Iron lady or Camp Icon? Growing up Gay in Thatcher's Britain

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: You've been hearing the praise and recollections, not to mention the criticism, of the late Margaret Thatcher who died yesterday at age 87. To give you a sense of just how divided Britain is over the death of the former prime minister, listen to this. Just last night 6 British police officers were injured in public rallies organized to celebrate her death. For an even more polarized and raw view of Thatcher go back to the 1980s. This period was very difficult, especially if you were young and gay in Britain. Thatcher's conservative government brought in legislation which specifically outlawed the promotion of homosexuality in schools. It meant that teachers counseling gay teenagers could lose their jobs. Damian Barr was a school student at the time, part of that generation. He grew up gay in a working class Scottish community where Thatcher's policies dominated everyday life. His forthcoming memoir "Maggie and Me," revisits that era and the woman who dominated. Damian, thanks for coming on the program. I'm curious to know, first of all, what was your attitude towards Thatcher?

Damian Barr: I hated her for section 28. I mean I went to try and talk to . . .

Werman: And section 28? Tell us about that.

Barr: Section 28 is a piece of legislation which was supposed to prohibit the promotion of the teaching of homosexuality in schools.

Werman: Ah, what I mentioned earlier.

Barr: Yes, exactly. Obviously not very successful in my case, but that piece of legislation meant that my teachers when I went to speak to them could not talk to me. They actually said, "We can't talk to you and this is why." So I wasn't given any comfort or any advice by people who wanted to support me. So that was a cruel and unnecessary piece of legislation, but, and a lot of people don't know this, Margaret Thatcher voted in 1967 to implement the decriminalization of homosexuality. So, on the one hand, she did that and, on the other hand, she brought in this horrible clause 28, so that's a contradiction, but there is a message from her which is to do with individuality, being your own person, when she famously said, "There's no such thing as society." I didn't really like the society that I was living it. I found it quite oppressive and quite scary. I wanted to get away and become my own person and that's the message that I got from her, "You can be your own man." Now, she may not approve of the man I am, but she certainly said that I could go and make myself and that's what I've done.

Werman: And your mother and father, did they like Thatcher or did they hate her?

Barr: My dad was a steelworker in Ravens Creek which was the biggest steelworks in Europe. Thatcher closed the steelworks. She took away my dad's job, she took away the jobs of our community. She was hated by both my parents. She was hated by every single person that I knew and they were all thrilled at the news that she was dead and I can understand why they feel that day because what she dared to do those things, she did tear the heart out of our community. She made up from being working class to, in some senses, almost being underclass.

Werman: I mean given that Thatcher didn't really have a gay rights agenda to say the least, given that your family hated her, explain the evolution then as Margaret Thatcher becoming a key figure in your own growth as a person. I mean some might even say she's a gay icon.

Barr: Well, a lot of people say she's a gay icon. She was different. She stood out and I think that was quite inspirational for a lot of people. She was also very camp, you know, the pussybows and the big hair and the big shoulder pads, she was sort of like Dynasty politics for us in the UK. I think Meryl Streep gets that quite good in the film actually. She's kind of hilarious. But I think really it's the message about individuality and sort of being your own person. I think we can take from it. But for me, I really felt shaped by her, more almost than my parents, and very often reacting against her.

Werman: So you've got Cher, Barbra Streisand, and now Margaret Thatcher. Are they part of the triumvirate. Is that it?

Barr: Exactly. Can you imagine us all going clubbing together? Now that would be a night.

Werman: Wow

Barr: But you know that Maggie Thatcher would drive, so that's fine. She'd be the designated driver.

Werman: Damian Barr, he's the author of the forthcoming memoir ââ?¬Å?Maggie and Meââ?¬ . Thanks so much for speaking with us, Damian.

Barr: You're welcome. Thank you.