The blog of Monty Moncrieff
London Friend Chief Executive
18th November 2013: Section 28 - ten years on
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the repeal of the infamous Section 28, the pernicious piece of UK legislation that blighted the lives of lesbian, gay and bisexual people for almost two decades. The clause – a late insertion into the Local Government Bill – prohibited local authorities from ‘promoting’ homosexuality and prevented maintained schools from teaching on the ‘acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.
The clause was introduced on the back of right wing concerns that by funding support groups and services for lesbian, gay and bisexual people local authorities were somehow ‘promoting’ being LGB to influential young people. London Friend had already caused a fuss by being the beneficiary of such funding from Islington Council – the first ever gay-run group to receive such support.
The brouhaha was further enhanced with the discovery of a book called Jenny Lives With Eric & Martin, a picture story featuring a little girl, her father, and his same-sex partner. Designed as an educational resource to teach about homosexuality and show inclusion of children with same-sex parents the book caused controversy when it was found in a London library and deemed to be pro-gay ‘propaganda’.
Amid this controversy Conservative MP Jill Knight introduced the Clause which went on to become law in the Local Government Act 1988, one of the most controversial pieces of legislation under Mrs Thatcher’s Government.
The immediate effect was confusion: teachers, schools, colleges and universities were left uncertain as to where the lines were drawn. The Act expressly didn’t prohibit anything about ‘treating or preventing the spread of disease’ meaning that – in theory – information could be given about HIV and AIDS, crucial at a time when the public perception of the virus remained confused and stigmatising. However the Act also left it to a court to decide a local authority’s intentions, so could safer sex lessons be interpreted as ‘promoting’ gay sex as ‘acceptable’? Could teachers provide support to a student confused about their sexual orientation, or should they be informing them that this ‘lifestyle choice’ was ‘unacceptable’?
Unsurprisingly teachers feared the repercussions and many shied away from addressing the issue. Some thought that even taking steps to tackle homophobic bullying would leave them foul of the Act’s provisions. Many further and higher education establishments cut their LGB support services. Local authorities cut their grants.
It was probably the indirect effects that caused the most lasting harm. The Clause reinforced the notion, for some, that LGB people were second class citizens. Their identities and relationships could not be accorded the same standing as their heterosexual counterparts. Funding cuts and the confusion led to young LGB people not asking for or receiving the support they needed at a time when they were particularly vulnerable. Like any reinforcement of inferiority the effects can be long-lasting. We support people today with the emotional scars of feeling insecure about their identity, the seeds of which were sown in knowing that your own elected Parliament had deemed you less worthy by virtue of whom you were attracted to.
A driver for change
Perhaps ironically given its intentions the Act proved ultimately to be something of a turning point for LGB equality. Many were outraged by its provisions and galvanised in opposition. Campaigning groups Stonewall and Outrage! were formed to promote LGB equality, which included fighting Section 28. Support came too from unions, schools, health experts, children’s charities and celebrities who all called for its repeal. One of those, School’s Out, who have promoted LGBT visibility in education since 1974, are today calling for people to wear pink to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the repeal.
Gradually the majority of public opinion swung behind equality, and under the Government elected in 1997 the UK saw enormous advances in equal rights, some directed by Europe, some driven by political will. After Section 28’s repeal in 2003 we even saw politicians who had voted for it publicly apologise for their ‘mistake’ in introducing legislation that had been ‘offensive’.
We still have a way to go though. Stonewall’s 2012 School Report found that over half of LGB pupils have been bullied, with almost all regularly hearing terms like gay being used pejoratively. A third of LGB students change their educational plans as a result of bullying, and being the victim of bullying significantly increases risk of self-harm or suicide. As Anti-Bullying week kicks off today, Stonewall has launched a new campaign to highlight the negative impact of homophobic language. Additionally School’s Out continue their work providing resources and lesson plans for teachers, and out partners the Lesbian & Gay Foundation have their Safer Schools Pack available.
I’m happy to commemorate the end of a particularly obnoxious law and pledge that London Friend will continue to support those who felt its harm through our services to improve the health and well-being of all LGBT people.