour movement stood against hate well before there was public support to do so, and against a tide of successive government and media attacks on the lives of LGBT+ people and other minority groups. In 1985, when seventy percent of UK adults thought homosexuality was either always or mostly wrong, the NUM marched alongside LGSM, leading the Pride march in London. This was well before commercial companies decided to show up in the 1990s, too, well after public attitudes had already begun to change.
Right now, LGBT+ rights and workers’ rights in the UK are in an increasingly fragile state. That underlines the importance of learning lessons from the past, and recognising that an empowered labour movement, living by old principle of an injury to one is an injury to all, will be key to advancing LGBT+ liberation and liberation for everyone in the years to come.