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  • Writer's pictureMarcas Mac an Tuairneir

Garry Otton


Taking the stand in her sky-blue twin-set, Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher addressed a sea of waving Union Jacks at the Conservative Party Conference of 1987 to declare to rapturous applause: "Children, who should be taught to respect traditional moral values, are being taught they have the inalienable right to be gay".

The right-wing press couldn't have agreed more. Fuelling public anger and exposing a trend they labelled 'political correctness' in 'loony left' Labour councils, they attacked initiatives such as the one in Ealing which offered support to young gay people by posting notices advertising a gay switchboard. Conservative MP Harry Greenaway declared the move "wrong". The press went on to vilify ‘proselytising' homosexuals; printing exaggerated stories of black lesbian self-defence groups and gay sex being taught in schools. Education Secretary Kenneth Baker sent a circular to all state schools forbidding teachers from "advocating homosexual behaviour".

The ‘militancy' of Labour-controlled inner-city councils in London was a media catch-phrase as stories were delivered to shock: Haringey's 'courses on homosexuality' in nursery and primary schools; Hackney council's twinning arrangement with France, West Germany and Israel substituted for the Soviet Union, East Germany and Nicaragua, and their banning of the discriminating word 'family' from council literature; Ealing council's removal of books deemed racist or sexist from its local libraries and an Inner London Education Authority school in Kennington's discouragement of competitive games and the introduction of protest letter writing into the school curriculum.

The Conservatives responded with a campaign of billboards that begged: "Is this Labour's idea of comprehensive education?" The posters showed, in red, the covers of three books written for teachers: The Playbook for Kids About Sex; Young Gay and Proud and Police - Out of School.

Behind the rhetoric, much darker forces were gathering, destined to be exposed by an unworkable piece of legislation that would divide the nation.

Section 28 was an amendment to the Local Government Act, 1986 and enacted by the Local Government Act, 1988. It hatched from a Department of Education and Science circular, DES206/86 on 6 August 1986, stating: "There is no place in any school in any circumstances for teaching which advocates homosexual behaviour, which presents it as the 'norm', or which encourages homosexual experimentation by pupils". The essence of this message was born again into a re-draft of a Private Member's bill, introduced into the House of Lords by Lord Halsbury in 1986 called: 'An Act to Refrain Local Authorities from Promoting Homosexuality'. The bill was led for the Conservative Government by the Earl of Caithness, a 'family values' campaigner who quit politics after it emerged he had been involved in an extra-marital affair with a lady he met at a tea dance. (His wife later took a gun and shot herself).

Dame Jill Knight, Conservative MP for Birmingham, Edgbaston, chairperson of the Child and Family Protection Group, introduced the bill - demonising English local authorities, which in those days had more control over education - into the House of Commons. It fell through lack of Government support and the announcement of the impending 1987 general election, Knight insisted: "There is evidence in shocking abundance that children, as young as five, are being encouraged into homosexuality and lesbianism in our schools on the rates and against the wishes of parents". Margaret Thatcher thought the bill might be misrepresented and even "unnecessary".

Clause 14, as it was known, (before becoming Clause 27, then Clause 28, then Clause 29 before going back to being Clause 28 again), was tabled by Tory backbencher David Wilshire, MP for Spelthome during the committee stage of the Local Government Bill on 8 December 1987. (It was a Clause at this stage because it was in a bill being put before Parliament to pass. Acts of Parliament have Sections, therefore it became Section 28. To make things more confusing, Section 28 was sometimes referred to as Section 2a after the section that was inserted into the Local Government Act). In debates over the bill in the House of Commons, there was much talk of buggery and the corruption of children. Commons drunk Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, MP for Perth and Kinross, who died of liver failure in 1995, branded homosexuality 'a pathological perversion'. Just three Conservative MPs were brave enough to vote against the clause: gay MP Michael Brown (later outed by the News of the World), Andrew Rowe and Robin Squire. In 2009, David Wilshire, who was separated and lived in Somerset with his partner, Ann Palmer, admitted to using parliamentary expenses to pay £105,000 over three years to Moorlands Research Services, a company he owned with Palmer running his office. He insisted it was approved by the authorities, but after a meeting with the Conservative Chief Whip, he announced he would not be standing as a candidate at the next election.

Clause 28 was championed by Jill Knight and accepted and defended by former Conservative Prime Minister, Michael Howard, then Minister for Local Government, who told the Commons that gay switchboards and youth groups were "precisely the sort of activities against which this clause is directed". It was debated on 8 December before being swiftly presented to the House of Commons on 15 December 1987, shortly before their Christmas recess. It was introduced into the 1988 Local Government Bill which was ostensibly about the compulsory tendering of school services and became widely known as Section 28 when, on 24 May 1988 - with controversial additions after Section 2a of the Local Government Act, 1986 - the Queen gave her Royal Assent to the first explicitly anti-gay measure introduced to Britain in the 20th century. Cancelling each other out, Scottish First Secretary Donald Dewar 'paired' with Nicholas Fairburn and stayed away from the vote. Edwina Currie, MP for West Derbyshire, later told Gay Times that "there was a feeling among some of us that we'd gone too far that night”. Michael Howard also later expressed regret at its introduction.

By the end of the year, accompanying the law's passage, a firebomb went off at the offices of London's gay newspaper, Capital Gay. Far from condemning the action, Conservative MP was "right that there should be an intolerance of evil". What Commons to voice her contempt for gay sex and declared that it followed were a dramatic increase of attacks on gay men and another bombing of a gay bar in Rochester with teargas.

