Review by Katelyn Smith
In order to fully appreciate Colin Clews’ book Gay in the 80s: From Fighting for Our Rights to Fighting for Our Lives (2016), it seems necessary to supplement the text with his extensive blog of the same name. Clews began his blog in March 2012 and has continued through 2017, writing short summaries of important events in gay history during the 1980s. He claims the 80s are a particularly important decade to educate others about because there was a “major shift towards the emergence of a global gay culture.” Clews further reveals on his blog a major motivation behind his writing: “Maybe it’s a sign of my advancing years but I’m increasingly coming to appreciate the value of knowing our history.” Although written for a general audience, Clews’ book is aimed toward those a part of the LGBT community. Rather than writing his blog chronologically, he instead chooses various topics from the decade, often writing about events on the anniversary of important milestones for gay rights. Gay in the 80s is a culmination and addition to Clews’ blog, which is currently featured on the website. A PDF version is available for purchase on Clews’ website, with a hard copy currently available only in the U.K.
Clews’ book is broken into five chapters of varying length: Increased Visibility, The Growth of Queer Communities, Mainstream Politics, Under Attack, and HIV/AIDS. Clews claims there is “no scientific rationale” for these groupings and they are entirely based on his opinion, which is both a strength and weakness to the work. The 1980s was a time of personal transformation for Clews, who describes this as a “pivotal decade” for both himself and gay activists. Beginning the decade as a “necessarily closeted” residential childcare worker in Leicester, England, he ended the decade as an active advocate for gay rights, arguing for HIV/AIDS care in Sydney, Australia. Clews uses personal testimony to supplement the wider history of changing attitude toward homosexuality, seen in the media, governments, and activist efforts.
Clews’ personal activist work across the globe, including the U.S., U.K., and Australia, makes him an excellent raw source of information from the time, and he extensively documents his experiences throughout the decade over the course of the book. His inclusion of positive and negative experiences working as a social worker and aiding AIDS patients provides an intimate lens for understanding the complex relationships patients had with this disease. Although Clews claims at the end of the book that he did not want his section on AIDS to overshadow other activist efforts in the 80s, there is a noticeably large portion dedicated to the topic, and it is especially interesting to read the different reactions of the U.S., U.K., and Australian governments to the spread of AIDS.
However, because of the nature of his chapters, it is at times difficult to follow the broader themes of each section. Some topics, such as Clews’ involvement with the activist group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, are covered exhaustively, but other topics, such as the various LGBT films produced during the decade, come across as lists with a lack of personal engagement. While both types of information, personal and historical, are relevant and well documented, this creates a contrast in tone which can at times leads to a dissonance when reading his material. Further, the overlap between topics in chapters creates sometimes unnecessary repetition of certain events, such as the Reagan administration’s handling of HIV/AIDS. However, the juxtaposition with personal narrative and wider scope of international events in the gay community also strengthens identification with and understanding of one man’s experience of this decade, and is arguably the most compelling aspect of the work.
This book is clearly a labor of love for Clews, whose efforts to write an engaging and accurate history of the decade comes across in his writing. Clews believes the 80s was a “tipping point for our communities,” largely because of increased visibility, and he extensively demonstrates the transformation of reception and treatment of homosexuality in the 1980s (9). The book is certainly worth reading to understand the history of gay activism, but does read as a culmination of blog posts, complete with hyperlinks to various resources.
Katelyn Smith holds a masters from the University of Cambridge and an A.B. from Harvard University in History and Philosophy of Science, with a minor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She researches second-wave feminism and has written about women’s health activism in the United States and United Kingdom in the 20th century.