Co-founder of Stonewall Lisa Power talks evil, the Aids pandemic and remembering our history. 

Stonewall celebrates its 30th birthday this year – how proud are you? 

Very proud, although I’m not directly related to Stonewall these days. I think it’s done a fairly amazing job over the years. I haven’t always agreed with everything it’s done but I think it’s made a massive difference. I don’t feel that’s all down to those of us who started it because I suspect we didn’t have the faintest idea what we were doing. We were aiming to get Section 28 repealed and achieve equality, but had no idea how far and fast that change would be. 

What do you recall of the early Stonewall days? 

People don’t accurately remember what happened with Stonewall in the first few years because until very recently there hasn’t been any particular interest in documenting that period. If you look at the founding we were universally ridiculed or dismissed by the gay press at that time – what there was of it – and we were also really strongly attacked by a number of other (mainly gay) activists who condemned us outright. There was a huge row about outing people, for exampleOutRage! were outing people who were not ready, we didn’t want people dragged out of the closet looking miserable because frankly that wasn’t a good advert for being gay. We wanted to make a world where people could comfortably come out and that’s still a work in progress. 

You mentioned Section 28, three decades on there seem to be echoes of that horrible legislation in the Birmingham LGBT lessons row. 

In this country we’ve embedded ourselves throughout society in all different kinds of places and ways, which makes it harder for us to be systematically discriminated against, but doesn’t stop these outbreaks. One of the things I have said over the years is rights can go down as well as up, and that is playing itself out now – we have to be continually vigilantThere are a lot of younger LGBT+ people who have never experienced the level of public hatred and prejudice that we did before, and so it comes as rather a shock when it rears its head again. Some people are always going to be supportive of LGBT+ people, a small minority is always going to be vehemently against us for ideological reasons or just plain homophobia, but actually there are a lot of people in the middle who can be swayed in either direction. And the more people who talk about us with hatred, the more other people will feel it’s ok to do so, or that they’ll belong more if they do. There is a hardcore of people who are genuinely quite evil about LGBT+ people, but a much bigger group who don’t really understand things and just want to be part of a gang. It’s really important that we have support at all levels. With what’going on in Birmingham at the moment, the government has been supportive to LGBT+, and the local authorities have been supportive. The law stands with us because we’re throughout the law – right across the police and things like that. We’re in all those places, we’re understood and people appreciate we’re just the same as them – just who we love is different. 

The government as a whole might support us re the Birmingham situation, but individual politicians might still say things that are not supportive of the LGBT+ community. 

With the Conservative leadership contest, you’ve got people trying to outdo each other to attract the right wing of the party because that’s who’s going to vote to elect the leader. So, some of them are coming out with appalling things. You know that if those people thought they would get more votes by saying pro-gay things, they’d say pro-gay things, because they’re actually just fairly unscrupulous people. You get genuine lifelong bigots like Ann Widdecombe and that’s a different matter, it really worries me. She has been sanitised massively by the media, this granny-like figure on television shows, and people don’t see the woman who liked to keep women prisoners chained while they were giving birththe woman who thinks we can be eliminated with therapy or science. She really is quite evil but she’s been turned into a teddy bear or ‘character’. We’re very bad at that in the UK: we like to see characters. That’s why people like Boris Johnson get away with it, we know how duplicitous he’s been over many years and yet people just think he’s a real card.  

“We Have to be Continually Vigilant” Lisa Power Headshot

Nowadays Stonewall supports the trans community, but it didn’t always. 

That’s right, but there’s a history behind that which I’ve discussed quite a lot with trans activists of various generations. One of the things it’s important to remember is that in the 1980s there actually wasn’the [same level of debate] about trans people being part of LGBT that there is now. There was a quite strong trans-specific lobby called Press for Change which was run by Christine Burns – who’s still around – and it was seen as a parallel movement rather than part of us. That clearly changed over the next couple of decades and a number of my trans friends started to express to me that Stonewall had all of this linkage with power that was needed to support trans people as well. Also the whole understanding of where trans people stood and the varieties of trans people changed a lot over that time until it became clear that people were very much knocking at the door of Stonewall, and I think Stonewall ignored that for far too long – and Ruth Hunt will tell you the same. 

You’re featured in the Ben Lord and Steve Keeble-directed documentary After 82, the untold stories of the Aids pandemic in the UK. Why is the film important? 

I get quite irritated at an awful lot of historical stuff around Aids being all about America. We did a hell of a lot over here and we did a number of things earlier, faster and probably much better than America. Although we felt at the time that government was slow to respond, they responded a lot faster than most other governments, for which we can thank Norman FowlerI think young people are quite surprised to realise how, in the mid- to late-eighties and early nineties, people were literally dropping around us in the communityIt was intense and to be honest, anybody who was involved in HIV support work and care from early days onwards has probably got at least a touch of post-traumatic stress disorder to this day. We don’t talk about what happened enough and we should. People have forgotten stuff; like all the ways – very relevant to my appearance in the film – in which lesbians were involved in the early fightback. When gay men were stopped from giving blood, lesbians organised a blood drive, and lots of lesbians volunteered for the early Terrence Higgins Trust 

You’re also a trustee of Queer Britainwhich is working to establish the UK’s first national LGBTQ+ museum. 

It’s all about remembering our history. There are a lot of people out there who will have stuff at home, really important artefacts from the last 50-odd years, and they should really think about making sure that stuff is preserved and people’s stories are preserved. It would be great if they kept an eye on Queer Britain on social media because we’re going to be coming round the country talking to people.  

After 82 (Central City Media) is available via home entertainment on 20 June 2019. 

stonewall.org.uk/30 | queerbritain.org.uk 

 

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