When Jonathan Harvey’s love story Beautiful Thing debuted in 1993 as a play, he had no idea it would eventually be heralded as a crown jewel of gay storytelling. “I felt that with Beautiful Thing I found my voice,” Harvey told The Guardian in a 2010 interview. “But it wasn’t intended to be a gay play, just a play that happened to have gay characters.” And yet his gentle coming-of-age tale of two teenagers—Jamie and Ste—struck a powerful chord among LGBT audiences. It was staged at the Bush Theatre in London, toured in the West End, and was adapted into a 1996 movie also written by Harvey, recently named by the British Film Institute as one of the 30 best LGBT movies of all time.
Despite Beautiful Thing’s title, gay life in the early 1990s was anything but pretty. AIDS, then a terrifying new disease, had started killing thousands of gay men the previous decade. While the United States was ground zero for the epidemic, Britain wasn’t immune to the fear and moral panic it inspired. In 1987, Britain’s Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, gave a speech complaining that, rather than learning to respect “traditional” values, children were being taught that they “have an inalienable right to be gay.” It was hardly a coincidence that Section 28—an amendment that prohibited local authorities from “promoting homosexuality” or teaching in schools the “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”—was enacted by Thatcher’s government the following year. The final vestige of this pernicious piece of legislation wasn’t repealed until 15 years later.