Twenty-one years ago today, the Conservative party celebrated saving homophobic legislation Section 28, introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1988, which prevented local authorities and schools from “promoting homosexuality”.
By 2000, a Labour government was in power for the first time in more than 20 years with Tony Blair as prime minister, and the party openly opposed Section 28. William Hague led the opposition.
At this time there were a few MPs in William Hague’s Conservative Party that supported getting rid of the anti-gay legislation, but – in 1999 – Conservative spokesperson for London Shaun Woodward was sacked for refusing to step in line. In 2000, the party whipped its members in support of Section 28.
Around the same time, Conservative MP Peter Bruinvels notoriously said: “I do not agree with homosexuality. I think that Clause 28 will help outlaw it and the rest will be done by AIDS, with a substantial number of homosexuals dying of AIDS. I think that’s probably the best way.”
On February 7, 2000, the Labour government finally introduced the first attempted legislation to repeal Section 28, and Blair’s spokesperson said that he regarded the law as “a piece of prejudice”.
One year before his election as an MP, David Cameron said Blair’s efforts to scrap Section 28 were “anti-family” because he was supporting the ” promotion of homosexuality in schools”.
However, Labour’s effort to repeal the legislation was defeated by a House of Lords campaign led by Baroness Janet Young.
During her career, Young also helped lead opposition to lowering the age of consent for gay men, allowing unmarried couples to adopt and emergency contraception for women.
She said of Section 28: “What we have lost are the great ideals. One needs ideals. None of us live up to them. I fail. Everyone fails.
“But at least we should know what we are aiming for. What is dreadful is to have no ideals.”
Future UK prime minister Theresa May said that saving Section 28 was a “victory for common sense”. In recent years, May has U-turned on this position and has repeatedly said she ‘shouldn’t have’ voted in favour of Section 28, reiterating her regret over her past voting record exclusively with PinkNews on the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of gay sex in England and Wales.
The legislation was ultimately repealed in 2003, and Cameron issued an apology in 2009 for the harm it had done – but despite this, its implications are still felt far and wide. Teaching around LGBT+ issues still remains a taboo topic in many schools.
In contrast, current Tory prime minister Boris Johnson defied the Conservative leadership at the time and voted to abolish Section 28 in 2003.
20 years ago today the House of Lords voted against repealing anti-LGBT+ legislation – due to Tory resistance.
— GMB Union (@GMB_union) February 7, 2020
What was Section 28?
The clause – an amendment to the Local Government Act 1988 – banned local authorities and schools from promoting homosexuality and was introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government.
The legislation meant that councils were prohibited from funding of books, plays, leaflets, films, or other materials showing same-sex relationships, while teachers weren’t allowed to teach about gay relationships in schools.
This clause was the Conservative government’s vitriolic and traditionalist response to calls for equality from lesbian and gay rights activists in the late 1980s, a time when three-quarters of the population thought homosexuality was “always or mostly wrong”.
Thatcher captured these venomous anti-gay views in her infamous speech at the 1987 Conservative Party conference, which was met with rapturous applause.
“Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay,” she said. “All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life. Yes, cheated.”
Section 28 was introduced following a difficult period for the LGBT+ community in the UK. There had been some progress, but the outbreak of HIV/AIDS led to the widespread demonisation of gay and bisexual men in the 1980s.
The effects of Section 28 soon became apparent, with some schools and councils shutting down LGBTQ+ youth support groups – and many teachers too afraid to teach about same-sex relationships.
On the day the clause was passed in the House of Lords, a group of lesbians abseiled into the House of Lords in protest, making national news broadcasts.
The legislation – so loathed, so reviled by supporters of LGBT+ equality – caused 20,000 Mancunians to take to their city’s streets to march against it. It also prompted Sir Ian McKellen to come out publicly as gay.
Liberal Democrat Ed Davey, who introduced the clause that led to the repeal of Section 28, and told PinkNews that it left young people feeling “alone and vulnerable”.
Davey added: “I am proud to have moved the clause that abolished Section 28 once and for all. But we still have so far to go.
“From trans rights, to tackling the persistent discrimination faced by the LGBT+ community: the fight is far from over.”