In Rugby on Saturday 10th November 1984, Chris Smith stepped up to speak at a protest meeting and made history:
My name is Chris Smith. I’m the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, and I’m gay.
He had become the first MP to ‘come out of the closet’, and was reportedly met with a five minute standing ovation. The protest meeting at which he made this revelation was one stage in a bitter dispute between Rugby Borough Council and the gay community.
License to discriminate
A few months earlier, with a vote of 20 ‘for’ and 19 ‘against’, the council made the decision to remove the words ‘sexual orientation’ from their Equal Opportunities policy.1 This withdrew any protection for homosexual, bisexual or asexual people against discrimination. It was widely interpreted as a ‘ban on gays’. While the council denied any active intention to discriminate, certain councillors made anti-gay statements such as ‘we are not having men turn up for work in dresses round here’, ‘this country is giving in to the weirdos’, and describing the gay community as ‘queers, perverts and other trash’.2
Those who objected to their decision argued that ‘homosexual men and women had been put in great fear’; that they would be put off from applying for jobs and that other employers would feel it gave them license to discriminate.3 The dispute reached newspapers across the country. Opposition was taken up by the union NALGO (National and Local Government Officers’ Association) and a number of protests were staged.4
The rally at which MP Chris Smith ‘came out’ was attended by a thousand people from across the West Midlands, including leading churchmen, gay rights campaigners and politicians.5 There was even a suggestion that former Labour Cabinet Minister Tony Benn might attend.6 It was mostly peaceful, although 18 people were arrested when they disobeyed police instructions by unfurling banners in Rugby town centre.7
The dispute brought views on homosexuality into the spotlight, and it seems public opinion was divided. In local newspapers we can find surveys and opinion pieces which give us an insight into the town’s attitude towards homosexuality. A poll by the Rugby Advertiser found that 54% of people felt the council was in the wrong, while 46% agreed with them.8
One reader commented ‘if gays are employed I shall suspect every official as one and be reluctant to seek help’, while another remarked ‘in my job as a GP I see so many problems resulting from heterosexual activity. It might be more appropriate to ban that’.9 One person said ‘gays are an embarrassment to themselves’, while another said ‘the council’s ill-informed, narrow-minded attitude is an embarrassment.’10 One argued that ‘homosexuals are open to blackmail’, while another countered that ‘homosexuals are no more open to blackmail than married people having affairs.’11
Following the rally, moves were made by a rebel Conservative councillor to reinstate the phrase ‘sexual orientation’ into the policy, but these were initially unsuccessful.12 There were further protests: in January, what was originally intended as a candle-lit procession outside the Town Hall ended in smoke flares and tomatoes being thrown at councillors from the public gallery.13
Council debates on the topic continued, despite attempts by council leaders to stifle them, and by mid-February the decision was finally reversed.14 A new paragraph was inserted into the council’s policy statement, reading ‘The council has no procedures or recruitment practices to discriminate against existing employees or job applicants on the grounds of sexual orientation and will appoint and promote the best qualified, the most capable and the most suitable candidates.’15
Were you in Rugby at the time of the dispute? Do you have memories of the protests? What were your thoughts?
1 “Council drops sex clause”, Evening News Bolton, 26 Sep 1984.
2 “Claims of ‘no ban’ but confusion still remains”, Rugby Advertiser, 1 Nov 1984; “Rugby’s gay times”, The Economist, 10 Nov 1984; “’Queers’ jibe protest”, Public Service, Nov 1984; “Standing firm on the decision”, Rugby Advertiser, 4 Oct 1985.
3 “Homosexuals ‘put in fear by insults’”, Rugby Advertiser, 8 Nov 1984; “So all gays must go on the dole?”, Coventry Evening Telegraph, 29 Sep 1984; “Council opens way for anti-gay discrimination”, Morning Star, 27 Sep 1984.
4 “Protest march in Rugby”, NALGO News, 9 Nov 1984.
5 “Gays rally gets wide support”, Coventry Evening Telegraph, 10 Nov 1984.
6 “Big march against ‘no-gays’ council”, The Birmingham Post, 30 Oct 1984.
7 “Gay rights demo”, Sunday Express, 11 Nov 1984; “Police arrest 18 in gays protest march”, Coventry Evening Telegraph 12 Nov 1984. “18 are held in gay protest”, The Birmingham Post, 12 Nov 1984.
8 “Poll reflects a ‘split’ on gays”, Rugby Advertiser, 18 Oct 1984.
9 “Poll reflects a ‘split’ on gays”, Rugby Advertiser, 18 Oct 1984.
10 “Emotions still running high over gays ban”, Rugby Advertiser, 11 Oct 1984.
11 “Emotions still running high over gays ban”, Rugby Advertiser, 11 Oct 1984.
12 “Move to change ‘gay ban’”, Coventry Evening Telegraph, 22 Nov 1984.
13 “Candle-lit lobby”, Rugby Advertiser, 20 Dec 1984; “Tomatoes splatter debate on gays”, Coventry Evening Telegraph, 9 Jan 1985.
14 “Council leaders move to end gay debates”, Coventry Evening Telegraph, 10 Jan 1985; “Breakthrough!”, Rugby Advertiser, 21 Feb 1985.
15 “Breakthrough!”, Rugby Advertiser, 21 Feb 1985.