The 30th anniversary of the enactment of Section 28 has been marked in numerous publications and online postings, and all of them described it in disparaging terms.
They are wrong.
Section 28 was used as a hook by the lesbian and gay movements to argue that they were the subject of discrimination and state oppression, leveraging their identity for entitlement and advantage, as well as justifying the use of violence by some against people they did not like. There was little, if any, scrutiny over the aims and objects of the clause.
So permit me to set the record straight.
First, the text itself. This is what it said:
A local authority shall not –
(a) intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality;
(b) promote the teaching in any maintained [ie state] school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.
The background was a surge of genuine public concern about what was going on in schools. Modern commentators forget that in the 1980s, Labour local authorities were politicising education and indoctrinating impressionable young minds in socialism. The 1986 Local Government Act was designed to stop these authorities from using material promoting socialism or favouring organisations such as CND or the trades union movement. The introduction of Section 28 two years later extended the prohibition to organisations such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF).
The GLF had published a manifesto which targeted the heterosexual nuclear family as an instrument of gay oppression. The GLF blamed fathers and mothers for ‘brainwashing’ children to accept monogamy and heterosexuality, and its stated aim was the ‘abolition of the family’.
The purpose of Section 28 was to prevent Labour local authorities from teaching children that a gay lifestyle was better than a heterosexual lifestyle.
And that’s it.
It stopped them backing such teaching with pro-gay publications. This is what was mean by the word ‘promote’ used in the clause. One of the Conservative MPs who introduced Section 28, Jill Knight, later explained her reasoning:
‘I did not only incur verbal abuse for my pains but physical abuse too. On one occasion, opponents of Section 28 attacked me outside my constituency office and tried to turn my car over with me inside it.
‘Why did I bother to go on with it and run such a dangerous gauntlet? I was then chairman of the Child and Family Protection Group. I was contacted by parents who strongly objected to their children at school being encouraged into homosexuality and being taught that a normal family with mummy and daddy was outdated.
‘They gave me some of the books with which little children as young as five and six were being taught. There was The Playbook for Kids about Sex in which brightly coloured pictures of little stick men showed all about homosexuality and how it was done. Another book called The Milkman’s on his Way explicitly described homosexual intercourse and, indeed, glorified it, encouraging youngsters to believe that it was better than any other sexual way of life.
‘Another book was called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin. It depicted, on its cover, a little girl of about six years old sitting up in bed with her naked father on one side and his naked lover on the other.
‘All of that was stopped dead by Clause 28. It was not intended to harm people who, as adults, decided that that was the way of life for them. But I am anxious about little children and feel I have a perfect right to be so.’
The 1987 Commons debate about Clause 28 was notable for the false accusations made about it, mainly by Chris Smith, Britain’s first openly gay MP. Tony Banks compared Section 28 to Nazi persecution. For the government, Michael Howard made the purpose of the clause very clear.
‘Nothing in [clause 28] will put a homosexual at a disadvantage compared with any other person,’ he said. ‘[Its] precise purpose was to put into legislative form the principle set out in the recent Department of Education and Science circular on sex education that homosexuality should not be portrayed as the norm. It is not right for pupils to be taught, in any school, that homosexuality is the norm.
‘In the Government’s view, objective discussion of homosexuality in the classroom . . . would be perfectly proper, because it is not promotion of homosexuality.
‘There is nothing in [clause 28] that will prevent the legitimate provision of information, advice or unbiased counselling of pupils, but activities conducted by local authorities in a biased way or in a way that presents as a norm a sexual orientation that is not the norm would be stopped. We believe that to be right.’
The passing of the law was marked by violence, demonstrations, and civil disobedience. Ian MacKellen came out as gay as part of his opposition.
But that was pretty much it. Life went on as usual.
No Labour authority took a principled stand to defy the Conservative government, as had happened over numerous other issues. No gay group complained about Labour’s lack of action. So the law was never tested in court. And this is actually quite significant.
The most important subsection was not the prohibition itself, but this one:
In any proceedings in connection with the application of this section a court shall draw such inferences as to the intention of the local authority as may reasonably be drawn from the evidence before it.
In other words, a judge, and not the government, would have the final decision as to the conduct of the local authority. There is a huge difference between a gay teacher using the power of his or her authority to tell a five-year-old boy that having a mummy and a daddy is silly or that kissing boys instead of girls is better, and the counselling of a concerned teenager who has certain feelings he does not share with his schoolmates. A judge would have been able to decide, but never got the chance. Socialists did not want the law to have any interpretation apart from their own twisted version.
Instead Labour authorities deliberately misinterpreted the law as a blanket ban on some forms of support and information for homosexuals, which it definitely was not.
This deliberate misinterpretation of Section 28 was a gay rights issue for many years. Its abolition was in Labour’s manifesto for the 1992 General Election, but they lost that one. A pledge to abolish it did not appear in either the 1997 or 2001 Labour manifestos, but neither did the terms ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, or ‘LGBT’.
No one complained.
Section 28 was not abolished in England and Wales until in 2003. It had been law for nine years of Conservative government, but also six years of Tony Blair’s New Labour – half its time in power.
It is now part of the Left’s demonology of Conservatism in general and Thatcherism in particular, a way to rewrite a history they hate but cannot change. It is misused as shorthand for homophobia, an example of a ‘dark age’. Instead it was a law designed to protect children from the activities and attentions of gay extremists.
If there is criticism of Section 28, it might be that it was a hasty government response to public concern, but not that it was the action of a homophobic government.
Laws in this country regulate conduct, not existence. People who cite Section 28 as an example of the reverse are either mistaken or self-righteous or both.