Ahead of his documentary Brighton: 50 Years of Gay airing on BBC television tonight, the Stonewall founder talks about gay life over the last half a century.

One gay man you interviewed in the documentary said that Brighton in the 1960s was a “marvellous” place to live but also that he lived in terror. Did you find a lot of people you spoke to shared these contrasting feelings?

I think there’s a real combination of defiance and fear. One of the things about lesbians and gays is that we’ll be knitting and making earrings at the point in which police are firing at us. I always remember when I first got into politics; you always found that radicals on the left were incredibly serious about the revolution. Whereas the thing about gay liberation was that people dressed up as nuns and roller-skated into conferences. It was an extraordinary combination of defiance, going out and loving and living, and this process of hiding.

Homosexual acts between two men in private were decriminalized in 1967 but arrests continued to be made.

Yes. The 1967 act gave us visibility and that’s all we’ve got. Being visible is power. Even if it was only part-decimalisation it gave us the right to be in the street. But at the same time it wasn’t driven by any sense of moral imperative. It was driven by an awareness that the law wasn’t working.

In 1976 Tony Whitehead was forced to resign from his job at BHS because he was seen on camera kissing a man. Do you think this incident caused people to rally around him? Did it reiterate the scale of the injustice?

Tony is a remarkable man – he’s so mild yet so strong. He was so surprised, it was like it never occurred to him that anyone would rise up in his defence. There was an “enough is enough kind of approach to it”. It was very much drawing the line. BHS said this is not the kind of behaviour that is acceptable for a family store and the population said ‘actually, we don’t agree with that’. In the main, people don’t like unfairness.

Why did more gay venues open in the 1970s?

I’ve often gotten into trouble for saying this, but capitalism did as much for gay liberation as politics did. In the sense that we never thought we’d become an interest of regeneration. The combination of cheap brewery loans and a captive market provided that visibility on the high street again. Literally through commerce we were able to take over it. We took places that were old and shoddy and made them our own.

What do you remember about the 1980s and the Aids crisis that cast a dark shadow over the gay community?

It was a terrifying moment. I didn’t know that many people who died, but the idea of having sex became a threat. There were all these articles about gay cancer. That lead to incredible strides in 35 years, though. It was frightening, but the maturity of the response was great. People refused to lie down under this thing and they said ‘you have to got to start funding this’.

More cultural icons were coming out as gay in the 1980s and were visible on television. Do you think think that helped acceptance of gay culture in Brighton, given how pop-savvy the city is?

The influence of pop music is incredibly important. I remember listening to ZIggy Stardust and it was just amazing, as well as Lou Reed and Marlon Brando saying he was bisexual. For me it was always Boy George. He was kind of in the closet to start with, but we all knew him as gay. It was extremely important because you had this meld of defiance and ambiguity. It was ‘here we are, we’re talking about stuff’. When I started doing comedy it was just me and Julian Clary. I was looking through the Edinburgh Programme the other day and you can’t move for gay and lesbian comics.

Was Margaret Thatcher's section 28 a major setback?

Section 28 was a very stupid thing to do. Number one, a lot of Tories objected to it. When we started Stonewall our first allies were Tories who were equally offended. It also branded the Tories as being negative and it was part of their decline. We went ‘screw you, this is a freedom of speech issue’. We didn’t win the battle but we won the war. It was nasty, a hideous move. Also, it wasn’t really about us. It was cynically using gay people to bash up the loony left camps. That was another reason why people didn’t like it.

Someone in the documentary said of civil partnerships that it "makes a difference if your relationship is recognised by law". Do you agree with that?

Oh incredibly. I get pleasure everyday in saying ‘my husband’. Marriage is one of the building blocks in all this. I always say that the civil partnerships are a good way of not getting in an argument with the God squad. It’s a way of giving us the rights that are due to a partnership. It’s all about equal citizenship under the law. It’s amazing to say to people, 'this is my husband'.

In the film you wonder about the "relevance" of Brighton Pride nowadays. Could you elaborate?

I think the interesting thing about it is that it’s celebratory. It’s about creating spaces in the streets of Soho or Kemptown or whatever, and that enables us to walk down other streets. This is all a journey, we haven’t got there. Just for one day it takes over the town in that sense. It’s a bit like the lords of misrule, when the servants become the masters. I think the key thing about the way Paul Kemp runs Pride is that he has that focus on the battles to be fought. We do both things – celebrate and fight. I wrote a thing for the magazine this year about Martin Hep who died in the Manchester attack. He’s a wonderful combination of exactly what they hate – a jolly witty gay boy living a good life. There’s a defiance to that which you have to remember.

Brighton: 50 Years of Gay is on BBC One tonight