The Story of Section 28

This abridged version of an article published in Workers’ Liberty, December 1997, was included in the Workers’ Liberty pamphlet Radical Chains: Sexuality and Class Politics, published in 1999.

In 1987, the anti-gay law Section 28 made its first appearance in Parliament. It was to mark a turning point in the lesbian, gay and bisexual movement.

The delicious irony of Section 28 is that a law which sought to ban the promotion of homosexuality actually prompted the biggest promotion of homosexuality that Britain had ever seen. As a consequence of the mass mobilisation against the Section, attendance at Pride hit a new record in 1988: numbers taking part in the march and festival are of a different order post-Section than pre-Section.

There is much that today’s activists can learn from the story of the Section. It is a story of the bigotry of Tories, the power of mass mobilisation, the potential of the labour movement, the failure of Labour leaders, the strengths and weaknesses of the local government left, the challenges for the future, and of the courage, pride and imagination of people fighting back.

Bigoted beginnings

Section 28 can be traced back to a Department of Education and Science circular DES206/86, issued on 6 August 1986. It stated that “There is no place in any school in any circumstances for teaching which advocates homosexual behaviour, which presents it as the ‘norm’, or which encourages homosexual experimentation by pupils.” Later the same year, the Local Government Act 1986 (Amendment) Bill was proposed in the House of Lords by the Earl of Halsbury.

The Bill, on its First Reading, enjoyed the unanimous support of Their Bigoted Lordships. Lord Longford chipped in with his view that “Homosexuals, in my submission, are handicapped people … the tragedy of such people is that they cannot enjoy family life and they cannot have children.” Lord Denning boasted of having imprisoned many people for having anal sex, and then declared that “We must not allow this cult of homosexuality, making it equal with heterosexuality, to develop in our land. We must preserve our moral and spiritual values.”

Halsbury’s Bill was taken to the House of Commons by Birmingham’s biggest bigot, Dame Jill Knight MP. It did not become law, as the Tory Government promised to think about it and bring it back in a more suitable way at a later date.

The local government left

The focus of the Tories’ anger was that some Labour councils had taken initiatives in support of lesbian and gay rights. Tory MP Harry Greenaway was disgusted at Ealing Council for suggesting to schools that they post notices about a lesbian and gay switchboard. Greenaway denounced this as “wrong, because it is an incitement to children”. (An incitement to do what? Get advice? Ask questions? Not try to kill themselves?)

The prime target of Tory hysteria was the book ‘Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin’, about two gay men and their daughter, a copy of which was stocked in an Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) teachers’ resource centre. Tory MP David Wilshire was appalled by a book which “portrays a child living with two men … [and] clearly shows that as an acceptable family relationship.”

The Tories saw homophobia as a useful weapon to whip up hostility towards Labour. In the 1987 General Election, they had posted billboards declaring that Labour intended to force kids to read books entitled ‘Young, Gay and Proud’ and ‘Black Lesbian in White America’. Useful books in bringing up youngsters not to be queerbashers, but to the Tories’ PR people an excellent example of Labour’s lunacy and immorality.

A favourite pursuit of gutter press hacks was to sniff out Town Hall tales of ‘loony left’ councils and their efforts for minority groups. The bigots and queerbashers found their most helpful allies writing in the tabloids. Work by Labour councils on lesbian and gay issues had begun in earnest in the early 1980s. The Labour left made inroads into local government, winning control of several councils in London and other big cities. At the same time, the Tory Government made attacking local government one of its main priorities (along with attacking trade unions). Central government funding to councils was cut, ‘ratecapping’ introduced, and metropolitan councils such as the Greater London Council (GLC) abolished.

The left councils said that they would fight the Tories. But one by one, these councils gave up that fight. They put up rates, cut services and made shabby deals with the Tory Government. The councils tried to maintain the illusion of radicalism by putting money into projects such as women’s centres, race equality units, and lesbian and gay switchboards. This work was valuable and worthwhile: the problem was that it was done as an alternative to taking on the Tories. Equality issues were seen as different from, rather than integral to, working-class politics.

