What does Sanderson's archive tell us? It reminds us, first of all, that the 1980s were not an easy time to be gay. This was in part because a lot of British people still believed in older notions that homosexuality was contrary to nature or a sin against God. But it was also because of the wave of alarmism about AIDS - the "gay plague" - and concerns about how easy it might be for heterosexuals to catch it. Gays, of course, were victims of AIDS; but in many quarters compassion was reserved for those, like haemophiliacs, who could be seen as "innocent" casualties of the epidemic.
There was always some sympathetic media coverage of gay issues; but there was also explicit bigotry. Journalists wrote openly about "poofters" and "queers". Tedious stereotypes recurred of male homosexuals as effeminate and promiscuous, coupled with scaremongering about older gay men preying on impressionable youths (while actual gay youths could expect a rough ride from their parents). If someone suggested that a celebrity might be gay, they were quick to deny it. If they really were gay, there was a significant chance that they would be luridly "outed".
Sanderson's archive attests that some people in eighties Britain considered that restoring the pre-1967 legal ban on gay sex was a legitimate option. It is easy to be shocked by this kind of extreme view today. But more insidious, and perhaps ultimately worse, was the widespread feeling that gays ought to shut up and be happy now because they were no longer being overtly persecuted. I don't care what they get up to in bed, I just wish they'd stop asking for special privileges. This attitude reflected a woeful lack of understanding of the discrimination that gay Britons continued to face. Despite the 1967 liberalisation of the law, police harrassment of the community continued. And in the political sphere, there was the campaign against "loony left" councils which provided services to gay people - a campaign that led directly to the notorious Section 28.
The situation underwent no radical change in the 1990s. Rumours about closet cases continued to feature in the media, as did stories based on "outings". Right up to the end of the decade, men like George Michael and Peter Mandelson were continuing to be visited with press attention for the wrong reasons. In 1998, the Daily Telegraph stated bluntly in an editorial:
Prejudice against homosexuality is justified - not because homosexual men or women are wicked, but because the homosexual condition itself is usually an unhappy one, and one that no loving parent would wish on his child.As late as 2000, the prominent journalist and editor Peter McKay could write in the Daily Mail:
We’re being battered into submission by gay self-pity. First it was Aids and the claim that the heterosexual majority was letting gays die rather than seek a cure for the disease to which their sexual habits make them vulnerable. Since this is no longer tenable, we are harried about their status and right to have sex in public places… the drip-drip-drip Chinese torture of gay propaganda results in new laws and ‘rights’. Yesterday we were told that Culture Secretary Chris Smith, who is gay, phoned Education Secretary David Blunkett to say he and others were anxious that any Government promotion of marriage did not ‘implicitly denigrate homosexuality.’But times were moving on, if only slowly and imperfectly. In 1994, the age of consent for gay men was lowered to 18, and in 2000 it was equalised with the straight age at 16. Medical advances reduced the threat posed by HIV/AIDS. Traditionally homophobic institutions began to reform. Police harrasment eased, and the force began to advertise for gay recruits. An increasing number of Christians came round to the idea that they had got it wrong. The ban on homosexuality in the armed forces was dropped. Even the media eventually began to have a word with itself: by the noughties, the bullying practice of "outing" had evolved to a large extent into voluntary coming out. In 2001, the Daily Telegraph itself printed an editorial saying that it would have no problem with a gay Conservative leader (although Michael Portillo's sexuality was still an issue when he stood for that position later in the year).
In 2002, Sanderson considered thoughtfully whether the gay movement had come close to achieving what it wanted:
Integration is what it’s all about. Assimilation even. A separate gay identity is no longer desirable, we are told. We are just people who happen to be gay, and after we have finished work in our equal opportunities job, we can return to our homes in suburbia, living in happy and accepted partnerships among the other aspiring young marrieds. After all, nobody minds that you’re gay these days, do they, even in territory where the school run is the main event of the day?...And indeed it is quite clear from Sanderson's archive that prejudice still continued. The campaigns of the 1990s and 2000s to equalise the age of consent and to repeal Section 28 generated nasty homophobic backlashes which are now generally forgotten. In the latter case, the backlash almost succeeded in deterring the Blair government from pursuing the repeal. Men in public life continued to be outed: this happened to the Lib Dem politicians Simon Hughes and Mark Oaten as late as 2006 (even as Sanderson noted that the 2005 election was the first one in which every party had abandoned overt homophobia and tried to court the gay vote).
