The Long Shadow of Section 28

The Thatcher government's Section 28 made it illegal for public bodies to 'promote homosexuality' – a policy that continues to detrimentally impact the lives of LGBT+ people decades later.

Anti-Section 28 march in London in 1988. (Credit: Tim Smith / Getty Images)

Today marks 33 years since the enactment of a piece of legislation that has since become synonymous with the aggressively anti-LGBT+ policy platform of Margaret Thatcher.

Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, banning ‘the promotion of homosexuality’ by councils, was ushered in at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It helped to assert Thatcher’s authority over many Labour-run local councils and robbed generations of LGBT+ people in Britain of the happy and supportive teenage years they could have had.

Thatcher’s Warning Shot to Gay and Lesbian Communities

In 1987, the Tories once again won a landslide. Within a matter of months, Thatcher used her Blackpool conference speech to send a warning shot to Britain’s gay and lesbian communities, stating the now infamously chilling lines ‘Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. […] All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life – yes, cheated.’  This conference speech happened as a toxic press was using stories of gay men dying from AIDS-related illnesses as tabloid fodder and waging a relentless attack on gay and lesbian people.

Thatcher’s words further emboldened a press that had already become whipped up after a book depicting a gay couple was made available in a Haringey primary school. When Labour won control of Haringey Council in 1986, it pledged to create a Lesbian and Gay Unit within the council to highlight the rights of LGBT people to council staff. It was the first local authority to do so in the country. The availability of the book, Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, was part of the council’s policy of positive representation of gay and lesbian people.

Labour councils across the country had been trailblazing a number of policies aimed to improve the lives of gay and lesbian people, including the publication of the London Charter for Gay and Lesbian Rights and the establishment of the capital’s Lesbian and Gay Centre, which was directly funded by the then Greater London Council (GLC).

Thatcher grabbed the opportunity to further quash these Labour councils which had become a thorn in the side of her government. The GLC famously displayed a giant sign on City Hall with the number of unemployed Londoners as a daily reminder to MPs in Westminster to see across the river. She eventually abolished the GLC in 1986 along with other Metropolitan County Councils which were Labour strongholds. We will never know what positive change these councils could have secured for the progression of LGBT+ rights in Britain, but they were stopped in their tracks at a time when LGBT+ people were facing death by a thousand cuts.

The Department for Education eventually wrote to Haringey Council warning about the alleged ‘promotion of homosexuality’. This would set the tone for the amendment to the Local Government Act spearheaded by the former Tory MP Jill Knight. Knight would go on to claim that her concern ‘was the wellbeing of children’ during a Newsnight interview in 2018: ‘If I got that [Section 28] wrong, then I’m sorry, but I didn’t believe it and nobody told me at the time.’

A check on Hansard would suggest otherwise. In an impassioned Commons speech, the late socialist MP Tony Benn made his views on the proposals for Section 28 crystal clear: ‘This campaign has been whipped up by the gutter press which has done more to lower the standard of personal and public morality than any others in modern British society.’ Benn, who was a staunch gay rights supporter, then tore into the very rationale behind the law, adding: ‘If the sense of the word “promote” can be read across from “describe”, every murder play promotes murder, every war play promotes war, every drama involving the eternal triangle promotes adultery; and Mr Richard Branson’s condom campaign promotes fornication. The House had better be very careful before it gives to judges, who come from a narrow section of society, the power to interpret “promote”.’

Despite many high-profile protests, including abseiling into the House of Lords and the interruption of a live BBC News broadcast, Section 28 eventually became law on 24 May 1988. Teachers were forbidden from discussing the very existence of LGBT+ people and same-sex relationships, and councils were banned from funding books, leaflets, films, or other materials showing these relationships.

This unleashed rampant homophobia in the classroom, with teachers often left powerless to intervene due to fear of contravening the law. It also meant many LGBT+ teachers were forced to closet themselves, with sackings just for being gay permitted as there were no anti-discrimination laws at the time.

Welsh Labour MP Nia Griffith, who is now openly gay and was a teacher during Section 28, has described the period as ‘very difficult for gay teachers to be open about their sexuality, thus losing valuable opportunities to provide positive role models to young people.’

The Road to Repeal

Section 28 sparked a more than decade-long campaign to overturn this vicious piece of legislation. Despite the continued anti-gay reporting by the tabloid press, attitudes among the public were changing, aided by the ever-greater visibility of LGBT+ people on television. The first lesbian kiss on Brookside, the introduction of a transgender character on Coronation Street, and the landmark series about gay life in Manchester by Russell T Davies were just some of the many landmark moments. All the while, schools remained a hotbed of bullying and hostility for young LGBT+ people.

In Scotland, an unofficial nationwide poll—bankrolled by multimillionaire Brian Souter—found 87 percent of Scots backed maintaining Section 28 in 2000. But the figure was wholly misleading: less than a third of ballots were returned as most Scots boycotted the poll and rubbished Souter’s attempt at derailing the Scottish Parliament’s scrapping of the law.

Repealing Section 28—or Section 2A, as it was known in Scotland—became one of the first legislative acts of the then-new Scottish Parliament with 1999. 17 MSPs backed the change. It would take the UK government another three years before Section 28 was scrapped in England and Wales in 2003, with Tories and Bishops in the House of Lords defeating an initial bill in 2000 by the Blair government.

The Legacy of Section 28

18 years (in England and Wales) and 21 years (in Scotland) have now passed since Section 28 was consigned to the history books, but its legacy still casts a shadow over the lives of so many LGBT+ people. For those who went to school during that period, the pangs of the law are still felt through painful memories of teenage years. Schools were legally gagged from providing support or providing even a crumb of reassurance that LGBT+ people simply exist. This pain can manifest into the serious inequalities LGBT+ adults experience in terms of poorer mental health and greater risk of homelessness.

Even within the current education system, Section 28 continues to have a presence. As recently as 2014, three in ten secondary school teachers and two in five primary school teachers said they didn’t know if they were allowed to teach lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues. This continues to manifest in high rates of bullying happening in schools with nearly half of LGBT pupils—including 64 percent of trans pupils—facing abuse for their identity, according to Stonewall. A survey out this month by young people’s LGBT+ charity Just Like Us found that young LGBT+ people are three times more likely to self-harm and twice as likely to contemplate suicide as their non-LGBT+ peers.

This is taking place within the wider context of the UK sliding down the international rankings on LGBT+ rights in Europe, from first place in 2015 to now just scraping into the top ten. The UK government has chosen to disband its own LGBT Advisory Panel, has scrapped plans to simplify the Gender Recognition Act, and has been criticised by the UN for failing to make progress on banning the cruel practice of so-called conversion therapy – despite promising to do so over 1000 days ago in its LGBT Action Plan.

It feels like bleak times for LGBT+ people in the UK, in particular for trans people. In over three decades since Section 28 was introduced—which resulted in zero criminal convictions—deep harm has been done to so many LGBT+ lives. Despite the condemnation of the law—including by David Cameron—its legacy continues to impact the social fabric of the UK. What’s worse is that not enough is being done to bring that legacy to a close.