Intolerance, Ignorance, Bigotry: the story of Section 28
The 1980s was a pretty wretched decade for anyone who really cares
about the ‘promotion’ of decent civilised values at all levels in
society. So much of what the Thatcher Government achieved or tried
to achieve was both intellectually dishonest and morally bankrupt.
In the related areas of sexual diversity and personal relationships,
the shining example (if that’s an appropriate way of describing
it) was Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act.
The timing of Section 28 was itself significant in the story of
the Thatcher Government’s approach to the provision of acceptable
sex education in state primary and secondary schools. It can be
argued that education reflects the dominant politics of a society’s
institutions and that sex education reflects the sexual politics
of those institutions. In the 1980s (and it is regrettably still
true at the start of a new century), sex education was meant to
both construct and confirm the categories of ‘normal’
and ‘deviant’ which it could then regulate, monitor and control.
Indeed, by the end of the decade, schools were viewed by the Right
as key sites for social engineering and social control and for the
firm application of a particularly vicious form of moral authoritarianism.
A pamphlet published by the right-wing Hillgate Group towards the
end of 1986, Whose Schools? A Radical Manifesto, argued that
children should be taught unqualified respect for ‘traditional’
family values. They had to be ‘rescued’ from ‘indoctrination in
all the fashionable causes of the Radical Left: ‘anti-racism’, ‘anti-sexism’,
‘peace education’ (which usually means CND propaganda) and even
‘anti-heterosexism’ (meaning the ‘preaching’ of homosexuality combined
with an attack on the belief that heterosexuality is ‘normal’).’
It was also in 1986 that the Government found the pretext it needed
for launching a major attack on so-called progressive sex education
policies. This came in the form of a whipped-up controversy over
the alleged use by teachers of a picture book from Denmark called
Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin. This had been published
in Copenhagen without any fuss in 1981, and first appeared in this
country in an English translation in December 1983. It attempted
to present a positive image of a young gay couple bringing up a
five-year-old girl, the daughter of Martin.
Writing recently in The Guardian (31 January 2000), the
book’s author Suzanne Bosche says she was devastated to find herself
‘embroiled in a British political issue’, with one of her children’s
books becoming ‘a weapon in a war over the teaching of sexuality
It was absolutely shocking to see the book vilified as homosexual
propaganda in the British press back in 1986 and I am shocked to
find the same thing happening (to a lesser degree) again now. I
feel angry that my intentions in writing this little book – namely
to give children a little more knowledge about the world – have
been twisted by grown-up people who choose to use it as a weapon
in a political battle …. For what it’s worth, I don’t personally
think that homosexuality … should be aggressively promoted in schools,
but I do think it should be talked about in an informative, unsensational
way. And one way of doing that is by making books like mine available
to children in schools and libraries – as is done in Denmark – and
by letting teachers and parents be prepared to answer questions
without unnecessary drama.
The manufactured hysteria caused by the ‘discovery’ of Jenny
Lives with Eric and Martin in a London Teachers’ Centre (not,
as was widely reported, in a London primary school) came at a time
when a new Education Bill was making its way through Parliament.
In the House of Lords, a number of Conservative peers demanded urgent
action on sex education in secondary schools, claiming that the
kind of teaching which condoned homosexuality as a ‘valid’ alternative
to heterosexuality was not only undermining traditional family
life and encouraging divorce, but was also linked with the increase
in rapes, attacks on children and sexual crime in general. The panic
engendered by the spread of HIV/AIDS was used to justify a ‘Christian-heterosexual’
approach to morality and an attack on gay ‘lifestyles’. In the words
of Baroness Cox, a prominent member of the Hillgate Group: ‘I cannot
imagine how on earth in this age of AIDS, we can be contemplating
promoting gay issues in the curriculum. I think that it beggars
It was the 1986 Education Act which removed responsibility for
school sex education from local education authorities and placed
it for the first time in the hands of school governors – an obvious
attempt to provide sex education with supposedly ‘conservative’
From 1986 onwards, there was an obsession, both at government level
and in the popular press, with the traditional family values that
sex education was expected to promote. In the run-up to the 1987
General Election, blatant prejudice against homosexuals became a
commonplace populist theme; and this prejudice was used to give
further emotive force to the criticisms of all educational
equal opportunities programmes. The popular misrepresentation of
local authority policies on homosexuality (though the number of
such policies was very small indeed) had the added advantage of
smearing all equal opportunities policies as ‘loony’ by connection.
Once the General Election had been won, Margaret Thatcher made
use of the 1987 Conservative Party Conference to launch her own
personal attack on what she viewed as ‘extremist’ practices by a
number of ‘hard-Left’ schools and local authorities. Prominent among
her list of unacceptable practices was the accusation that children
who needed to be taught to respect ‘traditional moral values’ were
being taught that they had ‘an inalienable right to be gay’.
