For 15 years, LGBT+ people were subjected to a discriminatory, dehumanising law that sought to erase their existence from the public consciousness. Of the many cruelties of Margaret Thatcher’s governments, the implementation of Section 28 was among the most insidious.
This law, an amendment to the Local Government Act, effectively banned the acknowledgement or discussion of homosexuality in schools. The impact on gay, lesbian and bi children was incredibly traumatic. Homophobic bullying was effectively given the green light. Teachers were afraid to support or console LGBT+ students for fear of breaching this backwards and ignorant law.
I am incredibly proud that it was Labour that scrapped Section 28, 19 years ago today. I’m proud that my children are able to go to a school that is open and welcoming to all its pupils and that a whole generation has gone through the education system without being subjected to a bizarre code of silence when it comes to sexuality.
We’ll never forget the pioneers, within and outside of the Labour Party who pushed for this change. We’ll also never forget those in the Conservative Party, including Theresa May and David Cameron, who opposed its abolition. Today, while the Conservatives pay lip service to LGBT+ rights, the truth is that their failures are letting LGBT+ people down.
Repealing Section 28 was a necessary part of building a safer society for all LGBT+ people, but it is by no means sufficient. While the formal structures of homophobia – criminalisation, Section 28, the bar on equal marriage – have been lifted over the past century, discrimination still rears its ugly head in other ways. LGBT+ people have to contend with crude jokes, verbal abuse and even violence on a daily basis, not helped by the lackadaisical attitude of those in government.
Take hate crime, for instance. Hate crime on the basis of sexual orientation has risen over 500% in England and Wales over the past decade. Hate crimes on the basis of transgender identity rose by a staggering 1100% in the same period. The Conservatives soft-on-crime approach is endangering people of all communities, but LGBT+ people are facing the brunt of this failure. Labour will increase community policing to protect communities from hate-filled attacks . We will also take hate crime seriously, whether it is on the basis of sexual orientation, transgender identity or disability, by equalising the law so that every category of hate crime is treated as an aggravated offence. Under a Labour Government, the perpetrators of such hate will no longer dodge longer sentences. This change was recommended by the Law Society as long ago as 2018, but, inexplicably, the Conservatives have yet again failed to deliver.
Another area where the Conservative Government is dragging its feet is around banning ‘conversion therapy’ – something that it also promised over four years ago. The government could have shown leadership in stamping this insidious and abusive practice, but instead we have seen indecision, backsliding and a shameful u-turn on the government’s promise to ban all forms of ‘conversion therapy’ that will leave trans people still at risk. Unlike the Conservatives, Labour will never hide behind strawman arguments to avoid doing what’s right. We are crystal clear: we will ban all forms of ‘conversion therapy’ outright while making sure that doesn’t cover psychological support and treatment.
The Conservatives’ u-turn on ‘conversion therapy’ led directly to the collapse of the government’s so-called ‘Safe To Be Me’ international conferences on LGBT+ rights that had been scheduled for this summer. As well as wasting tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayer money, this was a missed opportunity for the UK Government to show international leadership on LGBT+ rights. LGBT+ charities and organisations who walked away then have been vindicated by the government’s abject failure to stand up for LGBT+ rights internationally in the months since the conference collapsed. Consider the Foreign Secretary’s shameful comments that LGBT+ football fans should “respect” Qatar’s abhorrent ban on homosexuality. A government that is the friend of LGBT+ fans should be railing against these laws, not respecting them. While the Conservatives seem to think Britain should be more isolated than ever before, we understand that our duty to others does not stop at the border. That is why Keir Starmer has announced that Labour in government will appoint an international LGBT+ rights envoy to advocate for LGBT+ people the world over.
The Conservatives have let down LGBT+ people time and again. From overseeing terrifying rises in hate crime to prevaricating on ‘conversion therapy’; from failing to take the necessary action to protect gay and bisexual men and men who have sex with men from monkeypox, to being too weak to stand up to homophobic regimes on the world stage, their record is one of failure after failure after failure. Labour, the party that repealed Section 28 nineteen years ago, will never stand by while LGBT+ people face discrimination, abuse or violence. Perhaps in another nineteen years, we will be marking the anniversary of a Labour government banning ‘conversion therapy’, or remembering the hate crime that used to leave people living in fear of attack. We can only do this with a Labour government because when Labour wins, society as a whole, especially for LGBT+ people, improves immeasurably.
Anneliese Jane Dodds is a Labour and Co-operative politician currently serving as the Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, as well as the MP for Oxford East.