By Dr Sophie King-Hill, Senior Fellow in the Health Services Management Centre (HSMC)
The Local Government Act 1988 included a clause that became synonymous with LGBTQ+ discrimination, especially within the education system. The notorious Section 28 stated that:
‘A local authority shall not—
(a) intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality;
(b) promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.’
The Wider Context of Section 28
In 1988 the UK was in the midst of the ‘AIDS crisis’, which was associated strongly with gay men at the time and further compounded the discrimination and isolation felt by this community. The British Social Attitudes Survey in the 1980s found that tolerance and acceptance of those from the LGBTQ+ community was greatly lacking. In 1987 64% of those surveyed stated that sexual relationships between same sex partners was ‘always wrong’.
Coupled with this was the Conservative Government at the time highlighting issues with local government public spending on minority groups. With a specific focus upon the leader of Greater London’s Council (GLC), Ken Livingstone, and his strong position on gay rights. The GLC introduced the Gay Rights Working Party in 1981, seemingly at odds with the underpinning ideologies of the up-coming Section 28 in 1988. The Gay Rights Working Party came to an end with the abolition of the GLC in 1986, setting the scene for the discriminatory Section 28 two years later.
The Impact of Section 28
The full detrimental impact of Section 28 on the LGBTQ+ community will probably never be realised. Up until this point, the gay rights movement had been making slow but valuable progress since the Stonewall riots in the 1960s and the legalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967.
Section 28 was a blow to this progress. It normalised discrimination and provided an implicit assumption that homosexuality was wrong, alienating many LGBTQ+ children and young people and creating feelings of shame, silencing those from this community, whilst fostering an increase in homophobic bullying.
Where are we now?
Section 28 was not repealed until 2003 (2000 in Scotland) which means that teaching of LGBTQ+ issues and the normalisation of same sex relationships has only been taught over the last 20 years.
Sex and relationships education was only made compulsory in 2020. This includes guidance that states that in primary schools ‘Teaching about families requires sensitive and well-judged teaching based on knowledge of pupils and their circumstances.’ which specifically includes those from LGBTQ+ communities, with ‘care need[ing] to be taken to ensure that there is no stigmatisation of children based on their home circumstances’. For secondary schools the guidance states that ‘sexual orientation and gender identity should be explored at a timely point and in a clear, sensitive and respectful manner’ and emphasises that recognition for emerging sexual and gender identities should be taken into account, with equal opportunities being provided for pupils to explore healthy same-sex relationships.
Perhaps most crucially the guidance states that ‘this should be integrated appropriately into the relationships and sex education programme, rather than addressed separately or in only one lesson’ which indicates that rather than tagging on a session about LGBTQ+ education this needs to be implicit and embedded throughout the whole curriculum, reinforcing its importance.
This all feels worlds apart from Section 28 and the comment made by the then, prime minister Margaret Thatcher who, when talking about homosexuality at a 1987 Conservative conference stated that “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.”
However, despite the changes in the curriculum and the abolition of Section 28 the impact and shock waves from it can still be felt. A recent Stonewall report found that 45% of LGB students are bullied at school, 61% of LGBT+ young people have self-harmed and 53% of LGBTQ+ pupils stated that they didn’t feel that they had a trusted adult they can talk to at school.
These results are contextualised by recent homophobic attacks across the UK, as well as the protests that took place at Anderton Park Primary School in Birmingham in response to the school introducing the ‘No Outsiders’ programme which, as part of a wider programme, teaches children to be tolerant and embrace the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community.
The Legacy of Section 28
We can still feel the weight of oppressive social structures that were reinforced by Section 28 from the 1980s onwards. Whilst progress has been made, we still have a long way to go to embrace and fully acknowledge the valuable LGBTQ+ community. Conversely, I have seen it myself, in everyday life.
From recently seeing my children challenge slurs such as ‘it’s so gay’ in schools, triggering my then 11 year old daughter to respond by producing a presentation for the whole school called ‘love is love’ about same sex couples, in a bid to challenge the discrimination she had witnessed and to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ rights.
To seeing one of my closest male friends, at age 50, only now cautiously feeling able to wear nail varnish due to the impact from years of shame and oppression he suffered for being gay.
Sadly, these are very recent and not stand-alone occurrences. I have witnessed much worse. I have a plethora of examples of oppression and discrimination that I have seen directed towards the LGBTQ+ community.
We have all witnessed, or been the subject of, discrimination towards the LGBTQ+ community.
Just think about that for a second.
Every. Single. One of us.
The echoes of Section 28 and the impact that it has had still lives on.
We cannot ignore this.
We all have an obligation to educate our children and young people and support those that still live with the destructive legacy from Section 28.