Writing for PinkNews.co.uk, Gary Powell explains how Prime Minister David Cameron’s leadership on equal marriage changed his political perceptions and was his motivation for joining the Conservative Party.

There is absolutely no way I would have supported the Conservative Party when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.

When I was a young gay man in the 1980s, the homophobic laws that she, her Government, and the majority of Conservative MPs supported, could have landed me in jail, just for having sex when both my partner and I were eighteen, and therefore under the then gay male age of consent of 21. The Conservative Party also opposed legislation to prevent people being fired just for being gay or lesbian.

There is plenty more to add to this shameful inventory. The Conservatives opposed abolishing privacy laws, which meant gay men could be prosecuted for having sex in a house or hotel when another person was resident in any room of that dwelling, and laws that criminalised gay men who had sex with more than one person at a time.

The Conservative Party thought it was perfectly acceptable for people to be arrested for propositioning another gay person in a pub: something termed “importuning”. Indeed, there was a spate of so-called “pretty policemen” who used to hang around in gay bars as agents provocateurs. Mrs Thatcher introduced the notorious “Section 28”, which meant schools became neurotic about mentioning homosexuality in sex education lessons in a fashion that might imply gay sex or gay relationships were in any way being condoned.

Then there was the advent of the AIDS crisis. I remember watching in disbelief as the full, horrific implications of this devastating condition gradually unfolded, and as the news simply got worse and worse. Initially, we had no idea the infectious agent could sit around in the body for years, while its symptom-free host unwittingly passed it on to others; and for all we knew, it was just as possibly transmitted by kissing, as by anal sex.

When information was finally available on how to prevent HIV transmission – or HTLV3, as it was then called – we were relying on Mrs Thatcher’s Government to make sure this urgent information was disseminated as quickly and as effectively as possible.

Effective public education would have required a public media campaign that explicitly and unashamedly referred to “anal sex”, and that advocated the use of condoms. But the prudish form of Christianity that permeated the Conservative Party at that time – and that was also responsible for its institutional homophobia – meant that such a campaign simply wasn’t going to happen. Instead, the crisis was largely brushed under the carpet.

There was a bizarre television advertisement after the watershed consisting of an exploding volcano and “AIDS” being carved into a gigantic tombstone. At the end of this spectacle, we were promised a leaflet through our door with more information, and were told, “Don’t die of ignorance.” The problem was that the advertisement left us in total ignorance as to how we could protect ourselves.

The leaflets did arrive, and they did contain good advice, albeit sanitised; but the Government’s efforts to be as discreet as possible in order to avoid upsetting the prudes, gave the impression that AIDS was not serious enough to make a big fuss about, or even to advise about urgently on television. That, alas, fed in to the wishful thinking of many incredulous young gay men, who did not want their sex lives to be impeded in this way. Many people did die of ignorance, I am sure: unnecessary ignorance. And so many of us were horrified at how blasé Thatcher’s Government seemed, when we, as gay activists, were doing our best to get educated about the crisis, and to provide information to others. Many of us at the time – perhaps with a tinge of paranoia – even wondered whether the Government was doing so little because they quite liked the idea of gay men being wiped out by AIDS; or at least, whether they didn’t really care what happened to us.

Mrs Thatcher showed herself at her very worst, in my opinion, when she spoke at the 1987 Conservative Party Conference. The full extent of her homophobic ignorance and prejudice was revealed when she said:

“Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay…. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life—yes cheated.”

During all this time, the fight for gay and lesbian equality was almost exclusively associated with the political Left. Even in the Labour Party, it was an ongoing struggle to persuade Labour MPs to support an age of consent for gay males of 16. (The age of consent for gay women was already 16, which only served to emphasise the illogicality of the discrimination.) There was a small handful of liberal Conservative MPs who supported full equality, such as Steven Norris, and there was also a society called the “Conservative Group for Homosexual Equality,” who were not recognised by the Party, and whose letters to the then Chairman, Norman Tebbit, used to go unanswered. But if you were gay or lesbian, it was very unusual for you to be a supporter of the Conservative Party, and it carried quite a lot of stigma under the circumstances.

It is hardly surprising that a person who has been diminished, marginalised and undermined by a society, should become anti-establishment as a result. That happened to so many of us. But the problem I had was that my socialist identity did not sit very comfortably with me. Whereas the Left supported unilateral nuclear disarmament, I supported keeping our nuclear deterrent. There was much support on the Left for abortion on demand, with heavy stigmatisation of anyone who suggested limitations being imposed on abortions, whereas my own position on this issue, while liberal, was always more conservative than the popular Leftist one. Then there was my waxing concern about personal freedom in a society with state ownership of the means of production, and concern about a destructive type of ideological egalitarianism in Leftist education policy.

The long and the short of it is that, without the homophobic bigotry prevalent in the Conservative Party during my younger years, I would have been very happy to become a member.

Which is exactly what I did become as a result of Prime Minister David Cameron’s principled and courageous support for equal marriage.

And I have enjoyed a very warm welcome from my local association in Buckinghamshire, where I have got to know a group of wonderful, kind and progressive people, who are absolutely nothing like the Tory Nasties stereotyped by today’s propaganda of the Left.

David Cameron said that he supported equal marriage because he is a Conservative: and this makes sense to those of us who regard the essence of Conservatism as the pursuit of individual freedom, the pursuit of justice, the removal of unfair and discriminatory barriers to citizens realising their potential, and the pursuit of individual (as well as national) security.

