Here’s the third in our series of articles for LGBT+ History Month. This time Conor Wilman, from the IP Out committee, takes a look at the decline and fall of “Section 28” and the heartache it caused for the LGBT+ community, adding a very personal perspective to the legislative and political facts.
This month sees the anniversaries of both attempts made to repeal the infamous Section 28. Seventeen years on, LGBT+ inclusive relationship education will become a mandatory part of the English school curriculum, helping to destigmatise discussion of LGBT+ issues and provide support for young people who are part of the LGBT+ community. But why did the government of the day find it necessary to suppress this kind of education in the first place?
Male homosexuality had been decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967 as part of a series of socially liberal policies under Howard Wilson that also saw the abolition of the death penalty and the legalisation of abortion. But compromises made to get even this over the line had led to the age of consent being set at 21, five years higher than that for heterosexual activity.
Though the decriminalisation of male homosexuality was extended to Scotland in 1981 and to Northern Ireland in 1982 under Margaret Thatcher, the early 1980s saw public perception of the LGBT+ community sour significantly. AIDS, branded the “gay plague” by right-wing tabloids, had been killing members of the LGBT+ community in the UK since 1981. The government finally launched an awareness campaign in 1987, but the stigma of the LGBT+ community had become deeply embedded thanks to the press coverage of the crisis.
The Daily Mail continued its own crusade against the LGBT+ community in 1983, decrying the supply of the book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin by the Labour-controlled Inner London Education Authority to some London schools, branding it as “homosexual propaganda”. This book depicted a few days in the life of a five-year-old named Jenny, her father, Martin, and his boyfriend Eric who lived with them. It was intended to help explain homosexual relationships to young people. Despite the media backlash, some Labour-run local authorities continued to provide funding and resources to local LGBT+ community groups.
Also, during the miners’ strikes of 1984 and 1985, an unlikely alliance formed between some unions and LGBT+ groups, the most well-known of these being the alliance between the National Union of Mineworkers and Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.
The negative public sentiment against homosexual activity peaked in 1987 with three quarters believing that it was “always or mostly wrong”, as shown in the British Social Attitudes Survey. In the run-up to the 1987 general election the Conservatives capitalised on this homophobic climate and created the narrative suggesting that Labour wanted books about same-sex relationships which “glorified” homosexuality to be read in schools to children “as young as five or six”.
The public bought into that narrative and the Conservatives won the election with a landslide majority of 102. Later in 1987, Thatcher gave a speech about LGBT+ education at the annual Conservative Party conference, saying: “Children are being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life.”
According to architects of Section 28, their mandate was clear; it was their moral duty to protect British children from the immoral influences of homosexuality. Section 28 required that a 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”. There was particularly strong resistance from opposition MPs to the use of the word “promote”. This seemed to be deliberately vague so that local authorities would not be able to know definitively whether any support they gave to LGBT+ groups could be perceived as falling within the meaning of “promote”.
Enacted in late 1988, Section 28 had the effect its proponents intended. Local authorities stopped funding local LGBT+ community centres and youth groups and teachers feared that they might be prosecuted if they discussed homosexuality in any capacity in school. Section 28 was effectively state-sanctioned homophobia, and many schools used it as an excuse to sack lesbian and gay teachers. Self-censorship by teachers in fear of losing their jobs meant that there was no discussion of same-sex relationships in schools for a whole generation.
It was clear: Section 28 was a direct attack on the LGBT+ community. Many people who had not previously been politically engaged were encouraged to join protests and rallies against the government. The passing of Section 28 ended up precipitating the largest political mobilisation of the LGBT+ community in the UK, leading to the creation of the LGBT+ charity and lobbying group Stonewall by Sir Ian McKellen, Matthew Parris, Pam St Clement and others, and focussing the efforts of other pro-LGBT+ organisations.
Stonewall went on to effectively lobby parliamentarians to support the repeal of Section 28 and the recognition of anti-gay hate crimes in law, as well as supporting legal test cases that led to the equalisation of the age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual activity.
The first opportunity to repeal Section 28 came in February 2000 as part of the Local Government Act 2000 in England and Wales, but Baroness Janet Young, who had previously been in Thatcher’s cabinet, led a successful campaign in the House of Lords against the repeal. The newly devolved Scottish parliament, however, repealed Section 28 for Scottish local authorities later that year.
A second attempt to repeal Section 28 came in February of 2003 as an amendment introduced by Sir Edward Davey to the Local Government Act 2003. Again, there was organised resistance in the Lords, but Baroness Young’s death the previous year meant that it had significantly weakened. Peers voted in favour of the Bill with its amendment intact and the Bill received royal assent on 18 September 2003, finally taking Section 28 off the statute books.
However, Section 28 continues to cast a long shadow, with the education of children about the LGBT+ community and same-sex relationships continuing to be a matter of contention. The Birmingham school protest last May is a recent and prominent reminder that there is still opposition and a lack of understanding in society of the LGBT+ community: it serves to highlight just how important LGBT+ relationship education is in reducing stigma and discrimination for future generations.
The last nails in the coffin of Section 28 will start being hammered in from later this year when new guidance for all schools in England comes into force for the teaching of Relationship and Sex Education (RSE). This means that, from September 2020, all secondary schools in England will be required to teach RSE, and all primary schools in England will be required to teach Relationships Education (RE). Similar reforms will be in effect in Scotland from 2021 and in Wales from 2022. More information on the changes to sex education in England can be found on Stonewall’s website here.
For some final personal thoughts, I grew up in a town in north Derbyshire in which my primary and secondary schools were both faith schools. I remember other kids throwing around “gay” as an insult, and that being the primary context in which I heard that word: as a by-word for “stupid” or “annoying” or anything else that was bad. When I began to realise that I was gay, I rejected it and suppressed it as much as I could. Because being gay was bad; that’s what everyone else said after all, and there was certainly no one telling me otherwise.
It took many years and many conversations and many tears to come to terms with who I am. I’m glad that young people will now be exposed to these conversations in school so that they may be able to accept and love themselves and not have to suffer as much as I and many others like me did.
IP Out Committee Member