In this year in which the UK celebrates the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts it also commemorates the 20th anniversary this month of the origin of the last homophobic law passed by the UK parliament, what was to become Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988.
The UK still reels at the
mention of Section 28. It created more protest than any other piece of
legislation since, perhaps, the 1970s. It galvanised the lgbt community into
unified action for the first time since the Sexual Offences Act 1967, and was
the catalyst for the creation of several leading lgbt pressure groups and
organisations, of which Stonewall is the most well known.
The Local Government Act
contained legislation on a variety of matters that were the responsibility of
local authorities, such as planning permission, council contracts, and dog
licenses. Section 28 stated that no local authority in the UK (except Northern
Ireland) was allowed to “intentionally promote homosexuality or publish
material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”.
There are several theories
as to why Section 28 was introduced. Most people just cling on to the idea that
Mrs. Thatcher, the Prime Minister, was homophobic. But that doesn’t explain why
she was one of the MPs who, in 1967, voted in favour of the Sexual Offences Act
(the Labour Prime Minister at the time didn’t). My theory encompasses the
vibrant British music scene, youth culture and trade union machinations in the
Social attitudes to gay
men were changing in the 1960s and 70s. The era of glam rock probably helped to
encourage the acceptance among the younger generation that a visible
gender-bending and androgynous look was fashionable. Bowie and Bolan set the
trend in make-up and flamboyant dress that appealed to many young men who had
not come out as gay which allowed them to still express their sexuality
visually. Many of the older generation thought this was unmanly but never
overtly labelled these youngsters of being gay. After all, there were many
straight young men who dressed the same way. But then the AIDS crisis emerged.
In the 1980s glam rock
virtually disappeared and was replaced by the New Romantics. Any man now seen
wearing make-up in public was denounced as a “puff” and often beaten up because
of the misguided belief that AIDS made it okay to victimise gay men. Many gay
men were assaulted and murdered during the early years of AIDS and being gay
was unacceptable to the majority of society. In 1987 before the Local
Government Act became law a national survey revealed that 75% of the UK
population considered homosexuality was “always or mostly wrong”.
Mrs. Thatcher and her
Conservative government seemed to have the backing of the British public. The
Labour Party in opposition cannot be regarded as being any different. In fact
the national survey also found that 67% of Labour Party members also said that
homosexuality was “always or mostly wrong”, the highest percentage of any
political party (the Conservative’s were 61%).
What gave the false
impression that the Labour Party were opposed to Section 28 was the
after-effects of the events of five years earlier during the Miner’s Strike.
Thatcher’s government had ordered the closure of many coal mines. The trade
unions and Labour Party fought back with a strike that turned many coal mines
into battlefields as violent picket lines developed in many areas. I, myself,
was on the receiving end of one such battle. As I was travelling by bus into a
local town we passed a coal mine where there was a picket line. A brick was
thrown through the bus’s windscreen purely because it was a bus that was used
by miners to get to work. Thankfully, no-one was injured though we all felt very
Many members of the lgbt
community supported the Miner’s Strike and several support groups were formed
during its run. Among the most famous is the “Lesbian Support the Miners”
group. A recent film about this period called “Pride” distorted the facts for
the sake of entertainment yet people believe what they see in the film is true.
It isn’t, except for the fact that there was a strike. Very quickly left-wing
activists jumped on the bandwagon (as they did during the recent protest
against the UK leaving the European Union) in what became a general
anti-Thatcher campaign that continued after the strike ended. Other political
issues pushed the two sides further left and right, and that, I believe is how
Section 28 came into being.
The subject of Section 28,
the education system, was also very anti-Thatcher at the time. Unpopular reform
had been taking place throughout Thatcher’s first years in power. In 1980
guidance was published for local education authorities to help them formulate
their curriculum policies. It included “advice” that no sex education lesson
should include homosexuality. The next year the government made a firm decision
to ensure all schools followed that “advice”.
In the next couple of
years several school libraries began stocking pioneering lgbt education books
for young people. The most famous of these was “Jenny Lives with Eric and
Martin”, a photo story about a gay couple and their daughter. Many parents were
offended and their views were echoed in the still very homophobic British press
which itself influenced the views of many other people. The lgbt community felt
they were being accused of being a threat to what was generally called “family
By 1987 the Thatcher
government began to worry that they might not be re-elected in that year’s
General Election. During the election campaign they took advantage of the
feeling of the majority of the electorate’s anti-gay attitudes and used scare
tactics by saying that teaching about homosexuality could turn children gay.
With the public still very much opposed to a homosexual lifestyle Mrs. Thatcher
was able to win her second term in office.
By December 1987
Conservative MPs Jill Knight and David Wilshire succeeded in introducing
Section 28 into the Local Government Bill that was going through parliament.
The efforts of Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes, Labour peer Lord McIntosh of
Haringey and the Bishop of Liverpool to introduce a compromise amendment to
replace Section 28 was defeated in both Houses of Parliament. There was now
nothing to stop Section 28 from becoming law on 24th May 1988.
It was May 1997 before the
Conservatives were voted out of office and a new Labour government took over with
the express aim of repealing Section 28. That moment took time, due to the
large, lingering, pro-Section 28 faction in parliament and the public.
Eventually, in 2003 a new Local Government Act which would repeal the original
one was introduced and approved by parliament. It became law on 18th September
2003 and Section 28 was at last consigned to the dustbin of history.