In LGBT History Month, ANTON JOHNSON looks at the contribution of a tireless trade union campaigner from the Thatcher years
THROUGHOUT this month, which is LGBT History Month, the Morning Star has been publishing photographs of “lanterns” — people who have, or are, contributing to LGBT rights in their own way.
On Monday evening TUC Congress House will host an event, Our Liberation — Tribute, Past and Future. It’s been jointly organised by the TUC LGBT committee and the south-east region TUC (Sertuc) LGBT network, to pay tribute to those who have contributed to the struggle.
There is one person for whom special mention should be made because of his tireless work for LGBT rights in this country in co-operation with trade unions. That person is Peter Purton.
If you were to wander through the streets of Soho, Dalston, Vauxhall or on Canal Street and speak to LGBT people who populate these areas, most will not have heard of Peter. Yet Peter made a crucial contribution in the gains the LGBT community has made, especially post-1997 with the Labour government.
I’ve had the privilege of working with Peter for over 25 years; first in the Labour campaign of lesbian and gay rights (LCLGR — now called LGBT Labour), of which I was national secretary from 1994 to 2000. During those years I worked closely with Peter, who was not only the treasurer of the campaign but the one who gave political and policy direction in the work of the campaign.
Peter was on the LCLGR national committee from 1983 to 2005 and during that period he worked through both the Labour Party and the unions — primarily through his then union the TGWU (now part of Unite). He worked with shadow ministers to push back against Thatcher’s anti-LGBT legislation. Much of what the Labour governments of 1997-2010 brought in for LGBT equality originated from Peter’s hard work in the 1980s and ’90s.
During the 1980s Peter was on the editorial board of the magazine Lesbian and Gay Socialist — a publication we could well do with today. Throughout the ’90s Peter continued to edit and produce singlehandedly the LCLGR newsletter Left Out!
Peter and other LGBT trade unionists worked through the union movement to bring about the TUC LGBT Conference, which is now part of the TUC calendar just as TUC Women’s Conference is. The LGBT conference has grown in numbers and stature to the important event it is today.
Peter became the first TUC disability and LGBT policy officer in 1998 and through his work in that role he has been able to progress LGBT rights in this country and give the unions a profile in the LGBT calendar. Thanks to him we have the trade union section on the Pride London march and that event’s union “village” in Trafalgar Square.
There is also a union speaker on the stage each year.
This year’s history month event will be the last one for Peter in his role at the TUC as he retires in April. It is fitting that tribute is paid to Peter for being an outstanding Lantern for LGBT rights whose contribution has been enormous and should be celebrated.
Though Peter recognises the importance of the work carrying on and the essential need for young LGBT people to be active, the world today is very different to the one Peter and I, along with others, campaigned in during the 1980s and ’90s.
Peter has been instrumental in encouraging young LGBT activists in whatever medium. In 2004 he was part of a meeting of LGBT activists at Conway Hall that founded a think tank recognising the value of queer art and artists — Left Front Art. The event on Monday evening is to look to the future and future LGBT lanterns, much needed in today’s Tory Britain, and work for a progressive government in four years. Come and see the work of the future LGBT activists hosted by performance artist and commentator from Norwich, Oozing Gloop.
Our Liberation — Tribute, Past & Future is on Monday February 22 at 6pm at Congress House, Great Russell St London WC1. All are welcome and the event is free.
Anton Johnson holds the LGBT seat on the southern and eastern region TUC executive committee.