Section 28 was the most pernicious of legislation. No one was ever prosecuted under this provision of the law, but it was always enforced. Its name represents the clause number it once held in the 1988 local government act. It was a Margaret Thatcher’s sop to her homophobic backbenchers as her long prime ministership droned on and the neo-Conservative wing of her party became jittery. It sought to ban local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality’ as an equal lifestyle. Because it was poorly written, people were unclear if it included local authority schools, young clubs and support services. Whether the legislation meant to include these local services or not, to all intents and purposes it did, and the affects where disastrous.
The legislation was used by many to not just avoid talking about lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people in the curriculum, but also as an excuse for homophobic and transphobic bullying. It was used to discipline LGBT people in education and hound teachers – ‘out’ or otherwise – out of the classroom altogether.
During my sixth form years, the Labour government was trying its second attempt to remove Section 28 from the statute book. The debate was raging in the press and my PSHE class wanted to discuss it in the form of a debate. We split into two teams to research the opposing arguments and set a date. On the morning it was due to take place, the headteacher informed us that his view, checked with the local council, was that Section 28 itself meant we could not debate the repeal of Section 28 if doing so meant students would be arguing that LGBT lifestyles were equal. We certainly were – it was my role to make the case for the reform.
Section 2A, as it was enacted in Scotland, was repealed by Labour in their unicameral system in 2000. Then, in 2003, Tony Blair’s government finally thwarted the House of Lords’ attempt to stop its abolition – using the parliament act to do it. This was an extraordinary measure – legislation going back to 1911 to ensure the supremacy of the House of Commons and equal rights for British people. Re-reading the debates in the upper house is no picnic. Thankfully peers from all parties now take a very different view. In fact, it is peers that we have to thank for civil partnerships being permissible in religious buildings – paving the way for marriage equality under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.
But the key protagonists of equal marriage were late to the party. David Cameron said Blair’s attempts to repeal Section 28 were a ‘fringe agenda’ when he stood for parliament in 2001. Theresa May was absent for key votes in its repeal. We welcome their conversion: Cameron acknowledging the role of his party in this hate clause, and the apology to LGBT people that then followed. Yet he was sadly silent when Kent county council introduced a local version of Section 28, which Harriet Harman’s Equalities Act eventually quashed.
Introduced 30 years ago and formally abolished 15 years ago, the spirit of that law still lives on in many schools that are reticent to tackle the use of ‘gay’ as a derogatory term. I always found it remarkable that my teachers would always pick up my ‘f**k off’ retort to the bullies but never their relentless use of ‘queer’, ‘bum bandit’, ‘faggot’ or worse. Talking to a young LGBT person this week, not enough has changed. The recent flaring up of the trans rights debate – in the wake of the campaign for Gender Recognition Act reform – means many young trans people feel that are schooled under their own version of Section 28 that is trying to silence their voices and deny their choice to live as they wish.
One of the few good things to come from Section 28 was the creation by Michael Cashman, Ian McKellen and Lisa Power of Stonewall, the LGB, turned LGBT rights charity. Their latest schools report shows half of all LGBT pupils still face bullying and more than two in five trans young people have tried to take their own life.
There are reasons to be cheerful, and to double our resolve. Will Young and Chris Sweeney’s Homo Sapiens podcast recently interviewed a pioneering teacher Andrew Moffat, who runs an inclusive curriculum. His mixed experience describes the muddy water that still exists but, crucially, what can be done. Schools Out run by trade unionists have made massive advances, including LGBT History Month. Organisations like Just Like Us get recent school leavers to return to give a message of inclusion and reassurance that things get better. Their School Diversity Week will include half a million pupils – long may it continue.
Today Theresa May writes for Gay Times. She fails to apologise for her role in maintaining Section 28 for all those years, but promises an action plan on LGBT rights. The women who were promised action on equal pay and quotas on boards will know that this prime minister’s promises are not worth very much. Let’s hope, for once, the Tories surprise us and actually do the right thing.