The Crown's depiction of Margaret Thatcher stings for LGBTQ+ people like me

Growing up as an X Files-obsessed closeted gay teen in England, Gillian Anderson was my first ever fake crush. 

Having a celebrity female crush felt like a necessity then – it just made navigating the heterosexual corridors of high school a little easier. 

I started secondary school in 1992, just four years after Section 28 – a clause that banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by local authorities and, therefore, also within Britain’s schools – was introduced.

On paper, this meant that any professional working with children and young people was forbidden from teaching about, or discussing, same-sex relationships in a positive light. 

This was a policy implemented by the Conservative Party under the leadership of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who once famously said: ‘Children who need to be taught to respect traditional, moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.’

So I found myself torn when watching the latest season of The Crown and seeing Gillian Anderson – my first ‘crush’ – playing the role of the Iron Lady herself.

In the majority of the 10 episodes that comprise season four of the hit-Netflix show, Thatcher is depicted as stubborn and narrow-sighted. She lacks the ability (and arguably the desire) to show emotion to her daughter and seems to relish any opportunity to be seen as strong and determined.

Despite painting Thatcher in an unlikeable light, the series clearly allows her a softness that has led many on social media to say things like ‘Sympathy levels rising for Margaret Thatcher’ or ‘Why does The Crown have to go and make me feel sympathy for Margaret Thatcher?’ 

In one particular scene, while on holiday with the whole royal family, she’s ostracised for not being adaptable or high brow enough – which did make me (and, I imagine, many others watching) feel sorry for an undeniable outsider. 

And then in the final episode, there’s a scene where Thatcher is shown crying, later having a poignant moment with Queen Elizabeth after the way she was ousted from Downing Street. 

For someone who didn’t feel comfortable enough to come out until I was 21 years old, as a direct result of Thatcher’s repressive ban on the promotion of homosexuality, feeling even an ounce of sympathy for Margaret Thatcher was a strange, even jarring, experience.  

Section 28 created a climate in schools where being gay, lesbian or bisexual was seen as wrong. This meant that the bullying of young people often went unchallenged by teachers who were afraid of being disciplined themselves.

Throughout my entire five years at secondary school I only knew of one person who was ‘out’, among a student population of around 700. It makes me sad now to think of how I, and every other closeted student, felt never seeing themselves represented in any other way than negatively.

Countless young people, including myself, had their identities erased during the most important period of their emotional and physical development. 

I was born in 1981 so Thatcher was the UK’s prime minister for the first nine years of my life. She always seemed like a caricature of herself to me – from her voice and her hairdo, to the way she physically carried herself. I’m not exaggerating when I say that when I saw her on television, she often scared me.

Anderson is able to capture this very essence and is ridiculously good in her role on The Crown. But the show’s portrayal of Thatcher falls short of exposing her homophobia and archaic attitudes towards gay, lesbian and bisexual people. This is despite the show having the opportunity to do so, as Section 28 came into effect in 1988 and the last episode explores 1990.

Arguably, it’s not the job of Netflix to provide us with a comprehensive history or LGBTQ+ equality in Great Britain, but there’s a danger in not highlighting this harmful legacy because it hurt so many of us.

Therefore, it’s down to us to educate ourselves now, more than ever, so that we know and understand our collective history.

It wasn’t until I started working in the education team at the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall that I became aware of just how much Section 28 has impacted me.

Working with young LGBTQ+ people – who were from schools where being gay, lesbian or bisexual was celebrated and not ignored – made me understand how the draconian piece of legislation stunted my emotional growth as a teenager. Section 28 has played a big role in shaping my life.

I know that hiding a huge part of who I was from everyone I met became a habit; one I carried with me throughout my subsequent time in sixth form and at university.  

The ability to be able to talk openly with people about my feelings towards those I was attracted to, and to see romantic relationships as exciting rather than fear-inducing, is something that only started to come to me in my early to mid-20s.

To me, the anxiety I still experience when coming out to people, as a 39-year-old man, is a clear and direct result of Section 28 and the climate of homophobia it encouraged during my formative years.

To put it simply, I know that I wouldn’t have waited until I was 21 to come out if my school and its teachers were allowed to acknowledge that gay people existed.  

The harmful legislation was repealed in 2003, so it’s something that will only ever exist in the imaginations of people who never went through it.

It’s our responsibility to ensure that the damage it caused isn’t forgotten, and that similar laws and legislation don’t simply take its place. 

So let’s marvel at Gillian Anderson’s acting, but never forget the real life pain Margaret Thatcher caused.

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