This song perfectly encapsulates the experience of being young and gay in the '80s
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Sharon Corr, B.E.F
Accompanied by one of the most literal videos ever filmed, ‘Smalltown Boy’ was the first sortie by the openly gay trio, Bronski Beat, against another aspect of Thatcher’s Britain (and, indeed, of life in Britain in general): homophobia. Written by Bronski Beat, who themselves had ‘run away’ and were to meet in Brixton and form the band in 1983. The sense of the lyrics directly being drawn from personal experience made this a poignant commentary on growing up gay in the provinces.
Mother will never understand why you had to leaveSmalltown Boy
While we’d come a long way from the Victorian attitudes which still lingered post-WWII, the establishment’s attitude to homosexuality was holding back any progress. In what was termed the social transition in British society from homosexuality as "illegal-but-discussed", to "legal-but-not-always approved" only in 1967 was it made legal for two adults over 21 to engage in homosexual acts. By 1984 little had changed. Many western countries had reduced the age of consent to 16, but not Britain. Indeed Bronski Beat’s album was called ‘The Age of Consent’ in direct reference to this. And part of this regressive culture was the problem of young men and women feeling stigmatised by the inability of their peers to accept them as they were.
‘Smalltown Boy’ was a distinctive step in the right direction, with its lyrics about a young man forced to abandon his home town for fear of this disapproval. Not only did it highlight the plight and shared experiences of hundreds of thousands of gay people, but it also provoked serious debate over these issues.
There was still a way to go. The notorious ‘Section 28’ amendment of the local authority bill was introduced in 1988, stating that any local authority "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". It wasn’t repealed in England until 2003.
The single reached number three in the UK charts but, as if in recognition of the song’s liberal and heartfelt message, it actually reached the number one spot in a country where attitudes to sexuality were more relaxed: Holland. In fact, it was a massive worldwide hit, signalling that not only Britain, but the rest of the (western) world was finally waking up to the facts. After ‘Smalltown Boy’, and other acts like The Pet Shop Boys, Marc Almond (who recorded with Bronski Beat) or The Communards, gay pop was finally accepted currency in the charts. Today it all seems like ancient history…