The AIDS hysteria of the 1980s presented a challenge for Gay Sweatshop. Fear and ignorance about the disease remained widespread.
‘Thinking back, the first tour of Poppies in ’83. The company had some bad times on tour. There was a big centre spread in The Mirror I think when the cleaners went on strike because they heard there was this gay company, and they didn’t want to be cleaning up after a load of homosexual men in the theatre. This centre page thing, ‘Mrs Mops get in a sweat over AIDS’. So it was classic misogynistic and homophobic all in one. And of course, one was getting pre-echoes of what would go on with Clause 28. People getting wary of having homosexuals around, because they’ll bring AIDS with them, coming into our theatre.’ Noel Greig, 2008
During the 80s the Conservative party campaigned for a return to ‘Family Values’ and ‘Victorian Values’. This urge to return to a traditional morality created an increasingly hostile environment for gays and other sexual minorities. During Thatcher’s rule, arrests and convictions for consenting same-sex behaviour increased and gay helplines reported a three-fold increase in homophobic motivated violence.
In the 1970s and early 1980s the Arts Council was criticized for being elitist and politically biased. Margaret Thatcher started her tenure with a 4.8% cut to the art budget and private investment was encouraged to replace state funding. This was a controversial decision, prompting protest from many prominent figures. By the mid 80s the decision-making powers were in the hands of local authorities. Ken Livingstone, Leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) was a notable opponent of Thatcherite policies and a supporter of minority arts. A champion of gender and sexual equality, he showed his support for the gay community when most MPs did not. The GLC and other London councils funded a number of gay organisations and community centres and took out adverts in the press stating that homophobia was unacceptable in their organisations. During this time Gay Sweatshop forged links with other oppressed minority groups. During the industrial action of 1984 – 1985, ‘Lesbians and Gays support the miners’ was set up and Gay Sweatshop demonstrated their support for the striking miners and raised money for the Strike Fund with a production of The Dear Love of Comrades.
Interviewed by Susan Croft, Noel Greig describes this period:
Susan: It’s a time that things seems like a real oxymoron because there’s this sense of this kind of utopian socialism, rediscovery of sexual energy and at the same time politically it’s an increasingly repressed time. Thinking about when Section 28 came in under Thatcher, it was becoming more and more a difficult time to live through, when they were trying to dismantle activity on the Left and alternative theatre too.’
Noel: ‘In a way, yes. I’m not a conspiracy theorist really but that’s what happened. There was no doubt about it. All those companies, that swathe of companies that were cut. We did have a thing called the National Theatre, that huge range of touring companies and the interconnections between them, that spiders web of people moving from one company to the other. Being part of the same festivals. That was dismantled. It was a grim decade wasn’t it? It started with the Falklands War, then the miners, then all the other industry’s going, and AIDS, and the Cold War starting up again when we all thought we were going to get blown sky high, and then the Gulf War at the end of it. It was extraordinary. It was like you were being battered by everything all the time. These terrible divides of wealth that were happening in the city, huge unemployment, the cardboard cities and the bull ring in London, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The complete turmoil, looking back on it. Extraordinary decade. I suppose we took it and fed it back into the work. That’s what’s great about working in a creative field, you can absorb all those things and try and sort of attempt to make some sort of creative sense of it in the work that you’re doing. That’s the blessing.’