Growing Up in Silence – A Short History of Section 28

Juan Nicholls - Copy Manager,

February is LGBTQ History Month in the UK. This year the theme is ‘Body, Mind, Spirit’, with a focus on providing free resources for teachers and kids to learn about LGBTQ lives and history.

With this in mind, I wanted to write about a significant and recent part of education and LGBTQ people in the UK, and how it affected my life.


If you went to school in the UK in the 1990s, you grew up under the control of Section 28. It was a law that censored schoolbooks, the national curriculum, and could see teachers lose their jobs if they dared speak of its forbidden subject. The subject was gay people, and in effect, any part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Section 28 (also known as Clause 28) was part of the Local Government Act 1988, and decreed that any local authority ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’. It also prohibited ‘the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.

In practice, this meant any mention of being gay or what that meant now or in history was expunged from every school library and classroom in the land. You could no longer learn about it in any context, and any questions you might have asked would go unanswered.

I distinctly remember being in a sex education class when I was around 12 or 13 back in high school in the late 90s, and as part of the lesson we were encouraged to anonymously ask questions on pieces of paper, and the teacher would read them out and answer them. One child had written ‘what is a homer sexual?’ The teacher laughed, as did the rest of us, then the piece of paper was dropped into the bin without further comment. 

At the time I had no awareness of why this happened, and only many years later was able to know why I grew up in a learning environment devoid of information or even the idea of LGBT lives. This state-enforced silence had been born out of a rapidly growing fear and prejudice against gay and queer people, and came at one of the darkest times in LGBTQ history.


One mum good, two mums bad

The passing of Section 28 came at the very peak of anti-gay sentiment in the UK, when in the British Social Attitudes Survey of 1987 three quarters of the population believed being gay was ‘always wrong’ or ‘mostly wrong’. Just 11% said it was ‘never wrong’.

The HIV/AIDS crisis was taking its deadly toll on the UK at this time, and was largely seen and described as a ‘gay disease’ – a punishment for immoral and unnatural behaviour – by both by the medical establishment, the government, and the public, all stoked by the British news media. The misinformation and the stigma helped to make homophobic and anti-LGBT attitudes not only acceptable but the moral centre-ground, and huge swathes of the public turned on the few groups and individuals fighting for LGBT rights in the UK.

Up to this point, the cause of LGBT rights had been marching on steadily for the decade following Stonewall in 1969, and some of the more liberal UK local councils and schools were funding LGBT groups and anti-homophobia projects by the 1980s. The cause was also closely linked to the growing trade union movement, with LGBT activist groups fighting alongside the miners against pit closures, and Labour adopting a resolution to criminalise discrimination against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people at its 1985 annual conference.

As the demands for gay rights became louder and more public, so rose an ugly tide of homophobia to meet it. As part of the Conservative Party’s 1987 election campaign, posters were issued attacking Labour for putting ‘politics’ into education with books such as Young, Gay & Proud, and The Playbook for Kids About Sex, which included information about gay as well as straight sex, claiming Labour planned to read them out in schools. The British press furiously reported on books that featured children with two mums or dads, claiming that children were being corrupted and put at risk, sentiments echoed across many parts of society.

Already hostile to the LGBT community, the police were buoyed by the legislation and conducted more raids on gay bars and clubs across the country, and openly harassed people in areas such as Manchester’s Gay Village. Queer people fought back with large protests and marches, and in May 1988, on the eve of Section 28 coming into force, lesbian activists stormed the BBC studios during the Six O’clock News. That same year, Sir Ian McKellen came out publicly in response to Section 28, vociferously fighting its passage into law and hoping to change the public’s mind about gay people.

Section 28 was made law on 24 May 1988. It was seen as a victory for the institution of the traditional family, protecting children from the corrupting and indoctrinating influence of gay people. Gay men in particular were seen as predatory and dangerous to be allowed around children. All these ideas are clearly mad, but were routinely disseminated by the media in a froth of outrage and homophobia for more than two decades.


Section 28: could it happen again?

If this all sounds like something from another time and completely impossible today, it’s worth looking at the way transgender people are currently being treated and talked about by mainstream media and in public discourse. As trans rights have become more talked about, so the opposition to their advancement has grown, just as with the rights of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in the 80s and 90s.

As changes to the laws around self-identification have been proposed and discussed, various prominent people and publications have started to talk about trans people as a threat to cisgender women and children. Suddenly public bathrooms and changing rooms are no longer safe; trans women are seen as potential abusers, and children are being indoctrinated into becoming trans through the corrupting influence of popular culture.

These are all phantom fears brought on by the same homophobic hysteria of the 80s and 90s, yet these ideas can become just as easily ingrained into the public consciousness with disastrous results.

The reality is that UK law and government support for trans people is still woefully inadequate, with expensive and degrading legal processes, and only two NHS gender clinics in the UK – one in London and one here in Leeds – with waiting lists that can leave vulnerable children without support or life-saving treatment for years. One of the most sobering facts is that in 2017 a transgender woman was granted legal asylum in New Zealand on humanitarian grounds after it was ruled that returning to the UK would endanger her due to the discrimination and abuse she regularly received here.

It’s not hard to see the parallels and the repetitions of recent history, and how a lack of understanding and an unwillingness to listen can lead to so much suffering. I only hope things don’t continue to go the same way.


Breaking the silence

I was too young and unaware of what was happening during the era of Section 28, but I’m all too aware now of the impact it had on me personally. It’s hard to talk openly about those effects, but you can no doubt imagine, or understand yourself, how years of feeling like there’s something fundamentally wrong and unnatural about you can have such lasting damage.

I didn’t realise I was gay until I was 15 in 2002, one year before Section 28 was finally abolished in England. If you know me, I might have already told you how this happened (I’m eternally grateful to Christina Aguilera). It still breaks my heart to think about how I could have grown up knowing about all the different ways we can love and live, and understanding my own feelings and experiences through role models and stories, and how that could have saved me from a decade of anguish and deep-rooted shame that never really goes away. It’s an experience so familiar to so many queer people.

In her speech at the 1987 Conservative Party conference, Margaret Thatcher said: ‘Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. […] All those children are being cheated of a sound start in life – yes, cheated.’

I would argue I was cheated of a sound start in life by Section 28. As much as I don’t envy children growing up today with all the extra pressures and uncertainties they face, it brings me so much joy to see all the LGBTQ celebrities, TV shows, films, music, and icons that they can enjoy and explore during their formative years; all the things they can learn and read about in the classroom and discuss with their teachers and friends, and find themselves reflected, included, and understood.

If you’d like to find out more about LGBTQ History Month or any of the subjects I’ve talked about in this blog, here are some useful articles and resources:


LGBTQ History Month

Stonewall

Terrence Higgins Trust

BBC – Section 28

The Guardian – Section 28 Protesters 30 Years On

British Social Attitudes Survey: Homosexuality

Mermaids UK



WANT TO KNOW MORE?