September 16, 2020
Terry Sanders – a 72-year-old man has spent around 25 years of his life fighting against the press and headlines of his times.
In an interview with Buzzfeed, he opens up about the hardships he and the LGBT community had to face in the 1980s. Especially with the onset of AIDS – a sexually transmitted disease – that had its blame on the gay community.
Poofters and Benders, Bumboys and Lezzies. Then being how British tabloid headlines reference to gay men and lesbians. These were words that often taunted the streets before an inevitable beating. The stories would continue to expand on the same idea, justifying them with news of “sick”, “evil” and “predatory”. These ideas were in projection because readers would agree with the newspaper’s views.
But there was one gay man who fought back, with words of his own.
From 1983, Terry Sanderson began to document newspapers’ slurs against the community in a column for Gay Times magazine. Gay Times was back then the most important gay publication to exist. This column was “Media Watch”
Sanderson would dissect the worst of the worst including myths, stereotyping and calling out multiple members of the public. He, however, chose to respond with wit and fury, providing a voice – something that the LGBT people didn’t have as of yet.
“It was always obvious I was gay,” Sanderson says of his childhood among the miners, he told BuzzFeed.
As he grew older, he tried to find more like him and decided to join a campaign for Homosexual Equality – one of the early and rather polite gay groups.
“I realised there are an awful lot of people isolated and alone and frightened,” he told BuzzFeed. But shortly after followed a revelation: “There were gay people all over the place!’” he exclaims. “Over Maltby, all over Rotherham, everywhere!”
He went on to read Gay News: the then small publication with the name of Gay Times. He reminisces the painful past the bear witness to from the Gay Times. “All these discriminations happening: gay people getting kicked out of their jobs, parents rejecting them.”
The other members of Homosexual Equality lived with so much fear to wish only to remain invisible. “Don’t draw attention” was their attitude, he says to BuzzFeed.
But instead of this deterring him, it flicked a switch.
“I started to think, We want our place; why shouldn’t we have it? It made me look again at the way we were being treated in the press and think, No. You’re wrong. Stop it.”
By this point, he was with Keith – his husband, and just getting an introduction to journalism.
Sanderson wrote a piece for the magazine about the media’s coverage of gay people and impressed, the editor asked him to turn it into a monthly column. He had no idea that for the next quarter of a century it would fall to him to document the anti-gay distortions that were meant to be someone’s job – but never done.
AIDS, back in the day was in affiliation to the gay community. Multiple newspapers wrote about such “extreme promiscuity has led to the Aids epidemic… a disease caught by men who bugger and are buggered by dozens or even hundreds of other men every year.”
This took Sanderson by storm. He called out the Sun, Britain’s bestselling newspaper, had “negative gay stories almost every day for the past few weeks”.
His column warned that “these are crude and extreme attacks but they are becoming more frequent”. “It’s up to us all to ensure we don’t let these slanders go unchallenged,” he wrote, encouraging readers to complain to the editors as it takes “a long time to counter hatred and persecution once it takes hold.”
When the Sun then called gay men “walking time bombs” with the “killer disease AIDS” who are a “menace to all society”, Sanderson wrote to the editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, asking “whether he was prepared to take responsibility for acts of violence which might be incited against gay men by this highly provocative editorial”. This wasn’t hypothetical: people living with AIDS were having petrol bombs thrown through their letterboxes.
MacKenzie’s reply was then in report in Media Watch: “I do not accept that our editorial did any more than urging all homosexuals, in the interests of the entire community, to think twice before giving blood.” This did little to dissuade Sanderson from referring to the staff at the tabloid as “Suns-of-bitches”.
“It became very intense,” he says now, looking away. “The opposition and hostility was day in, day out. ‘Severe’ is not the word. It was horrendously hostile. I thought if this goes on much longer, there’s going to be some kind of terrible reaction.”
Sanderson feared that homosexuality itself would be recriminalised — not a stretch when the Sun had suggested locking gay people up, since they were, apparently, an “evil threat to society”.
Sanderson, however, didn’t use his column to fight. He took action. He made complaint after complaint to the Press Council. In late 1989, a liberal man took charge of the council: Sir Louis Blom-Cooper.
“I went to see him,” says Sanderson before lowering his voice conspiratorially. “He said, ‘keep making complaints and it [a successful ruling] might happen.’”
And then it did and for the first time in its history, the Press Council upheld a complaint against a newspaper for using anti-gay language. Sanderson had won.
The joy did not last too long. The Sun itself responded with the headline: “You Can’t Call ’em Poofers” under which the paper raged against the council for its “lordly manner over language” while accusing gay people of “appropriating” the word “gay” from its dictionary definition.
But the backlash eventually ebbed, says Sanderson, as newspapers began to realise “which way the wind was blowing”. Their readers were changing before they were.
And then, a few years ago, the call came: A new editor had decided to axe the column. “I knew it would have to come one day,” he says.
Now watching the news from the sidelines, he expresses his worry for the Trans- Community. One of the problems regarding how journalists approach the trans community, says Sanderson to BuzzFeed, is “people don’t understand it, and that was a very similar thing with the early days of gay visibility. It was new to them, and something they thought only existed in a tiny, tiny minority living somewhere not here.”