The long Shadow of Section 28

Ahead of Norwich Trans Pride’s ‘20 years on from Section 28′ event later this month, Queer Norfolk takes a look at what the act meant, how people reacted at the time, and its impact today.

Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was a controversial law passed under Margaret Thatcher’s government. It stated, “a local authority shall not: intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality; promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” This law had far-reaching implications that impacted the health, wellbeing, education and safety of LGBTQ+ children and adults across the UK. This law was fiercely protested by the queer community at the time, and the Norfolk’s queer community was no exception. Although repealed in 2003, its impact is still being felt and recent news appears to indicate that similar legislation could make an appearance on the statute books.

Banner depicting Margaret Thatcher as a Nazi with a prisoner with a pink triangle over his head.
A banner made by R.Stubbs for the Stop the Clause march on 30th April 1988. The year 1935 refers to the amendments made to Paragraph 175, a German statute that criminalized sexual relations between men, by the Nazis that made punishments harsher. Click the image for more information.

The Impact

Prior to Section 28, there was a noticeable shift in attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community. There had been legal changes, public figures identifying as part of the community, and the emergence of queer culture in the mainstream. This all changed in 1988.

One of the hardest areas hit was education. The law was vague and thus open to different interpretations. The law was never tested, so school management tended to interpret it as strongly as possible to avoid becoming the test case. The lack of education also had a wider impact on society, as it perpetuated negative stereotypes and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, but the biggest victims were the children, who were left feeling isolated and unsupported. Section 28 helped to solidify the idea of enshrining prejudice in the law under the mantra of ‘protect the children’.

Section 28 had negative consequences for health services for the LGBTQ+ community, too. Health professionals were afraid of being seen as promoting homosexuality and avoided discussing sexual health, resulting in inadequate care and a lack of access to information. It also hindered HIV/AIDS prevention efforts, with many local authorities reluctant to fund education programs or initiatives targeting the LGBTQ+ community, contributing to the spread of HIV/AIDS.

letter from the section 28 working aprty to library sergice asking them to confirm that section 29 will have no bearing on the books and information they will continue to provide for their gay and lesbian service users.
Draft letter to the Library Service from the Section 28 Working Party at the Women’s Centre. Click the image for more information.

The legislation also had a significant impact on public libraries and archives, particularly in terms of the materials they were able to provide to their patrons. Librarians and archivists were often unsure of what could be considered “promoting homosexuality,” and so erred on the side of caution by removing or not acquiring materials that might be seen as promoting LGBTQ+ lifestyles. This self-censorship has led to a lack of materials available to researchers, and has only recently began to be addressed through retrospective collecting projects like the LGBT+ Archive at the Norfolk Heritage Centre.

The Reaction

Protests were widespread and often dramatic. For example, on 2nd February 1988, a group of lesbian activists abseiled into the House of Lords after peers voted in favour of the bill, and on 23 May 1988, the evening before section 28 came into force, lesbian activists stormed the BBC during the Six O’Clock News.

There were local responses in Norfolk to the Clause. On the 10th March, there was a meeting at the Arts College with speakers from the National Union of Students, the Trades Council, the National Union of Teachers, the National and Local Government Officers’ Association, the NHS and others who highlighted the possible dangers of the clause. A large rally also took place in London on 30th April 1988 and was attended by people from Norwich. The ‘Stop the Clause’ rally brought together LGBTQ+ activists, trade unions, and community groups to demand the repeal of the homophobic legislation.

Flyer for Stop The Clause Section 28 Hitchike to Lesbos. Pink flyer with pink triangle, lesbian icon and thumb icon. Signed Michael from UEA SU
Flyer for the UEA SU’s ‘Stop The Clause’ Hitchike to Lesbos in reaction to Section 28. Click the image for more information.

Local groups raised funds for the national campaign ‘Stop the Clause’. The Women’s Centre formed a Section 28 Working Party, which held film screenings and events to raise money for the ‘Stop the Clause’ campaign. Similarly, the University of East Anglia’s Gay Soc raised money by sponsoring two female students to hitchhike to Lesbos. The UEA group donated the £70 they had raised to the Section 28 Working Party. They Working Party drafted letters to the County Council’s education department and to the library service to outline the law, the restrictions it would impose, and ask what the council’s stance on this was.

Despite years of campaigning and fierce opposition, it took until 2003 for Section 28 to be finally abolished in England and Wales. Section 28 still casts a long shadow across the UK, and recent attacks on Drag Queen Story Times and on LGBTQIA+ positive education in schools reminds us that another ‘Section 28’ could be on the horizon. What is clear, however, is that queer people in Norfolk will continue to fight for our rights.