The first effect of Section 28 was to give the gay rights' movement a new public profile in the media. During another occasion newsreader Sue Lawley famously tried to deliver abseiling from the public gallery into the House of Lords. On parliamentary debate, three lesbians disrupted proceedings by studio. Nicholas Witchell was forced to sit on top of a lesbian as they had "rather been invaded" after lesbians had burst into their the ITV SA O Clock News with the classic understatement that Lawley struggled to deliver an item on the council tax over her muffled shouts.

As the subject of homosexuality rose in prominence at a time when the age of homosexual consent was still fixed at the age of 21, new groups like the Arts Lobby formed. These were a group of prominent actors who challenged the clause and joined thousands of protesters as they marched in London on 9 January1988. There were 32 arrests. In February, 15,000 marched in Manchester and in April, 20,000 joined the march in London, Many saw the impending legislation as a piece of Tory bloody-mindedness, defining gays as second-class citizens and reminding young gays they were 'unacceptable'.

Section 28 stated that: “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 school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". It would be invoked more than 30 times to prevent projects going ahead and went on to polarise conservative and liberal opinions on morality, right across the nation.

Although Section 28 was an unworkable piece of legislation in law, it presence ensured many erred on the side of caution. When Calderdale library service in Yorkshire attempted to ban the Pink Paper, they agreed to stock it after human rights group Liberty applied for a judicial review to clarify the law in 1995. East Sussex County Council banned a directory for schools as it listed a gay organisation. Telford Lesbian and Gay Youth Group were closed down but won their battle with Shropshire County Council after councillors reviewed the group's funding and decided they had not breached any law. A Head cancelled a touring play featuring a scene where a gay man 'came out and Leeds College of Music and Essex County Council both banned gay and lesbian groups from mecting on their premises. The nearest anyone got to bringing a council to court was a nurse - backed by the Christian Institute - who claimed that Glasgow City Council's funding of an AIDS support charity was promoting homosexuality. She failed.

Section 28 existed only - as its backers admitted - as a measure of control and self-censorship.

Section 28 was most likely illegal under the European Convention for Human Rights (ECHR), contravening the act on two counts: One stating that everyone is entitled to respect for their private and family life, and the other stating that everyone has the right to an education. The statement on education had already been interpreted as meaning children were entitled to one which encompassed the whole spectrum of society. David Pannick, an eminent English QC writing an opinion for Justice, a human rights organisation, insisted that any interference with freedom of expression must be sharp enough to be understood. Section 28's muddled reference to 'promoting' homosexuality failed that test. With the ECHR emphasising important features like pluralism, tolerance and broad-mindedness in society, he believed Section 28 could have easily been knocked out in a court, never mind a Parliamentary debate!

Section 28 was never introduced into Northern Ireland, and on its imposition in Scotland Brian Finch from Glasgow exercised his wit in the letters' pages of the Herald: "This law was imposed on Scotland by the predominantly English Parliament in Westminster on the grounds that, because southern Tories were having a panic attack, we Scots must be compelled to eat the same medicine as our neighbours. In exposing an equally daft argument Sir Walter Scott once asked if, because the south of England was largely flat and suited to growing wheat, Scotland must be levelled and the cultivation of oats be proscribed".

As a former speechwriter to the Conservative Scottish Secretary, Michael Forsyth, newspaper columnist, Gerald Warner remembered Section 28's introduction somewhat differently. "Section 28 was not passed by Margaret Thatcher as an anti-homosexual measure. Her instincts were libertarian and she only sanctioned this legislation in response to the concern of large numbers of parents over a torrent of extravagantly obscene The attempt to repeal Section 28 began in Scotland in 1999 Scottish Parliament. It was a debate that exposed church leaders determined to sound relevant in a nation no longer holding them homosexual literature which had invaded some schools”.

The attempt to repeal Section 28 began in Scotland in 1999 and unleashed the longest political debate in the history of the in their thrall. It divided Scotland homosexuality. As the Scottish Executive began its countdown to repeal, a coalition of religionists, Conservatives, concerned parents', top businesspeople and newspaper editors like Martin Clarke of the Daily Record united under the 'Keep the Clause' banner to fight the government in a campaign led by a former editor of the Scottish Sun and Scotland's richest man, Brian Souter. As 'Keep the Clause' billboard posters were erected all across Scotland, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, the transgendered and those who simply looked different became targets for abuse. Newspapers were filled with 'Keep the Clause' advertisements and propaganda. Cardinal Winning compared gays to Nazis and publicly declared an international conspiracy as headlines referring to 'gay cliques', 'gay propaganda' and opponents' claims of 'anti-gay victories' - offensive to gays as “anti-Jew victories' had been to Jews in Nazi Germany - filled the Scottish press. Most of the stories detailing the worse excesses of the campaign were withheld from the rest of the nation as different editions were printed south of the border. At the height of the campaign, newspapers recruited professional spokespeople to offer their opinion on how repeal would make children vulnerable to AIDS and sexual abuse. Letters' pages published views that advocated violence against gays and demonstrated the vilest homophobia. Anatomical drawings were published at the time purporting to show a homosexual's distinguishing features. As Souter prepared his private referendum, police began reporting an increase in attacks on gays, 'Keep the Clause became a playground catchphrase and less fortunate victims of the prevailing homophobia took their life, were beaten and in some cases murdered. As hard it was denied, the brutal campaign was initiated, sustained, fuelled and driven by the darker forces of religion in a country struggling to come to terms with a new, more secular millennium.

Introduction from Religious Fascism: The Repeal of Section 28, Ganymede Books, 2014

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