‘No platforming’ homophobes in the 1980s

As it is LGBT+ History Month in the UK this month, I thought I’d share a short story of protest against homophobia in Britain in the 1980s by students at Swansea University. This story can be found in my book No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech.

When the National Union of Students introduced their ‘no platform’ policy in 1974, the focus of the policy was fascists and racists, primarily the National Front (NF). With the immediate threat of the NF declining in the early 1980s, there was a rethink of the various strategies used to combat them and the new threats that presented themselves at the time. This included debates about the application of the tactic of ‘no platform’. As well as targeting fascists and racists, the ‘no platform’ policy was also used at times to oppose speakers and groups that were sexist and homophobic. Coming at a time when the Conservatives stood steadfastly against gay rights and homophobia was the norm on the right, there were protests against some of the explicitly homophobic speakers who appeared on campuses. The most prominent example of this was the actions in opposition to a local Tory councillor with a record of homophobic remarks who was invited to speak at Swansea University in 1987. 

In January 1987, a local Conservative councillor in Swansea, Richard Lewis, was invited by the Conservative Association at the University College of Swansea (more commonly referred to as Swansea University) to speak. Lewis was well-known in the local media for his homophobic views and this was at a time when homophobia was widespread in British politics (particularly in the Conservative Party), with the concern about AIDS being used to promote anti-gay agendas. As Daryl Leeworthy has written, ‘[t]he emergence of HIV/AIDS provided an excuse for social conservatives to try and reverse the development of a public gay life in the 1970s and early 1980s’ and that in 1987, several Conservative Party candidates and officials were involved in expressing ‘overtly homophobic opinions’, including Lewis.[1]

This incident occurred just prior to the Thatcher government starting to agitate against the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by local governments (part of, as Anna Marie Smith points out, a wider attack on local governments during the 1980s), leading to the introduction of Section 28 the following year.[2] A column in Bad Press, the student newspaper at Swansea, noted that Lewis had ‘called for a “Mary Whitehouse” type clean-up campaign for Swansea’, ‘labelled freedom fighters in Southern Africa as “terrorists”’ and called AIDS a ‘gay plague’.[3]

The student union at Swansea University had banned Lewis from entering the building, specifying that the Conservative Association had not given them the required four weeks’ notice that Lewis was scheduled to speak, rather than ‘actually refusing to let him speak’ – although they did acknowledge that Lewis’ views were ‘very dangerous’.[4] But Lewis, supported by members of Conservative Association, attempted to proceed with coming to the university and giving his talk. Bad Press described the events:

Accompanied by two bodyguards, Mr Lewis was met outside the Council Chambers by protestors who barred his entrance. Jon Lloyd-Owen, the Union Treasurer, informed Mr Lewis that he was not welcome in the building and had come uninvited. He was reluctant to leave, saying that he had every right to be there. However, led by Ms Pickett [the Chair of the Conservative Association] the entourage eventually moved out of the building and across to a lecture theatre, followed by some 60 protestors.

Refusing to begin this meeting until everybody was ‘sittign [sic] down properly’, Ms Pickett looked on scornfully as [Mr Lewis’] speech was drowned by cries of ‘OUT OUT’ from angry students.[5]

The student newspaper reported that Lewis spoke about the evils of homosexuality and then ‘condemned the behaviour of the S.U. members saying that it was an infringement of his freedom of speech’.[6] Lloyd-Owen replied that Lewis was ‘a dangerous homophobic bigot, whose antics pose a threat to all students and in particular those already oppressed by racism and anti-gay hysteria’.[7] The student union president declared in Bad Press that Lewis was ‘reactionary, opportunistic and misinformed’ and that his ‘ignorant views’ were ‘a danger to us all and generations to come’.[8]

In the aftermath of the protest against Lewis, the student union disaffiliated the Conservative Association and there was a fierce debate throughout the university about the protest.[9] There were letters in the student newspaper, as well as in the university newsletter, which both condemned and defended the actions of the protestors. One ‘narked socialist’ wrote to Bad Press, calling the protestors ‘bloody thugs’ and ‘mindless’, while ruminating that ‘the days of peaceful, organised effective demonstration in Britain’ were gone.[10] A protesting student replied the following week, countering:

There was nothing ‘thuggish’… about the behaviour displayed by those students who took part in the picket, … Lewis was met by a contingent of people who, not surprisingly, given the highly offensive nature of his views, weren’t exactly prepared to roll out the red carpet for him. He received a noisy and hostile reception, it is true, but he was never at any point physically assaulted by a student.[11]

