You know how the world is a flaming hellscape of never-ending horror and sadness? When the government of the United States is actively fighting to rescind the rights of black, brown, and queer people—and, really, anyone who’s not a straight, cisgender white man—one can’t help but feel that we’re all doomed to backslide into the Dark Ages. Or worse, the ’80s.
Sure, the hair was big, the pop music was perfect, and the coke was great—coincidence, I think not—but homophobia was rampant in the U.S., fueled in part by the AIDS epidemic and an outright refusal to do anything about it on a federal level. In the U.K., the conservative regime of Margaret Thatcher vilified homosexuality, which had only recently been legalized. The times, as they are wont to do, were a-changin’.
A news report from 1980 sought to find out how people felt about all this. In it, a journalist went around Sunderland, a smallish town on England’s northeastern coast, asking locals about their views on homosexuality, since, as the host initially explains, “many people find it difficult to accept anything not regarded as normal.” So already we’re not off to a great start.
Sunderland people give their opinions on being gay in 1980.
“You get some hard puffs like, proper wildies”
“My best friend is gay …… not with me like!” pic.twitter.com/fKwiWzijNt
— Tim Ward (@timmyward) September 8, 2019
These kinds of “Who and what are the gays?” investigative pieces were nothing new, even some 40 years ago. Take for instance, The Rejected from 1961 and The Homosexuals from 1967. These TV reports tried to get down to brass tacks about the whole gay thing by interviewing various “experts” and even the odd homosexual who was willing to appear in front of a camera, with or without their faces obscured.
Screenshot from The Homosexuals
By the end of the ’60s, the modern gay civil rights movement had begun in the U.S., while in the U.K., in 1967, Parliament passed the Sexual Offences Act decriminalizing homosexuality. At the time of this particular report, the gays were doing all right across the pond, though the first case of AIDS would be reported a year later. From there, the rest of the decade provided major setbacks to the cause of equal rights, thanks mainly to three words: Margaret Fucking Thatcher.
If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times: Meryl did not deserve that Oscar. The Iron Lady was a so-so movie that completely glazed over what a monstrous homophobe Thatcher was in favor of some stunt-acting and, I admit, some pretty good wigs. In 1987, the Thatcher government passed Section 28, prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality or the teaching in schools of its acceptance.
So while in 1980 homosexuality was not illegal, and not yet legally stigmatized, it was “not regarded as normal.” And nothing gauges public opinion on a touchy subject like sticking a microphone in a stranger’s face and asking, “Homosexuals. What’s that about, amirite?” But it all depends on who you ask.
One of the first common folk interviewed is this gentlewoman who, based on her answer, probably threw the first brick at Stonewall. When asked what she thinks about homosexuals, her immediate response?
Homegirl is not even trying to play these games.
Don’t you just love how blithely unbothered British people are? I feel like the great English pastime is giving side-eye.
The majority of the Sunderlanders interviewed for this report are startlingly accepting of homosexuality. Woke, if you will. In fact, most of them have the general sentiment of this man, who, despite it being 1980, just yelled at a hungry Dickensian orphan.
Even this pretty young thing, an apple-cheeked symbol of the patriarchy, couldn’t care less who’s shtupping whom.
For these people, homosexuals weren’t some foreign, mysterious concept to be analyzed and understood. Turns out, homosexuals weren’t so “not normal” after all.
Though my favorite reaction came from this woke bae of a certain age.
Of course, not everyone is so enlightened. There’s still some visible unease and altruistic pity for the poor homosexual, but no one wishes anyone else harm. The question, then, is why is their acceptance so novel and so surprising in the first place? It’s easy to believe that people were always homophobic since discrimination never seems to go anywhere, it just hides out in the shadows until someone throws a light on it.
But humans are nuanced and contain multitudes. That some white folks in a small English town in 1980 could be so accepting of something “not regarded as normal” just goes to show how we tend to underestimate one another. Who knows, maybe their opinions changed dramatically after the first AIDS cases sprang up a year later. Maybe Thatcher’s government succeeded in changing some of their minds with its campaign of hate and misinformation.
Still, it’s nice when everything seems awful to be reminded of human beings’ capacity for understanding.