But it isn’t going to be quite that simple.... There is the battle for hearts and minds – still far from won, despite the impression given in the media that homo-hatred is, to all intents and purposes, over. Violence and discrimination continue to plague the lives of many.
There is still, among the population at large, a widespread suspicion of gay people that can sometimes morph into outright hatred....
So we have a halfway house. One the one hand, unprecedented freedom to live our lives the way we want to, and on the other, a whole well of loathing and mistrust that can wreck our plans overnight.
Nevertheless, the decline in open anti-gay bigotry in the media lead to Sanderson's column being discontinued in 2007 (and replaced with a new feature focused on religion). He wrote in his last piece:
Although occasionally [the papers] will revert to type and publish something breathtakingly anti-gay, they will follow up the next day with something completely sympathetic. For every attack on George Michael for his unapologetic cruising and cottaging, there will be a sycophantic report of Elton and David’s domestic life that makes everyone go “aah”. Every time The Daily Mail uses us as a tool in its never-ending campaign to impose right-wing values on Britain, it will be balanced by a feature about how women came to love their husbands all over again when they came out as gay.
The greatest liberal policy success of the last decade was the legalisation of gay marriage. Sanderson's archive sheds some light on the history of this particular achievement.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Sunday Telegraph carried an article advocating gay marriage as early as 1988. The matter was further discussed in the Independent on Sunday in 1991:
Lily Lamb, a cake decorator, donned her philosopher’s cap to pronounce: “It’s wrong to have homosexuals at all… I wouldn’t decorate a gay wedding cake on principle.” While Diana Shirley “a honeymoon holiday specialist” said she was “against homosexuals marrying, but on the business side I’m for it”.Progress was sluggish, but the issue had gained traction by the mid-90s, and in 1997 the Conservative leader William Hague was reported as expressing sympathy for the idea. By this time, public debate was also in train on the issue of gay people being parents or foster-parents.
By the noughties, gay marriage and parenting had become a feature of the social policy agenda. In 2000, the Times magazine ran a feature on the subject headlined "The New Happy Families". In 2001, Ken Livingstone introduced civil registrations in London, and a gay wedding was performed by a rogue bishop on the Richard and Judy Show. In 2003, the Government announced plans for civil partnerships, to the consternation of right-wing journalists like Simon Heffer and Tom Utley. In an editorial, the Daily Telegraph doubted whether gays really wanted to get married at all:
The question should be asked whether society has any strong interest in encouraging stable partnerships between homosexuals, of the same sort of as its interest in encouraging marriage. How many gay rights campaigners actually want parity with married couples, come to that, and how many are simply making a propaganda point?Yet the following year the Telegraph reversed its position, leaving the Daily Mail as the only national newspaper to oppose recognising gay relationships in law. Civil partnerships finally began to be celebrated in 2006, by which time even the Mail had decided to throw in the towel:
Yesterday was a celebration of the live-and-let live tolerance that marks our society, a signal moment in our social history and the righting of a long injustice… we wish all those couples good fortune.Nevertheless, the paper was also on hand a couple of months later to report on the first gay divorce.
What are the lessons here for Brexit Britain? The main one may be that there is no room for complacency at a time when we may be going backwards into a new era of social conservatism. There is perhaps a special resonance to Sanderson's words from the 1990s in relation to the proposal to equalise the age of consent at 16:
We should be thankful that [Parliamentary democracy] is the brand of democracy we favour in this country, because if we made our legislative decisions by referenda, Britain would be a deeply unpleasant place to live. The frequent hysterical outbursts calling for hanging, flogging, castration and the sending home of “immigrants” give some indication of what I mean.