Text by Vittoria Matarrese
In the late 1980s, in Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced the first restrictive law for the homosexual community after one hundred years: Section 28.
More specifically, going against neighboring countries, on May 24, 1988, Section 28 of the Local Government Act was enacted, stating that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality.” Nor would it be possible to “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”1.
Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 4 May 1979 to 28 November 1990 and, since her rise to power in a country with economic and social instability, she implemented a series of radically restrictive reforms. But what led her to endorse this anachronistic law, practically at the end of the decade in which she served as Prime Minister?
By gradually terminating public funding for culture, the Iron Lady also abolished most of the grants for the Arts Council—an institution established in 1946 to make culture accessible to all—because she thought that artists had to and could find their public on their own. The great paradox of Thatcherism is that, while promoting an inflexible social policy, it also promoted an unprecedented artistic creativity and played an extremely important role in various artistic experiences of the ’80s, giving a decisive impulse to the British culture that has continued to exert its effects well beyond the end of Thatcher’s mandate. Not surprisingly, her political figure, symbol of the greatest conservative firmness, was widely exploited by popular culture, often violently, through films, television series and songs that openly quoted her: among these, the most brutal example is the 1988 song by Morrissey, Margaret on the Guillotine, in which the singer wishes for “Margaret” to die.
In addition to The Smiths, the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Elvis Costello, The Commons, The Madness, the Prefab Sprout and many others launched into an anti-Thatcher movement that would have an incredible impact on the cultural scene, causing a sort of ideological shock. In this grim context, while during the day Britain was sad, austere and struggling with strikes and protests (cuts in public funding, de-industrialization, the Falkland war…), the nihilism of the punk years was replaced by a provocative night-time epicureanism, a reaction against the ruling conservative moralism. This is how night was born as a place. At night, a parallel mental and artistic space opened up, paving the way for forms of protest that the authorities feared could have repercussions in the difficult daytime social context.
This fear was due to the fact that it promoted a whole series of spaces, especially nightclubs—among which the best known were Billy’s, the Blitz and the Taboo—which over the course of the decade would become the reflection and symbol of the artistic enthusiasm that animated the British capital. Starting from 1979 and the first crazy nights, the “Bowie nights” at Billy’s launched by Steve Strange (vocalist of the band Visage), a rich artistic community developed itself with a very precise identity. The New Romantics represented not only a style of music but also a dress code, a true modus vivendi developed in opposition to the frugality of punk.
Inspired by the figure of the eighteenth-century dandy, with the addition of androgynous or feminine attire, very heavy make-up on geisha-style white foundation and a ‘glam’ attitude, the New Romantics or Blitz Kids—named after the nightclub owned by Strange after the closing of Billy’s—became popular especially in the field of music thanks to groups like Visage, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Boy George and Culture Club, and took part—although without being direct flag bearers—in a greater recognition of the gay community.
In fact, the New Wave revolution was not just a musical movement, but also became the tool to express complex identities, idiosyncratic positions towards society, which went beyond queer questions and created unique characters, for which ‘look’ was not only an outfit but also the expression of the (multiple) identity of those who created it. Leigh Bowery, an Australian artist who moved to London, was unquestionably the figure who best embodied this whole series of characters. An unclassifiable performer, he pushed the boundaries of gender and creation in general, outside of any norm, through his body, his style and his way of life, becoming a role model for the parallel night world and for many artists, from Lucian Freud to Michael Clark and Charles Atlas. “I think of myself as a canvas,”2 he said, describing the possibility of creating an indeterminate space where sexuality and gender become flexible variations. His evenings at the Taboo between ’85 and ’86 were “the place to be” for all the London ‘freaks’ and would remain a major reference for creative and subversive radicalism.
All this overflowing creativity continued developing alongside the arrival of new forms of media for the cultural dissemination and distribution in general. Indeed, in the early ’80s, during this nightclub era, three new magazines that would help define and immortalize the decade appeared in London: i-D, BLITZ and The Face were the expression of this subversive and iconoclast generation, publishing photoshoots of every evening as a paradoxical, sexy, provocative, hallucinated catwalk, and would soon come to be considered essential references for the fashion world. This was especially true for i-D—the brainchild of Terry Jones whose first edition was written with a typewriter—and which featured collaborations with photographers such as Juergen Teller, Terry Richardson, Ellen von Unwerth, Wolfgang Tillmans and Nick Knight.
The whole decade was thus marked by an artistic urge that spilled over into all fields, from art to music, from fashion design to photography and publishing. All these creative communities living in the shadow of Thatcherian Britain belied the famous Thatcher slogan “TINA, There Is No Alternative.” Section 28, promoted at the end of the decade to try to stifle the impact of New Wave, would have no other result than to amplify the intensity of the protest.
Despite the complete absence of criminal proceedings under Article 28, it would take another fifteen years for a Labor government to finally repeal the law in 2003.
Section 28 or Clause 28 of the Local Government Act was enacted on 24 May 1988 in England, Wales and Scotland. The amendment stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1988/9/section/28/enacted.
René Zechlin, Martin Engler, Ute Stuffer, Leigh Bowery, Leigh Bowery: Beautified Provocation (Hannover/Heidelberg: Kunstverein Hannover & Kehrer Verlag, 2008), p. 56.