Section 28 Messed Up My Generation. I Worry We’re Repeating The Same Mistakes Now

Juno Dawson
Jack Latham (Photo: HuffPost UK)

The oily tendrils of government infiltrate all our lives. Usually, they are invisible and odourless, but nonetheless impact our existence every single day. But for LGBTQ people in their thirties or forties, we know exactly which piece of legislation thwarted our adolescence. It was Section 28.

Introduced 32 years ago this week, in the dying days of Margaret Thatcher’s reign, Section 28 set out the following rules: “local authorities 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.” It came about following a moral outcry over a children’s book, Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, which depicted a same sex couple raising a child and, of course, during the height of the AIDS pandemic. This led the British Social Attitudes Survey to suggest that 75% of the population felt homosexuality was “always or mostly wrong”. Seizing on this mood, this fear around AIDS, Thatcher’s government introduced the bill thirty-two years ago in 1988. It was the year I started primary school. 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that those ‘social attitudes’ were moulded and manipulated by the press. The Daily Mail was responsible for the outcry over Jenny while The Mail on Sunday referred to AIDS as ‘the gay plague’. The Sun helpfully added ‘AIDS Is Wrath of God, Says Vicar’. When the press does less to inform, and more to scare, we’re in trouble.

Our omission from public life, that sense that we were abnormal somehow, left us with deep, deep shame.

And so I went through school with precisely no support. I’d been asking my mum when I was going to turn into a girl since I was four years-old, but she – a factory worker in Bradford – had no more knowledge about transgender kids than I did at that age. The people who could have helped: my teachers; the school librarian; the support staff, effectively had their hands tied. When I was fourteen, I received sex education that taught me how to put a condom on a deodorant can to prevent pregnancy. And that was it. At no point was HIV or AIDS discussed, at no point did a teacher (many of whom were known to be gay or lesbian) say “and, of course, some of you might be gay or bi.” In fact, I remember my A-Level biology teacher once saying “it’s the bisexuals you have to be careful of”.

The damage caused by that lack of education is self-evident in statistics around LGBTQ people and mental health. We are, statistically, much more likely than straight or cis people to suffer from depression and anxiety, or to attempt suicide or self-harm. We are more prone to addiction and risky sexual behaviours. We were so ignored, so neglected, during our formative years, I don’t think this is surprising. Our omission from public life, that sense that we were abnormal somehow, left us with deep, deep shame.

Things improved. By the time I became a teacher in 2004, Section 28 had been mercifully repealed in England and Scotland. The video we used in PSHE depicted a lesbian couple, and I was allowed to take questions about LGBTQ lives. By 2007 there were two transgender pupils at my school and we went out of our way to support them. My novels, which have always featured LGBTQ characters, are widely available in high school libraries. In less than twenty years since its repeal, we’ve come a long way. Rarely now do I visit schools where there isn’t a Pride committee of some sort. 

The notion now that gay men or women posed a threat to children or society looks woefully bigoted – and we must act to stop the same prejudices being applied to trans people

Yet I fear a Section 28 sequel of sorts is on the horizon. If Section 28 zeroed in on homosexuality, the new moral panic is over transgender people. A couple of weeks ago, my new novel – Wonderland – was reviewed in the Guardian and Mumsnet forums went into meltdown over my transgender version of Alice. Thirty years on and another book, albeit one for young adults, not kids, is causing a moral outcry. Once more the newspapers are scaremongering: The Times said in 2017, ‘Children Sacrificed to Trans Lobby’ or Metro’s 2018 ‘Transgender Jail Sex Fiend’ headline.

The most concerning sign yet is new women and equalities minister, Liz Truss, stating her commitment to protecting ‘single-sex spaces’ during a (much delayed) reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (which only allows trans people to legally change their gender and apply for a new birth certificate). As the Equality Act 2010 already protects transgender people’s rights to use single-sex spaces, it’s a worrying move, and one that suggests she is reacting to tabloid headlines, not the needs of LGBTQ people in the UK. 

History has not looked kindly on Section 28. It will be remembered for what it was: prejudiced pearl-clutching, and something which marred a generation of LGBTQ kids. The notion now that gay men or women posed a threat to children or society looks woefully bigoted – and we must act to stop the same prejudices being applied to trans people. 

Juno Dawson is an author, screenwriter and columnist. Her latest novel, Wonderland, is published by Quercus on 28 May. 

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