Unfortunately, far too many Tories have historically associated Conservatism with some of the worst aspects of dogmatic Christianity. The Conservative Party has changed, and is continuing to change under the leadership of David Cameron and his progressive colleagues, because the benign values of Conservatism have now been separated from the pernicious influence of homophobic dogmatic religion, which is always a toxic parasite and a blight on the individual and collective soul, no matter what dogmatic religion it is, and what society it infects. (And I am by no means referring to liberal and non-fundamentalist forms of religion, for which I have a lot of time.)

It is hardly surprising, given the history of the Conservative Party, that gay and lesbian people – particularly middle-aged ones, like myself – have some very painful and negative memories associated with the Tories. For some people, the mere word “Conservative” is laden with negative stimuli, releasing automatic images of fanged vampire bats with miniature Margaret Thatcher faces and handbags.

Yet, for those of us who are, at heart, natural Conservatives, perhaps the time has now come to join, or at least vote for, the party whose policies most closely reflect our personal values. There is still stigma associated with voting Conservative in large sections of the LGBT community, and there are indeed historical reasons for this, which I have outlined above. But one thing we have surely had to learn, as LGBT people, is how to be authentically ourselves in the face of pressures to conform, and how to be willing to weather other people’s disapproval in the service of standing up for what we believe in.

If we are really Conservatives at heart, maybe this is something we can also “come out” about: to ourselves, and then to others. No matter how disapproving some people may be. One thing that makes LGBT people powerful is the courage we have had to learn in order to forge a decent, self-respecting life and identity for ourselves in the face of ignorance and bigotry.

The Left tried, at least initially, to ascribe dishonest motives to David Cameron in his support for equal marriage, describing it as merely an attempt to “detoxify” the Conservative Party with the sole purpose of winning votes. In my view, the party did need some serious detoxifying, and equal marriage is a part of this process. But it is clear that equality for LGBT people is a matter of principle for the Prime Minister, and something to which he is deeply committed.

He came under ferocious attack from conservative elements of most religions on these islands, as well as from a sizeable chunk of his own party: and as anyone who ever read the comments under Daily Telegraph online “gay marriage” articles will know, the attacks were often vitriolic and personal. Many people left the Conservative Party and defected to UKIP as a result of David Cameron’s refusal to cave in, and many predicted a meltdown in Conservative support and Tory devastation in the 2015 General Election as a result. David Cameron persevered regardless: something that would have been a very risky thing to do if political pragmatism and not principle had been the primary motivator.

As things stand, the Tory equal marriage support meltdown has not happened, and indeed, the Conservatives are only a few points behind Labour in the polls. But supporting equal marriage was electorally a risky business, and things could have gone very much the other way.

Many anti-equal marriage voters have abandoned the Conservative Party, and will be voting UKIP in the 2015 General Election. UKIP have been all too keen to exploit Tory divisions on this issue, and to attract homophobic votes by strongly opposing equality.

The Conservative Party has a great deal to offer LGBT people and the campaign for LGBT equality. Detached from the fetters of fundamentalist religion, it will continue to fight for individual freedom, for justice, for our personal, financial and national security, for a cohesive society where people are not relegated to the margins because of religious bigotry, and for the removal of unjust impediments to equality of opportunity and self-realisation.

And very importantly, we need to ask ourselves which party we most trust to oppose the attempts of radical Islamists to impose the most ruthless form of persecution imaginable on gay and lesbian people. Currently, there is a widespread tendency on the Left to ignore or gloss over the oppression of LGBT people by radical Islamists, both at home and abroad, denigrating anyone who criticises fundamentalist Islam and radical Islamism as a “racist” and “Islamophobe”.

(And I am not referring to mainstream believing or cultural Muslims, who have nothing in common with violent Islamist extremism and bigotry: mainstream Muslims are as much victims and potential victims of violent Islamism as everyone else.) Let us give a thought to the gay and lesbian children from Islamist families who are taught that homosexuals will be burnt for eternity in hell, and ask ourselves whether we agree with the stupid cultural relativism popular on the Left that suggests no culture has the right to claim moral superiority to any other, and therefore to judge any other.

Most of the Left – with the exception of a few brave and independently-minded individuals – are deafeningly silent when it comes to criticising fundamentalist Islamism and the effect it has on the well-being and freedom of women, children and LGBT people, who often have no choice but to live in such radicalised families and communities.

While this continues, the Left campaigns for a policy of appeasement towards the religiofascist state of Iran, which is close to acquiring nuclear weapons. This is one of the theocracies where LGBT people are subjected to flogging, imprisonment and hanging, and whose last president wanted Israel – the only democratic, liberal state in the region where LGBT people are treated with respect – wiped off the map. For as long as the Left continues to ignore and appease violent and aggressive Islamism at home and abroad, it is no friend to the national, or global, LGBT community.

For me, the Conservative Manifesto is far from perfect: but it is a “best fit”, and I am free to campaign for the changes in which I believe. It seems to me that there are probably many LGBT people for whom the Conservative Party is a “best fit”: people who, fundamentally, are natural Conservative supporters. Every single one of us who votes Conservative for the first time will compensate for one anti-equality ex-Tory who defected to UKIP.

The Conservative Party has not yet completed its journey on LGBT rights, as we can see from the handful of homophobic troglodytes who still sit on the back benches and in the Lords: but thanks to David Cameron, it is now well on its way. And what a great thing if we LGBT natural Conservatives can play our part in accelerating that journey, and in ensuring that every homophobic vote lost to UKIP because of equal marriage, is replaced by at least one new pink cross in the Conservative box.

As with all comment pieces the views expressed do not necessary reflect those of PinkNews.co.uk