The effect of the councils’ actions was to fertilise the ground for a homophobic backlash. People are much more likely to resent a council funding a lesbian and gay centre if, at the same time, it cuts their granny’s meals on wheels. If, alternatively, the councils had fought the Tory Government for decent funding, defending the rights of all sections of the local community to the services they need, then lesbians and gay men would have been on the same side as pensioners, tenants, library users, teachers, parents, benefit claimants, trade unionists, youth clubs, refugee groups, sports players, students, trainees and their local Labour Party. That is the opportunity that the local government ‘left’ refused to take.

Return of the clause

The legislation returned to Parliament in December 1987, proposed by Tory MP David Wilshire as an amendment to the Local Government Bill. It was known at first as Clause 14. (Stop Clause 14 badges had a short shelf-life, as it became Clause 27, then 28, then 29, then 28 again. Merchandisers to the movement soon gave up their reprints and stuck with Stop the Clause!).

Wilshire’s new Clause read as follows: Local authorities shall not: (a) promote homosexuality or publish material for the promotion of homosexuality; (b) promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.

At this time, local authorities had much greater responsibility for schools than they do now. The new clause was used to demonise both homosexuality and local government – a two-pronged assault on both freedom and democracy. The new clause referred to lesbian, gay and bisexual people’s families as ‘pretended’. People who loved and cared for children in the face of discrimination and prejudice found their lives dismissed as a sham. It was to become an article of law that same-sex desire was incompatible with the ability to form ‘acceptable’ relationships or families. The clause broke new ground for bigotry, as the first law to proscribe homosexuality as a sexuality; previous laws had criminalised same-sex sexual acts. With this new clause, being lesbian, being gay, being bisexual, was branded undesirable, not to be supported, never to be condoned.

The bigots were determined that young people could not be told that it is OK to be gay. This includes kids whose parents, siblings, neighbours or friends may be lesbian, gay or bisexual. It also includes youngsters who are considering whether they themselves may not be heterosexual. The isolation, rejection and fear confronting these young people causes them untold stress: surveys quoted during the Parliamentary debate on Section 28 showed that around one in five gay youth had attempted suicide.

If it is not OK to be gay, then presumably it is OK to disapprove of gays. If the Government can discriminate against lesbian, gay and bisexual people, then why shouldn’t anyone else? Wilshire’s clause implied that it was better to be a queerbasher than a queer, better a suicide than a happy homo.

Section 28’s ban on the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools is an issue not just of lesbian, gay and bisexual rights, but of youth rights. It seeks to deny all young people the opportunity to come to a balanced, informed decision about their own sexuality. A law which claimed to ‘protect children’ actually proposed to leave them vulnerable, isolated, confused and unsupported.

The clause explicitly sought to put an end to those local authority and school initiatives that could help lesbian, gay and bisexual people: advertising of helplines, books about homosexual lives, support groups. The irony is that it is the prevalence of homophobia that makes such services necessary.

If proof were needed of the clause’s homophobia, it could be found in the rise in violent anti-gay attacks that accompanied its passage into law. In December 1987, arsonists firebombed the offices of newspaper Capital Gay. Tory MP Dame Elaine Kellet-Bowman refused to condemn this, arguing that “it is quite right that there should be an intolerance of evil.” Soon after, a gay pub in Rochester was attacked with teargas bombs, and gay Labour MP Chris Smith reported that “the number of queerbashing attacks on gay men and lesbians has dramatically increased during the past year.” Section 28 was a bigots’ charter.

Opposition? What opposition?

What was the Labour front bench’s reaction to the new clause? The Party whose policy committed it to supporting equality, and whose councils were under attack, was represented on this issue by Shadow Home Secretary Jack Cunningham. He stated in Committee: “I speak on behalf of the Labour party when I say that it is not, and never has been, the duty or responsibility of either a local or education authority to promote homosexuality … I intend to support [the clause].”

Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party was developing an irritating tendency to jump to Tory orders. A Tory would challenge Labour leaders to distance the party from someone who was doing something radical, and the reply would come: yes sir, of course sir. A Labour London Borough has said something nice about lesbians and gay men. Do you condemn them? Yes of course. Will you support our clause? Yes of course. Nothing was said about those Tory (and Liberal, and Labour) councils which did nothing for their lesbian, gay and bisexual citizens, that allowed homophobia to go unchallenged. The only real opposition to the clause when it first appeared in Committee was from Labour MP Bernie Grant. Labour’s later opposition came once anti-clause protests had started.