The final expression of the Government’s authoritarian agenda was
Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act. This laid down that
a local authority shall not:
1. intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with
the intention of promoting homosexuality;
2. promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability
of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.
It was soon realised (and this is a point many commentators continue
to overlook) that these clauses were not, in fact, aimed at the
right target. What the sponsors of Section 28 failed to appreciate
was that the 1986 Education Act had already removed sex education
in schools from the control of local authorities – a fact which
the Government itself was forced to concede in a rarely-cited Department
of the Environment Circular published in May 1988:
Responsibility for sex education in schools continues to rest
with school governing bodies, by virtue of Section 18 of the Education
(No. 2) Act of 1986. Section 28 of the Local Government Act of 1988
does not affect the activities of these school governors, nor of
teachers. It will not prevent the objective discussion of homosexuality
in the classroom, nor the counselling of students concerned about
Nevertheless, Section 28 was a key cultural and symbolic
event in the recent history of sexual politics in this country.
By creating a climate of paranoia and fear around the provision
of sex education in schools, it played an important role in undermining
the confidence and professionalism of teachers. The very ambiguity
of the phrase ‘the promotion of homosexuality’ had the effect of
constructing teachers as the potential ‘corrupters’ of their students
and of preventing them from engaging in frank and honest debate
out of fear of losing their jobs.
The arrival in May 1997 of a Labour government with a huge Commons
majority appeared to signal the early repeal of Section 28. This
reform has, after all, been a long-standing Labour commitment with
the support of the vast majority of Labour MPs.
Things, however, have not gone according to plan. Since the start
of this year, the whole affair has been badly handled, with clear
signs of government prevarication in the face of strong opposition
from the main religious bodies and large sections of the Conservative
Party. It has even been suggested that in the event of repeal, new
guidelines will be issued which could amount to a reintroduction
of Section 28 ‘through the back door’.
By contrast, the supporters of Section 28 have not proved willing
to modify their views. On 7 February, the Government suffered a
major defeat in the House of Lords when the peers voted by 210 votes
to 165, a majority of 45, to keep the measure on the statute book.
Most Tory peers, some cross-benchers and a few Labour rebels supported
the wrecking amendment by Baroness Young, a former Tory Leader of
the Lords, to retain Section 28. Baroness Young’s campaign had been
backed by a number of prominent church leaders including Dr George
Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Cardinal Thomas Winning,
leader of Scotland’s Roman Catholics. Dr Jonathan Sacks, the Chief
Rabbi, and leading Muslims, including Lord Ahmed, the Labour peer,
also opposed repeal.
Baroness Young herself made her position perfectly clear in her
uncompromising contribution to the House of Lords debate:
I believe that there is not a moral equivalence between heterosexual
and homosexual relationships. I believe that we need to set in front
of children an ideal by which they should live.
In supporting repeal, Lord Alli, the only openly gay peer, was
This is indeed a debate about morality. For me it is about the
morality of hate. I believe that that hate exists because we teach
our children to hate. Repeal of Section 28 would be a true test
of our moral courage.
It cannot be stated too often that the debate about Section 28
has never been about ‘promoting’ any kind of sexuality over another,
at least from the reformers’ point of view. The idea that gay and
lesbian teachers were seriously concerned to ‘promote’ homosexuality
over and above any other sexual orientation was always a myth perpetuated
by Tory ministers and a number of irresponsible right-wing newspapers.
What many teachers would like to feel free to ‘promote’ is the acceptability
not the superiority of the homosexual lifestyle (though the
use of this term is itself problematic since it implies something
‘chosen’, like a fashion accessory).
The issues at stake were neatly summarised in a finely-crafted
Observer editorial at the end of January:
Teachers have no wish to be in the business of ‘promoting’ any
kind of sexuality, or family structure, over another. Section 28
was never about ‘promotion’ in this sense – it was all about stopping
teachers from even talking about same-sex relationships as real,
and serious, parts of the world for which children were being prepared.
The reason for ditching Section 28 is to allow children to be taught
about the real world, a world in which moral values such as commitment,
fidelity, care and responsibility are more important than ever,
but are not attached exclusively to the marriage contract (The Observer,
30 January 2000).
We are told that teachers will be instructed that they have no
role in promoting any sexual orientation, as part of the new guidelines
for sex and relationship classes to be published at Easter. But
in an apparent contradiction, teachers will be warned not to pass
judgement on individual sexuality, while at the same time emphasising
marriage and the value of family life. The Government is apparently
into the ‘promotion’ business itself.
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