Thursday 7 December 2017

The Last Homophobic Law in the UK?

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 1980s.

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 intimidated.

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 values”.

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.

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