On 24 May 1988 Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was enacted in England, Scotland and Wales by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Its introduction would have a major impact, especially on young LGBT+ people, and spark major protests, with tens of thousands taking to the streets.
Section 28 stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”
The 1980s had been an incredibly turbulent time for LGBT+ struggle. Following the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK in 1967 and in the aftermath of the US Stonewall Riots, LGBT+ issues had become more prominent.
LGBT+ campaigning groups across the world were growing and staging Pride events to highlight the fight for LGBT+ rights.
This increased visibility and political assertiveness met with reaction from the right-wing media and political establishment, which deliberately blamed the growing Aids crisis on homosexuality. Gay men in particular were viewed as a threat to public health.
From 1986 on the Conservative Party made efforts to ban local councils from “promoting homosexuality”. Thatcher denounced local education authorities for teaching schoolchildren that they had “an inalienable right to be gay”.
In 1988 this anti-gay propaganda culminated in Section 28 – part of an act that also introduced compulsory tendering of council services (privatisation) to ensure they are “competitive”, thereby attacking public sector jobs and services.
Section 28 was faced by protests even before it formally came into law. In high profile acts of direct action the night before the legislation was passed, lesbian activists abseiled into parliament and invaded the studios of the BBC’s Six O’clock News while it was on the air.
More than 20,000 people marched against Section 28 in Manchester with similar protests happening across the country. While these protests weren’t able to stop Section 28 at the time, they ensured pressure was put on local councils to ensure funding for LGBT+ services was still possible (frequently using Aids awareness as a loophole).
Section 28 served to galvanise LGBT+ people in England, Wales and Scotland, was the origin of a number of significant LGBT+ organisations such as Stonewall and energised numerous campaigns against discrimination and prejudice.
However Section 28 would, at the same time, have an extremely negative effect on LGBT+ people, especially teachers and young people.
It is frequently brought up, especially by Tories trying to diminish the negative impact of Section 28, that no one was ever formally prosecuted under the legislation and so it couldn’t have been that bad or was even a failure.
In reality, due to the vagueness of Section 28 along with the homophobic rhetoric and moralising from politicians, very few people knew how “promotion of homosexuality” was being defined.
Was it saying being LGBT+ was okay? Was it acknowledging homosexuality existed? Was it being an out LGBT+ person yourself?
The lack of clarity would lead to scores of LGBT+ teachers being forced back into, or staying, in the closet due to fears and pressure from senior management, governors and even the press about being openly LGBT+.
Fear of prosecution would lead to teachers and public employees feeling unable to even address bullying of LGBT+ people in case this would be viewed as “promotion of homosexuality”.
And as a result of this many young LGBT+ people would suffer an epidemic of name calling, at best, with many experiencing physical attacks for their sexuality as well. Most LGBT+ students would hear about their sexuality for the first time in relation to HIV/Aids and reading about being LGBT+ in terms of life expectancy.
Today, young LGBT+ people are more likely to experience mental health problems and are twice as likely to self-harm or attempt suicide. We must be clear that this is the legacy of Section 28, Thatcher and the Tories.
Section 28 was repealed under the Blair New Labour government in 2003 after years of campaigning and fighting. However, this repeal failed to take any steps to undo the damage of Section 28 in practice.
15 years later teachers and students are still fighting for sex education that positively includes LGBT+ issues.
Section 28 was a vicious piece of legislation that is still being felt today. And due to this it was a pivotal moment for LGBT+ people, bringing them and their supporters together with new confidence.
This would serve to push through many steps forward beyond repealing Section 28.
While a direct attack like Section 28 is unlikely today due to this confidence, we know that the policies of austerity by governments and local councils have no less of an impact on LGBT+ workers and young people.
It’s vital then that we not just remember the fight against Section 28 but continue its legacy of mass action in the streets, community groups and trade unions; fighting not just against individual attacks but for a socialist change in society that means equality and genuine liberation for all.