June marks the beginning of Pride Month. What would normally encompass protests, parties, and LOTS of glitter is taking a very different form this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation of Pride Parades from New York City to London. It is no longer possible for the LGBTQ+ community to physically mark this occasion, and whilst this is devastating, it provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our history.
Albeit a difficult period in British LGBTQ+ history, remembering the impact of Section 28 on society is important. Pride isn’t about celebration: it is about protest. The long shadow of section 28 is certainly something to protest. Section 28 symbolised the homophobia endemic in British society, forbidding the discussion of homosexuality in educational settings in England, Scotland, and Wales. It cannot ever be forgotten.
Section 28 of the Local Government Act was enacted in May 1988 by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government. It prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” and the promotion of the “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” within local authorities, notably in schools. The 24th of May marked the anniversary of its introduction thirty-two years ago.
Translated: any educational institution defined as a “school” by the Education Act of 1944, which included county schools, voluntary schools, nursery schools and special schools, was prohibited from discussing homosexuality. It also extended to libraries: LGBTQ+ texts and films were swiftly removed from library bookshelves across England, Scotland, and Wales. The publication of Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin in 1983 by Danish author Susanne Bösche generated considerable outrage from conservative sections of British society. It effectively contributed towards the discourse which introduced section 28 five years later. A story about a little girl, Jenny, who lived with same-sex couple Eric and Martin (note: same-sex adoption was not legal until 2002 in the UK and 2010 in Denmark), the text was introduced to educate children on variant familial relationships. The Sun ran a headline on it, reading “Vile Book In Schools!”
Section 28 was a homophobic piece of legislation. There is no other way around it. Margaret Thatcher’s speech in 1987, which preceded the introduction of section 28, symbolises the majority of contemporary attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community: “children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay”. These words might sound harrowing, but in those days these views were commonplace.
The LGBTQ+ community didn’t merely sit back and allow section 28 to be introduced. There was a fight. Boy George released ‘No Section 28’. Ian McKellen came out in protest against Section 28. A group of lesbians abseiled through the House of Commons. Another LGBTQ+ protest group stormed BBC News, shouting “stop Section 28!”. In Manchester, one of the largest LGBTQ+ protests in British history took place on the 22nd of February 1988. This revolutionary spirit is something the LGBTQ+ community in its current form should learn from. There is still much to do.
LGBTQ+ existence is, and always has been, political. Our rights were not automatically granted to us; they had to be fought for. The fleeting state of political systems and the increasing global shift towards the election of right-wing parties symbolises the ways in which our rights can swiftly be taken from us. This fact, rather than glitter and Gaga, should be at the forefront of Pride Month, particularly whilst COVID-19 confines us to our homes. In the US, the Trump Administration introduced a draconian ban on most transgender individuals entering the military in 2017. In a similar vain, Poland declared thirty different LGBT ideology-free zones in August 2019, constituting one third of the country.
Section 28 was repealed in Scotland in 2001, and in England and Wales in 2003. 2003, a mere seventeen years ago, was the year that I started school. Its legacy was felt in the inadequate sex education which made no mention of LGBTQ+ sex and the callous homophobic remarks which served as playground nicknames used by school bullies. Growing up queer, I managed to avoid being called a ‘gay’ by my peers, who used these words as weapons, but the threat was always there. During the years of section 28, teachers were unable to intervene with homophobic bullying for fear they would be accused of “promoting” homosexuality. Many, LGBTQ+ teachers in particular, remember how painful and damaging this homophobic piece of legislation truly was.
The shadow of section 28 is long. It would be wrong to suggest that homophobia is an issue of the past for British society. In the UK, gay conversion therapy still has not been banned. Trans people are now subjected to the very same media hatred LGB people received in the 1980s. The Gender Recognition Act has not been reformed since 2004. Non-binary identities are not recognised by UK law. And that’s just in the UK: the situation is much worse in the seventy-three countries which criminalise same-sex sexual activity, and the twelve which can impose a death sentence for homosexual activity.
My advice to the LGBTQ+ community during Pride this year? Remember past injustices and stand against current ones.
Words by Eleanor Noyce