Gay Times February 08 - Issue 353
Behind The Story - Section 28
Words by Richard Smith
More from Gay Times February 08 - Issue 353
A local authority shall not;
a. Intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of the promotion of homosexuality
b. Promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.
The Eleventh Commandment
Section 28 was the first piece of new anti-gay legislation to be introduced in the UK in over a century. This amendment to the Local Government Act 1988 forbade local authorities from “promoting homosexuality”. Dubbed ‘the bigots’ charter’, it was seen as the lowest point of the Thatcher Government’s homophobia. But the fight against it led to the highest level of lesbian and gay activism ever seen in this country.
Less Equal Than Others
In the mid-80s, some Labour councils and the Labour-controlled GLC (Greater London Council) had started giving grants to lesbian and gay groups, and introducing Equal Opportunities policies. The latter sought to find out if discrimination existed, to propose policies to redress this, and to encourage lesbians and gay men to use available services. Some championed ‘Positive Images’, trying to avoid portraying lesbians and gay men in ways that were solely negative and/ or stereotypical.
Ban This Filth!
Homophobia was already being stoked by tabloid scare stories about Aids; “The gay plague”. They now began whipping up hysteria by running – usually entirely spurious – stories about “Loony Left” Labour councils’ grants to gay groups and “gay lessons” in schools. These were offered as “shocking“ examples of how councils were indoctrinating – or worse, “perverting” – children and wasting ratepayers’ money. Haringey, often cited as the worst offender, estimated that the proportion of its budget being spent on gay groups was one-tenth of 1%.
In the run-up to the local elections of May 1986, The Sun ran a front-page headline; “Vile Book In School: Pupils See Pictures Of Gay Lovers”, about Jenny Lives With Eric And Martin, a photo book about a young girl, her father and his boyfriend.
Dame Jill Knight raised this in the Commons, but could not name a single school using it. This was because none were. It was only available in an Inner London Education Authority centre to loan to teachers who wanted to know more about lesbian or gay parents.
Various Conservative politicians saw an opportunity to pander to bigoted voters – and attack the Labour Party, both nationally and locally – and seized it. Party chair Norman Tebbit said; “Tolerance of sexual deviation has generated demands for deviance to be treated as the norm”. He blamed the 60s, and what he called “the permissive society”, hinting that the abortion, divorce and homosexual laws could be repealed.
In December 1986, James Anderton, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, told a conference on Aids it was “a self-inflicted scourge”, and gay men “were swirling about in a human cesspit of their own making”.
Veteran activist Antony Grey voiced the fears of many. He said a friend who’d lived in pre-War Berlin had told him there was “a smell of Weimar” about Thatcher’s Britain. Grey added; “There’s not a smell any more. There’s an absolute stench”.
The 1987 British Social Attitudes Survey showed that anti-gay feeling was rising. Nearly 74% said that gay sex was always or mostly wrong. A 1988 Harris Poll showed that 48% of people agreed that homosexual relations should be legal – down from 61% in 1985.
The Gathering Storm
Things gathered pace in the run-up to the General Election of May 1987. In December 1986, John Giffard, Earl of Halsbury, introduced a Private Member’s Bill in the Lords “to restrain local authorities promoting homosexuality as an acceptable family relationship”. Despite a warning from the Government Minister responsible, Lord Skelmersdale, that it was unnecessary and liable to misinterpretation, it sailed through the Lords with only one dissenting voice raised.
In May 1987, Conservative MP Dame Jill Knight introduced the Bill to the Commons; “This Bill is before the House because there is shocking evidence that children, some as young as five, are being encouraged into homosexuality and lesbianism in our schools on the rates and against the wishes of parents.”
When a General Election was called for June, the Bill had to be dropped. Posters appeared with a mocked-up book titled Young, Gay and Proud, and the slogan; “Is this Labour’s idea of a comprehensive education?” The Tories won a third consecutive term.
At the Conservative Party Conference in October 1987, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher directly attacked “positive images” during her keynote speech; “Children… are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay”. Her Education Secretary Kenneth Baker issued a circular to all state schools, forbidding teachers from “advocating homosexual behaviour”.
On December 8th 1987, Conservative MP David Wilshire proposed an amendment to a new Local Government Bill with similar wording to Halsbury’s Bill. The clause passed its final reading in eight days.
Tory MPs repeatedly claimed how they were responding to complaints from parents about what children were being taught in schools. When challenged, none were able to back these up with any evidence.
Liberty commented; “That any government is prepared to support legislation on the basis of evidence which, when examined, turns out to be either non-existent or a complete distortion of the truth, should indeed be a matter of grave concern to all citizens”.
No Turning Back
The fight against the Clause led to the largest gay protest movement this country has ever seen – some called it “our Stonewall”.
There was much fear about how draconian the law would be – and what legislation might come after it. Minister Michael Howard told the Commons that gay youth groups, switchboards and centres were “precisely the sort of activities against which this clause is directed”. Activist Eric Presland told Gay Times; “We hope that people have woken up to the seriousness of this foul new law. In one year’s time, there could be no gay pubs, no gay clubs and no gay press left in this country.”
On January 9th, 10,000 marched against the Clause in London. There were 32 arrests. In February, 15,000 marched in Manchester, and 20,000 marched through London in April. Lesbians abseiled into the House of Lords and stormed The Six O’Clock News. There were marches, meetings and actions across the UK, from Brighton to Barrow-In Furness.
A bomb was left outside a “Stop the Clause” benefit in Manchester, and the offices of Capital Gay were firebombed. When she heard about the latter, Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman said; “Quite right… There should be intolerance of evil”. Section 28 was passed in March, and became law on May 24th 1988.
What Did It All Mean?
Some argued the Clause was just restating the parameters of Wolfenden and the ’67 Sexual Offences Act, where homosexuality was only allowed “in private”, and the need to “protect” the young was underlined. What Section 28 permitted and prohibited would only become apparent once a case was brought to the High Court – it never was.
It was cited in a handful of anti-gay moves in 1988: East Sussex County Council banned a directory for schools as it listed a gay organisation; a head cancelled a touring play as one scene dealt with a young man coming out; Leeds College of Music and Essex County Council both banned Gay and Lesbian Societies from meeting on their premises.
Many warned that councils, schools and teachers would exercise self-censorship, abandoning gay-positive projects for fear they might contravene the Section. Surveys have shown this to be true.
The Department of Education issued a circular stating that, under the Education Act 1986, the responsibility for sex education had passed from local authorities to school governors, and added that Section 28 “does not affect the activities of school governors, nor of teachers”.
The Long Goodbye
New Labour was initially quiet about repealing Section 28. In 1999, then-Tory leader William Hague imposed a three-line whip in defence of the Clause. David Cameron called its repeal “deeply unpopular… a fringe agenda”. An initial Lords bill was voted down in 2000. After the 2001 general election, Labour had successfully reformed the House of Lords, reducing the number of hereditary peers who had blocked other pro-gay law reforms. Section 28 was finally removed from the statute books in England and Wales in November 2003.
It had been repealed in Scotland in June 2000, despite a vicious Keep The Clause campaign organised by Brian Souter (See News feature, page…) In 2004, Kent County Council announced it would introduce its own Section 28. This was dropped after protest in December 2004.