How Section 28 birthed today’s gay rights movement

How Section 28 birthed today’s gay rights movement

A new book from Paul Baker traces the legislation’s tumultuous history and the lasting impact its had on LGBTQ+ activism today.

Author Paul Baker was 16-years-old when Section 28 was passed into law. Introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1988, the much-reviled legislation prohibited the promotion of “homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”, and was aimed at local authorities, but specifically mentioned schools. It was, as Baker put it, “a homophobic and unequal law which picked on a minority group”.

Baker’s second book, Outrageous! The Story of Section 28 and Britain’s Battle for LGBT Education (Reaktion Books) tells the history of this legislation, interwoven with anecdotes from the author’s own adolescence. It balances the fraught subject matter with humour, particularly in its exploration of the inventive protests Section 28 inspired. This included a group of lesbian protestors who abseiled into the House of Lords on a clothesline as the legislation was being debated; and two years later, when Princess Diana’s speech at a family conference was invaded by five protestors holding placards that said “Lesbian mothers aren’t pretending”.

Spanning the 1980s and beyond, Baker outlines the history, resistance, and sometimes surprising effects of this notorious legislation against a backdrop of synthpop, double denim, the AIDS crisis and rising homophobia. Huck spoke to Baker ahead of the book’s release to discuss the history of Section 28 and the state of queer liberation today.

As you write in the book, there were no successful prosecutions around Section 28, which is sometimes used to suggest that the law had little effect. This is something that Outrageous! challenges. How should we understand the significance of Section 28 for queer people?

First and foremost, it was the message it gave off. It was telling people, implicitly, that they were second-class citizens and that the government didn’t want children to be gay or lesbian. So, it erased or denied the lives of LGBT people of the time. It also threw young people into a complete sense of confusion and trouble if you’re considering your sexuality, which I was. It made it very difficult.

Section 28 also sanctioned a lot of homophobic bullying. There was an enormous amount in schools, but in every level of society as well. It’s been repealed almost 20 years now, but what happened to people growing up often had long-lasting effects in terms of them not feeling able to come out in certain circumstances, and feeling a sense of shame and guilt. Even though no one was prosecuted, it did an enormous amount of lasting damage.

But it’s a complex story. It can’t just be a story of the harm: it has to also be a story of the activism. Section 28 was, in a sense, the birth of the modern LGBT rights movement. One thing that grew out of me when I was writing this book was a sense of gratitude towards the activists, that I didn’t have when I started writing. I wanted the book to be a homage to them.

What was it like to research and write the book, and has it caused you to re-evaluate your own memories of the period?

It has, very much so. At times it was quite difficult to write, and I got a bit upset and had to put the book away, leave it for a few days, and come back. Often for me, humour is a defence mechanism, so I sometimes approached it from a more humorous angle and tried to think of the ironies and the funny side of things. And just how ridiculous some of the things were that were said. That’s why I called the book Outrageous! in the end.

In terms of re-evaluating my own teenage years, a lot made sense. At the time, I was vaguely aware of what was going on, but I wasn’t really sure what it meant and how it related to me. I still wasn’t sure whether I was gay or not when I was 14, 15, 16… Looking back on situations that happened to me, such as bullying at school, I realised that I grew up during an incredibly homophobic climate, which I just thought was normal. When I looked at social surveys about negative attitudes to homosexuality, they peak in 1987, when 64 per cent of respondents say that homosexuality is ‘always wrong’. If you realise, ‘Oh, that’s when I came of age, it was the peak of that attitude’, it makes more sense. It also made me realise it wasn’t right or fair. Understanding what was going on helps with that, when you look back on it as an adult. 

Some people have drawn a link between media panic around ‘gay ideology’ in the 1980s and ‘gender’ or ‘trans ideology’ today, both ostensibly for the ‘protection’ of children. One example is the legal battle around gender identity clinics for young people. Is that a connection you see?

Definitely. I’ve done some work for the charity Mermaids, and compared media and newspaper language around how trans people are reported upon across different periods. There have been some changes over time which are positive, but at the same time there’s been a lot more focus on children, and casting trans people as ‘militant political activists’. It was the exactly the same in the ’80s and ’90s with gay people as well. There was this very negative characterisation of a ‘gay militant lobby’, or lesbians in particular, who were also feminists, and seen as separatists who wanted to turn everybody gay.

It’s interesting that Stonewall has gone from an organisation which initially was focused on equality for gay men and lesbians and is now taking on more of the mantle for trans people. There has been backlash against it, which is something Stonewall as an organisation have always experienced. There are parallels, looking at these recent media panics around trans people and children, in particular.

The subtitle of the book is ‘The Story of Section 28 and Britain’s Battle for LGBT Education’. Has the battle for LGBTQ+ education been won?

I’m not sure it has been fully won. There have been newer laws passed and it’s still up in the air about how they will be implemented. There are ‘get-out’ clauses, such as for religious beliefs, and people can withdraw their children from school in certain contexts.  

You also can think about what happened in Birmingham in 2019, with the teacher Andrew Moffat and the ‘No Outsiders’ programme for teaching children about the existence of homosexuality. There were massive protests about it, with lots of media coverage. That does seem to have died down; recent articles state that a compromise has been produced, so that seems not as bad as it was two years ago. But it does show that things like that can erupt in different pockets around the UK at any point. 

I think it could happen again, and it is happening in lots of countries around the world, such as Russia. We’ve managed to repeal it, but it wasn’t easy – it took a lot of campaigning and work from people, and a lot of time. Whether or not the conditions in those other countries will allow that to happen is not yet known.

It’s also not just the law itself – the law was almost a symptom of a problem. The repeal of Section 28 hasn’t made homophobic bullying go away in schools by any means. I know children who are still getting bullied a lot at school, and surveys by equality groups show that its presence is still enormous. We can celebrate the fact that there’s not this law, but the attitudes are still there in certain sections of society, so there’s still an awful lot of work to be done.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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