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Section 28: Why we cannot afford to ignore the past

By Lyssa Gold

Welcome to the first ever LGBT+ History article of the brand-new Gay Saint! Every edition, I will be exploring a new topic, person or event from queer history. Some of the issues or language that might come up in these pieces will have the potential to be upsetting, so each piece will have a list of content warnings preceding it, so you can decide whether it’s something you want to read. This month’s content warnings are:

• (State-promoted) homophobia

• Section 28 and the effects of this legislation

• Mentions of AIDS • Use of the word queer, but not as a slur If that sounds like something you are okay with, then please read on!

The Gay Saint was, before its phoenix-like regeneration here, the official newsletter of the University’s LGBT+ Society. An eclectic amalgam of pieces informed, amused, and brought the LGBT+ community of the Bubble together. Calls to “be sensible and sexy” and utilise the society’s (apparently well-endowed) prophylactic emporium were found alongside queer Christmas carols (“Make this Christmas bright and gay, come on out on Christmas day!”) and more political topics such as calls to action over Section 28. In fact, in every issue from 1999, Section 28 is mentioned, often with extreme vehemence. This comes as no surprise, considering the incredibly damaging effect this single piece of legislation had on the LGBT+ community in the UK.

The beginning of the 1980’s saw a Conservative government in power, having achieved a recent landslide that allowed them to more fervently pursue the upholding of “traditional moral values”. Section 28, an amendment to the Local Government Act 1988, was introduced by this government to prevent councils from “intentionally promoting homosexuality”, and it was successfully passed for several reasons. Whilst homosexuality had been decriminalised since 1967 for men over 21 (the age of consent wasn’t equalised until 2000), homophobia was still widespread in British society and had only gotten worse as the decade proceeded; in the four years between 1983 and 1987, the percentage of the population who saw homosexuality as “always or mostly wrong” increased from 62% to 75%.

The AIDS crisis emerged in 1981 and was met by incredibly negative and homophobic coverage by the media, which only encouraged this prejudice. A strong association was made between the epidemic and gay and bisexual men specifically, with the inference that it was somehow self-inflicted. This narrative, in the absence of proper education and constructive discussion, led to widespread fear and stigmatisation. The government would capitalise on this to help pass Section 28, and further marginalise the LGBT+ community, which had become far more visible and vocal over the past decade. Pride marches demanded that the community’s existence be acknowledged, and organisations such as the Gay Liberation Front campaigned actively for equality and societal change, unsettling Conservatives. More liberal councils, such as the Labour-majority Greater London Council, had begun to include LGBT+ issues in their manifestos, and were providing funding for LGBT+ groups and re- sources. However, many were unhappy with this use of public money.

The situation escalated in 1986, partially in response to the children’s book Jenny lives with Eric and Martin, which had been purchased by the Inner London Education Authority. It featured a young girl living with her father and his male lover, and resulted in inflammatory reporting by the Daily Mail. This exacerbated the already suspicious climate around homosexuality and provided a populist cause that could be co-opted politically. The then Education Secretary Kenneth Baker used it as an opportunity to attack the actions of these Labour-run councils, accusing them of allowing “blatant homosexual propaganda” in schools. For some it validated fears that liberal-leaning councils were using taxpayer’s money to teach children about homosexuality, with the suspicion that children could and were being “indoctrinated”. There was also a wider, pervasive, fear that LGBT+ people, simply by living their lives, were undermining heteropatriarchal norms and the ideal of the nuclear family. At the 1987 Conservative Annual Conference, Margaret Thatcher seized upon this to gain votes in the upcoming election, stating that “children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have the inalienable right to be gay”, establishing the intent of the Conservative party and the government to “protect” these values at the expense of millions of citizens.

They did this by proposing Section 28, which passed into law on the 24th May 1988 and would not be fully abolished until 2003. This legislation prevented local authorities from “teaching or publishing” anything that “promoted homosexuality” or “pretended family relationships”. The only exception was when attempting to “treat or prevent ... disease”, meaning that homosexuality could be freely discussed in relation to AIDS. Nobody was ever prosecuted under Section 28, but it had a massive societal impact, simply because it wrote homophobic discrimination into law, and re-enforced the belief that LGBT+ people were second-class citizens, incapable of “real” relationships. It silenced teachers in classrooms and halted many council-funded initiatives, such as informational leaflets and films, LGBT+ groups and facilities, as grants were withdrawn reflexively, and even resulted in libraries censoring the newspapers they stocked.

But the bill also caused a lot of confusion. The wording was incredibly vague, and although Section 28 applied to local authorities and not to schools, this point was often unclear to schools and teachers, who tended to err on the side of caution. This resulted in widespread self-censorship out of fear of prosecution. LGBT+ teachers felt compelled to stay closeted at work, strongly guarding their privacy out of concern for their safety and careers, and feeling unable to help LGBT+ students.

Many proponents claimed that the aim of Section 28 was to protect children, but it achieved the opposite of this. The Government made deliberate choices that exploited and amplified already homophobic attitudes in society, and demonstrated to queer students that the state supported the feelings of internalised shame and homophobia being forced upon them. It put students in danger of homophobic bullying and harassment, without a clear way to ask for help within school, and undoubtedly did long-term harm to many children during this period. The LGBT+ community consistently experiences higher levels of mental health issues, homelessness and substance abuse, and it is hard to imagine that Section 28 did not contribute to these problems. Even if Section 28 was never enforced, the culture it created was still an attack on a marginalised group with the intention of further ostracizing them, and it resulted in a generation of people being told that LGBT+ people were second-class citizens.

This is not to say that queer people were at all passive about Section 28, either before or after it was passed. In fact, it galvanised the community, and resulted in widespread protests and long-term activism. The months leading up to the vote on Section 28 saw the largest gatherings of LGBT people in the UK to date, with 10,000 people marching in London and 15,000 in Manchester, including the actors and LGBT+-rights campaigners Michael Cashman and Ian McKellen, the latter coming out during a radio interview discussing the bill. A group of lesbian activists abseiled into the House of Lords after the vote and were held for six hours in Big Ben, and, on the evening before Section 28 came into force, another group of lesbians stormed the six o’clock news. Attending marches and protests grew into the establishment of permanent organisations, such as the non-violent protest group Out-Rage! in 1990, and Stonewall in 1989, co-founded by Michael Cashman, Lisa Power and Ian McKellen (which is) probably the most well-known LGBT+ -rights charity in the UK).

Campaigning against Section 28 by organisations such as Stonewall and Out-Rage! continued throughout the 15 years it was in place, until it was successfully repealed in Scotland in 2000 and 2003 in England and Wales. A steady decline in negative opinions towards homosexuality occurred over this time due to freer discussion of homosexuality, in part necessitated by the AIDS crisis. By the time Section 28 was repealed, the percentage of people who believed homosexuality was “always or mostly wrong” had fallen to 40%. Despite the harm it did, Section 28 unified the LGBT+ rights movement in the UK, providing a stronger position for future campaigns, such as the Same-Sex Marriage and Gender Recognition Acts. This is important, because although things are far better now than they were when Section 28 was introduced, the fight for legal and social equality, for all members of our community, is not over, and despite being written out of the law, the attitudes that facilitated Section 28 still exist.


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