Section 28, its legacy and why it can happen again

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Today marks 30 years since Section 28 was enacted across England, Wales and Scotland. Part of the Local Government Act 1988 and introduced under the Thatcher administration, Section 28 forbade local authorities from ‘promoting’ homosexuality and prevented them from portraying ‘pretend’ same-sex family relationships as acceptable. Of course, this law is long dead (as it should be), having been repealed under Tony Blair in 2003, but the effect it had on the LGBTQ+ community in Britain still remains and the threat that something similar could rear its head is very real.

How did Section 28 come about?

At the time Section 28 was passed, sentiment against homosexuality had been on the rise. In 1987, the year before its introduction, three-quarters of Britons believed homosexuality was wrong. This was true on both sides of the political spectrum – a poll for the British Social Attitudes Survey in 1983 found that 61% of Conservative voters and 67% of Labour voters felt the same way.

LGBT rights started coming in to the wider public consciousness in the UK in the mid to late 80s, particularly through alliances between the LGBTQ+ community and the labour unions during the miners strikes.

In 1986, anti-homophobic sentiment sparked protests across the country after parents in Haringey demanded that a book, Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin (a book about a girl living with her father and his gay partner), be removed from shelves and no longer be made available to school children. Protests erupted both in support and against the parents’ wishes.

Fuel was given to such feelings in the following year’s general election, where the Conservative Party claimed a Labour government would bring books such as Young, Gay and Proud and The Playbook for Kids about Sex into the classroom and be read to children as young as five. Former Conservative MP Jill Knight (and currently a Conservative life peer in the House of Lords) claimed that such books ‘explicitly described homosexual intercourse and, indeed glorified it, encouraging youngsters to believe that it was better than any other sexual way of life’.

Conservative campaign posters reflected these views too, with one during the election campaign depicting a group of young people holding banners and wearing shirts and badges saying ‘MILITANT RULES’, ‘GAY LIB[ERATION]’ and ‘GAY SPORTS DAY’, and asking voters ‘Do you want to live in it? Think about it.’

Combined with the stigmatisation of gay and bisexual men as a result of the ongoing AIDS epidemic, and the stage was set for as law such as Section 28.

What did Section 28 do?

Then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made clear her intentions in a speech she gave to the Conservative Party Conference after winning the 1987 election. She said:

“Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an unalienable right to be gay.

“All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life. Yes, cheated!”

The law stated that local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales ‘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‘, and was backed by many prominent Conservatives including Michael Portillo, Michael Heseltine and current Brexit Secretary David Davis.

As a result of the law, libraries refused to stock gay papers, gay websites were blocked on school and college computers, and schools opted for self-censorship on same-sex relationships.

What was the reaction to Section 28?

The law provoked an immediate backlash by the LGBTQ+ community, most notably when two LGBTQ+ protestors stormed the BBC News at Six the night before the law was enacted, with one chaining themselves to the newsreaders’ desk.

Rather than dampening the burgeoning LGBTQ+ rights movement, Section 28 galvanised it. The outcry over the law saw the rise of groups such as Stonewall and OutRage!, and promoted Sir Ian McKellen to come out in disgust.

The law also left schools confused as to whether the law applied to them, with even the Department of Education and Science unclear about what the legislation’s remit was. As a result, many schools opted for self-censorship and many LGBTQ+ student groups either closed or were forced into secrecy.

As the years went on, Section 28 created a rift in the Conservative Party, particularly in 1999 when then-leader William Hague sacked Shaun Woodward from his frontbench for refusing to follow the party line on the law. He soon after defected to the Labour Party.

How was it repealed?

Scotland, under its devolved parliament, repealed the law in 2000 despite a campaign by millionaire businessman Brian Souter to ‘Keep the Clause’. However, the process in Westminster took considerably longer and was eventually repealed in 2003, following a failed attempt in 2000.

David Cameron, who had voted against the repeal of Section 28 in 2003, apologised for the law and the harm it had caused in 2009 after he became leader of the Conservative Party.

What is the legacy of Section 28?

Section 28 was a significant blow for LGBTQ+ youth, with homophobic bullying left to fester unchallenged in schools due to confusion about what teachers were allowed to do about it. In a survey by Stonewall in 2003, 82% of teachers were aware of verbal incidents of homophobia, and 26% were aware of physical abuse – and yet, only 6% of schools had anti-bullying policies to combat homophobia. Although the situation has vastly improved from the 1980s, many schools are still plagued with such bullying today.

Moreover, the teaching of same-sex relationships remains insufficient and in some cases taboo, particularly in faith schools. Part of this stems from the legacy of teachers and schools self-censoring as a result of Section 28.

Could a Section 28 like law happen again?

Absolutely. The way that the trans community is being treated by the right-wing press and by politicians is very similar to how the wider LGBTQ+ community was treated in the 1980s. The demonisation of trans people in the Daily Mail and The Sun, papers that had once backed Section 28, could easily fuel sentiment calling for schools to not ‘indoctrinate’ children on trans issues (not my words – they are the words of the Coalition for Marriage who have spoken out on plans to teach these issues in school). In addition, a YouGov poll last year showed that almost half of people believe same-sex relationships should not be taught in primary schools, so it is clear that there is still sentiment that could lead to such a law returning. Combine this with similar laws abroad, especially in Russia, and you can see that the threat is still present and real.

 

Section 28 might be gone, but it’s certainly not forgotten by the LGBTQ+ community of this country. It should serve as a reminder to not take relatively recent wins for granted and that ensuring that LGBTQ+ rights and citizens are protected is a constant fight.

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