The letter writer also objected to the demonstrators being called ‘mindless’, stating that the protest was ‘very effective’ that had achieved its aim – ‘the prevention from speaking (for very long) of a truly mindless man who denies freedom of speech to those whom he disagrees with’.[12]

Amidst the debate about the rights and wrongs of the protest, the university administration sought to take action against those involved in the protest, including two lecturers from the university.[13] The Principal at the university, Brian Clarkson, complained about the ‘bad publicity’ that had been attracted by the protest and proclaimed that he was ‘particularly shocked to see that two members of the academic staff were associated with the disruption’.[14] After over 30 academics from across the university signed a letter defending the protest against Lewis, Clarkson stated that freedom of speech was ‘the foundation of a University society and is not one which can be qualified in any way’.[15] But Colwyn Williamson, a philosophy lecturer at the university, asked ‘is there anyone who honestly believes in an unqualified right of free speech?’[16] As the letter by the numerous academics pointed out, ‘freedom of speech is not an absolute right in our society’ and one that is legally curtailed on several levels.[17]

As the university administration deliberated over whether to discipline the staff members that had protested, particularly one drama lecturer who was also gay, the Association of University Teachers (AUT) and the student union publicly lambasted Clarkson.[18] The student union stated that it ‘reject[ed] Clarksons [sic] unqualified statement on “freedom of speech”’ and pushed to ‘ensure that no-one [was] victimised by the Principal or College for their part in the demo’.[19] After Clarkson wrote in the university newsletter that it was ‘not necessary for the College continually to have to dissociate itself from such views’ as those professed by Lewis,[20] Dave Moxham, the student union President, argued that ‘gay lecturers and students would still feel there was a lack of support because the College had in no way disassociated itself from Cllr. Lewis’ “crusade”’.[21] In the wake of the Lewis incident, the student union implemented a formal ‘no platform’ policy, with Bad Press reporting that the union believed that ‘positive action against bigots, racists and homophobes must have to be taken as their views [had] no place on a university campus’.[22] Throughout the 1980s, other student unions pursued similar policies that expanded the principle of ‘no platform’ to sexists and homophobes.

This expansion of the ‘no platform’ tactic to include action against homophobes (and sexists) caused some of those originally wedded to the idea to object to its use beyond the original targets – organised racists and fascists. They felt that sexists and homophobes, while offensive, did not present the same kind of threat as the fascists that the policy was originally developed to combat. However the ‘no platform’ for sexists and homophobes, as advocated by some students and activists in the 1980s,ni needs to be seen in a wider context of the student unions attempting to address the sexual and homophobic harassment and violence experienced by students. The policy of ‘no platform’ for sexists and homophobes was not just an action to be taken against certain types of speech, but saw these forms of speech as precursors to acts of violence which required a pre-emptive response. And in the 1980s, the widespread homophobia of the press, the police and the Conservative government, as well as right-wing individuals and organisations, led activists to argue that such action was necessary in the fight for LGBT rights.

[1]           Daryl Leeworthy, A Little Gay History of Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2019) p. 122–123.

[2]           Anna Marie Smith, New Right Discourses on Race and Sexuality: Britain, 1968–1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) pp. 15–22.

[3]           Bad Press, 3 February, 1987, p. 3.

[4]           Ibid., p. 1.

[5]           Ibid.

[6]           Ibid.

[7]           Ibid.

[8]           Ibid., p. 3.

[9]           Bad Press, 10 February, 1987, p. 3.

[10]         Bad Press, 3 February, 1987, p. 5.

[11]         Bad Press, 10 February, 1987, p. 5.

[12]         Ibid.

[13]         Bad Press, 10 February, 1987, p. 3.

[14]         Newsletter/Newyddiun, 5 February, 1987, p. 1.

[15]         Newsletter/Newyddiun, 26 February, 1987, p. 10.

[16]         Ibid.; Emphasis in original text.

[17]         Ibid., p. 9.

[18]         Bad Press, 10 February, 1987, p. 1; Bad Press, 24 February, 1987, p. 1.

[19]         Bad Press, 24 February, 1987, p. 1

[20]         Newsletter/Newyddiun, 26 February, 1987, p. 10.

[21]         Bad Press, 10 March, 1987, p. 1.

[22]         Bad Press, 24 February, 1987, p. 1

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