In all the news stories this week about former prime minister Margaret Thatcher and her legacy, there have been few mentions of Section 28. That's odd, because all the recent political and social shifts regarding homosexuality in the UK, the US, and elsewhere show just how wrong Thatcher was, and just how much damage section 28 had on society, particularly in regard to equality.
Section 28 was enacted in 1988 and it stated that homosexuality could not be "promoted". What "promotion" actually means isn't clear, but in practice Section 28 meant that schools could not teach about anything other than heterosexuality; that it was difficult for schools to counsel or support students who were bullied and/or who were coming out; that publishers were reluctant to publish books featuring, say, families with two mothers or two fathers or teenagers who were experiencing same-sex relationships; that libraries and bookstores wouldn't sell or loan such works; that gay support groups closed down; that those who fought for LGBTQ rights had to hide or tone down their activism; and much more.
In other words, in the era when AIDS was becoming more prominent and education about LGBTQ issues was needed more than ever, Thatcher's government decided that gays were not full citizens worthy of respect and that they were too much of a threat to be allowed equal rights. Thatcher thus became not only the 'milk snatcher', but also the 'gay dispatcher', trying to eradicate any mention of homosexuals.
Sure, Section 28 didn't stop everyone, and some brave souls still fought for their rights (as just two examples, actor Ian McKellen helped start Stonewall in response, and check out Boy George's song No Clause 28); one could even argue that Section 28 galvanised some gay activists. But the fact is that Thatcher and her ilk wanted to pretend gays didn't exist, perhaps hoping that by doing so, they could prevent children from learning about gay issues and maybe even from being gay.
Many adults want to believe that children are not sexual beings and are not aware of any sexual matters, but research shows how erroneous this is. Children can experience sexual feelings from a young age, with some even coming out long before puberty, and even if some of them don't feel attractions themselves when young, they can see that other people are in relationships, and they can understand what that means. They are not ignorant of the world around them, despite some of their elders wishing they were.
Trying to deny or hide the truth through legislation is a pointless task, one that only the most prejudiced people would persist with. Thatcher was prime minister until 1990; unfortunately, section 28 was not repealed until 2000 in Scotland and 2003 in the rest of the UK. Some members of various religious groups and the Conservative Party fought against its appeal, arguing that it was meant to protect children, although they failed to ever explain how.
One could ask whether information about reality is ever actually a threat, except to those who wish to 'promote' an alternate version.
As people consider Thatcher's legacy and the current political and social context in the UK, it is important to remember all the effects caused by her time in power. Because of section 28, many LGBTQ people suffered for fifteen years or more, afraid of coming out, unsure of their place in society, knowing they would not receive the full rights that should be due to all citizens.
Progress has been slower than one might have liked, in part because of Section 28 and similar legislation, and there is still much to fight for. Equal rights are well worth promoting, and perhaps this week is a good time to remember what still needs to be done.