Liberal spokesperson Simon Hughes MP “made it clear that the initial part of the clause … had the support of the Liberal party.” Gay Tory MP Michael Brown flew the flag for self-hatred when he opined “Of course I accept that it is necessary to protect children and to ensure that irresponsible local authorities do not promote homosexuality.”

Out on the streets

Outside Parliament, people were not so reticent. Lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and our heterosexual supporters got active in protest against the homophobes. Activists in Manchester formed the North West Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Equality, which adopted a tube station logo declaring that we were Never Going Underground. In early 1988, the Campaign organised a demonstration which brought around 25,000 people to the streets of Manchester. In April, a national demonstration of more than 30,000 was held in London.

‘Stop the Clause’ groups sprang up in most towns and cities, and organised local protests to complement national action. Direct action boosted the profile of protests. One evening, the Six O’Clock News headlines were disrupted by shouts of ‘Stop Clause 28!”. A couple of intrepid lesbians had snuck into the BBC’s studios and attached themselves to Sue Lawley’s desk. Nicholas Witchell’s attempts to restrain them prompted a tabloid headline the following morning of ‘TV Newsman Sits on Lesbian’. When the clause was debated in the Lords, protesting dykes abseiled from the public gallery down to the floor of the House.

The campaign against the clause was active, involving and creative. Its unapologetic pride inspired people to come out of the closet in record numbers. Phonelines, support groups and social events can all help people through the difficult process of coming out, but there is nothing quite as helpful as seeing thousands of people taking up banners and marching in support of your right to be out and proud. It should be remembered that this was a lesbian and gay movement with no Pink Paper, no Stonewall, no Outrage!, no TV and radio shows. All these were to follow in the wake of Section 28 becoming law.

Grass-roots labour movement activists did not generally share the weakness of their leaders. Many Labour Party and trade union branches condemned the clause, and supported action against it. Trade unionists were concerned both to protect workers – especially teachers and local government workers – from the clause, and to bring to the anti-clause movement the politics of solidarity. Trade Unionists Against Section 28 (TUAS), set up in January 1988, promoted opposition to the clause amongst unions, and defiance of the Section once it became law. TUAS saw lesbian and gay rights as a labour movement issue – the working class has a fundamental interest in tackling prejudice. So TUAS – which involved trade unionists of all sexualities – also took its banner against homophobia to picket lines and to demonstrations on issues such as abortion rights.

Law and defiance

No doubt inspired by campaigners, some Labour MPs made decent speeches against the clause in Parliament. Others made naff speeches. Paul Flynn and Clare Short insisted that councils supporting lesbian and gay rights were few and far between. Others argued that it was impossible to promote homosexuality and therefore unnecessary to legislate against it: the point, however, is that there is nothing wrong with promoting homosexuality in a world which so enthusiastically promotes heterosexuality. When Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard quoted Labour Party policy urging councils to support lesbian and gay issues, Jack Cunningham denounced his comments as an outrageous slur on the Party.

The Tory majority ensured that Section 28 became law in May 1988. However, the strength of the protest movement limited the damage it could inflict. No local authority has ever been prosecuted under the Section. Campaigners and trade unionists urged defiance of the new law. Schools should teach objectively about homosexuality; local authorities should continue initiatives against homophobia. Such defiance would, we argued, gut of any real power a law already weakened by the mass opposition it had provoked. However, many councils backed off and practised self-censorship to avoid any chance of prosecution. Labour councils scrapped or scaled down projects in support of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. (Few Tory councils were running such projects in the first place.) Some local education authorities decided that they could no longer allow Lesbian and Gay Societies to exist in further education colleges (which were at the time still under LEA control), but were overturned following vigorous campaigning by lesbian, gay and bisexual student activists. Solidarity action also saw off attacks on workers. Bradford teacher Austin Allen was sacked after giving honest answers to students’ questions – which included telling them that he was gay. He was reinstated when the NUT threatened to strike.

And now?

In 1999, Section 28 remains in place, as New Labour has yet to carry out its promise to repeal it. We must insist that they do: but equally, we should not allow them to do only this (and perhaps a grudging, free-vote equalisation of the age of consent), ignore the rest of our demands for equality, and then tell us to be quiet because the next General election is looming and we might lose them votes. Section 28 is an important episode in our history; and history is where this pernicious legislation belongs. It is time to move on to the demands that would take us forward now.

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