1992-2002: Mermaids, Consent, and Gaytime TV too

14 June 2022

Pride 2022 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first official UK Gay Pride Rally held in London. We are marking each decade from 1972 to 2022 with a blog every week throughout June.

 

The decade 1992-2002 was incredibly significant - not just because it involved the birth of yours truly, but importantly the gay community was further decriminalised, declassified and destigmatised. It is rather shocking now to think that even as recently as the 1990s same-sex attraction was considered a mental illness, finally being declassified by the World Health Organisation in 1992. This development removed the medical or scientific rationalisation for the negative treatment of LGB people, though the trans community sadly had to wait nearly another three decades to obtain the same result.

Since 1967, the age of consent in the UK for same-sex sexual partners was 21, but was 16 for opposite-sex. The difference was deep-rooted in the historic offences of gross indecency and buggery, and the harmful stereotypes that these perpetuated. This meant that when we entered the 1990s, consensual sex between two men aged 17, 18, 19 or 20 (a rite of passage you might argue for most teenagers exploring their sexuality) was still a crime. In the year 1991 alone, 169 young men in this age category were convicted of underage sex in England and Wales; 13 of whom were sent to prison.

The decade saw a significant debate over the age of consent. In 1992, Stonewall began its first major campaign for equalisation between the sexes and the charity supported three gay men in 1993 who complained to the European Commission that the UK had the highest homosexual age of consent in Europe. As a result, the minimum age of consent for gay sex was reduced to 18 in the UK. A year later, a further case was brought, leading the European Commission to find that the difference in age of consent amounted to discrimination in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The House of Commons subsequently voted to lower the age to 16 but the proposal was defeated in the House of Lords. After some toing and froing, in 2000 the UK government finally invoked the Parliament Acts, a constitutional tool which allows legislation to be passed without the approval of the House of Lords. This was a profound step, and to put it into perspective the amended Parliament Acts have only been used to circumvent the House of Lords four times in history. The age of consent was therefore, finally, 16 for everyone.

Besides this, there were a number of other legal and social policy decisions during this decade which shaped LGBTQ+ life in the UK:

  • 1996 – The landmark case of Pv S and Cornwall County Council found that an employee who was undergoing gender affirmation surgery was wrongfully dismissed. It was the first case to recognise that someone can be discriminated against due to being trans.
  • 2000 – The ban on LGB people serving in the armed forces was lifted.
  • 2002 – Equal rights were given to gay and lesbian people applying for adoption. Before this, gay and lesbian singles and same-sex couples could not adopt or foster children.

Support and campaigns for legislative change, particularly for minority groups, often comes from the charity sector, and 1995 is important for being the year that one of the UK’s leading LGBTQ+ charities was founded - Mermaids. The charity was formed by a small group of parents whose children were trans or gender diverse. They felt that there was not enough support and guidance at that time for these children and their families. Mermaids has grown substantially since then and stands for one very clear and laudable statement: “transgender, nonbinary and gender-diverse children deserve the freedom and confidence to explore their gender identity wherever their journey takes them, free from fear, isolation and discrimination.”

The services have developed significantly over the years. The charity now runs a helpline and webchat for trans people, their parents and any professionals involved in their care (i.e. teachers and social workers); organises local groups and events as safe spaces for children to make friends and receive peer-to-peer support; and arranges training sessions for professionals who want to understand gender identity, the challenges faced by trans people and how to ensure policies correctly protect and safeguard trans people. Mermaids also has a legal and policy arm which uses collaborations with law firms to provide advice on areas such as hate crimes, name changes and so on. For more information, visit the Mermaids website.

The work of LGBTQ+ charities is so important, and particularly those which have a focus on young members of the queer community. A huge battle for LGBTQ+ young people is the feeling of isolation and loneliness, feeling different but not knowing how to express this or who to talk to. Services which allow them to interact with others with similar feelings is invaluable to helping them understand themselves, and it is equally crucial that we equip the professionals around them with the knowledge and tools to provide this much needed support. Even one teacher with the impetus to use the right pronouns and vocabulary has a huge, huge impact.

Let’s also not underestimate the role the media has played in recent decades. The 1990s was also an era in which the queer community started entering mainstream media and large production companies began to produce TV and radio shows directly aimed at the LGBTQ+ community. In 1994, Out This Week began on Radio 5 Live, dubbed as the first national radio news programme “for lesbians and gay men”, and a year later Freedom FM was established, the UK’s first 24-hour gay and lesbian radio station.

In 1995 however, it was high time for a glaring pun…Gaytime TV began on BBC Two, running until 1999. The programme was the first BBC TV programme aimed at the LGBTQ+ audience and its primary aim was "to make a programme that is entertaining and funny". Gaytime TV represented a shift away from the more serious, journalistic pieces on issues affecting the gay community into more light-hearted, irreverent entertainment. It was a concern at the time that a focus on those aspects of gay culture which straight society had started to accept and enjoy (i.e. the campness, drag etc.) would mean that the media was simply reproducing what people are comfortable with and therefore not actually challenging attitudes or improving acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. But I personally don’t think the community lost ground simply by being funny occasionally.

The growth of queer TV was part of a general boom in gay and lesbian media at the time. In 1994, the first issue of Attitude, the British gay lifestyle magazine, was published. While before magazines of this kind had been relegated to the less visible positions in newsagents, Attitude graduated to the middle-shelf. Mainstream advertisers began to tap into the “pink pound” and while we may look back on this now with disdain that the LGBTQ+ community could be exploited so patently by large companies (though it is something that we undoubtedly still see in 2022), it had the important impact of helping to bring LGBTQ+ lives and issues more into the light.

It is important to reflect, particularly each year during Pride, on the key turning points across various aspects of society; not just the legislature but also the work of the charity sector and how the media has contributed to changing attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community. There is always more work to be done but if the developments highlighted in this blog show anything it’s that a lot can certainly change in 10 years…

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