As his new book exploring Section 28 is released, Paul Baker discusses the legacy of the anti-gay piece of legislation
In 1988, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government enacted Section 28, a cruel, ambiguous and confused piece of legislation that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities. No one really understood its scope – especially the right-wing bigots who lobbied for it – but it effectively prevented teachers from mentioning queer relationships in sex education classes. It also made them less likely to intervene when they saw a student being subjected to homophobic bullying.
In his brilliant new book Outrageous! The Story of Section 28 and Battle for Britain’s LGBT Education, Paul Baker explores the social and cultural backdrop that led to Section 28 being cooked up in the Tory cauldron. Aided by the right-wing media, anti-gay campaigners were able to spread the highly misleading idea that “loony left” Labour councils were trying to “teach” gay sex in schools. As the 1980s rattled on, this ill-informed moral panic was intensified by growing ignorance surrounding the HIV/Aids epidemic. In a 1987 opinion poll, 75 per cent of Brits said homosexuality was either always or sometimes wrong. However, Baker’s book also tells a much more positive story. By 2003, Section 28 had been repealed in England, Wales and Scotland following sustained campaigns by various LGBTQ+ rights groups. Baker delves just as deeply into what made their lobbying so effective – and often so witty.
Baker, who is Professor of English Language at Lancaster University, has a keen ear for the accidental camp absurdity of the era’s anti-gay campaigners. He likens Baroness Young – a vehement defender of Section 28 who made pompous proclamations like “I do not believe there is any human right to commit buggery” – to a hammy pantomime villain. The result is a book that undercuts their histrionic moral righteousness with humour, but doesn’t let anyone off the hook. It’s shocking to read that when a precursor to Section 28 was debated in 1986, speakers in the House of Lords felt able to describe queer people as “sad and lonely”, “handicapped” and “disabled sexually”.
Here, Baker discusses what he learned about Section 28, and what we as the LGBTQ+ community and allies can learn from it now.
What was the impact on queer kids who grew up under the shadow of Section 28?
Paul Baker: It was just awful. I think all the homophobic bullying in schools at the time would have happened anyway – Section 28 was a symptom of that rather than the cause. But essentially Section 28 validated this existing homophobia and did absolutely nothing to ameliorate it. Because you couldn’t talk about being gay in school, lots of children were scared of it, and it stopped teachers who may have wanted to call out homophobic bullying from feeling like they could step in. If kids grew up in households where they were hearing homophobic language, they could go into school and repeat that language without being challenged. So it led to a couple of generations experiencing even worse homophobic bullying than they would have done anyway. It threw more oil on the fire.
When did you realise there was a lot of accidental camp baked into this story? In the book, you include a truly ludicrous Conservative election advert featuring Betty Sheridan, a woman from Haringey who says she’s “scared” that “if you vote LABOUR they’ll go on teaching my kids about GAYS & LESBIANS instead of giving them proper lessons”.
Paul Baker: I guess I could have written a very straight, serious book about Section 28, or an angry book. And I did get quite annoyed when I started working on it – I had to put it aside for a week or so, then come back to it. But as I was reading all the negative stuff that people were saying [about queer people] at the time, the dramatic potential of it came through and so did the inherent silliness. I suppose it was almost like a coping strategy: to see the camp in this awful story and kind of tease it out. I didn’t want to attack people again for things they said and did over 30 years, so I suppose being able to laugh at all the stupid things they said and did, often out of ignorance, seemed like a better approach.
Did you see similarities between the way the right-wing media reported on gay rights in the 80s and the way certain portions of the media report on trans issues now?
Paul Baker: Definitely. In both cases you see activists being painted as “militants” who don’t represent all gay or all trans people; there’s this idea that they’re pushing for things that are dangerous or unreasonable in some way. And in both cases you also see this “they want your children” narrative which is incredibly harmful too. But it’s interesting that when you look back at the people who campaigned against Section 28, not all of them are supportive of trans issues now. I have students who are non-binary or trans and I hear about what’s happening in their lives and how hard things can be for them sometimes. So I think it’s a real missed opportunity that some people who went through Section 28 have come out the other side and decided that trans people shouldn’t have the same rights as everyone else. It’s terrible, actually. Learning is a continuous thing – you’ve got to keep making sure that you’re empathetic. There’s never a point where it stops, and you should always be prepared to have your views challenged and learn from what other people are telling you.
In 2022, do you think there’s any danger of anything remotely Section 28-like being tabled by right-wing campaigners, perhaps to prevent the “promotion” of trans awareness?
Paul Baker: With lesbian, gay and bisexual people, there’s so much positive representation now that I don’t think we could ever get to the stage where 75 per cent of people [in the UK] could say they were against us. But with other, more marginalised queer groups, I could see potential for that, so there’s definitely a need to stay vigilant. It’s also interesting to look at what happened in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham a couple of years ago, where there were protests outside schools because a message of LGBTQ equality was being taught in the classroom. So it feels like there are still pockets in the UK where this kind of mindset exists: they’re getting smaller and smaller, but they’re still there, and we should always keep that in mind.
Section 28 isn’t something we can reclaim, partly because it rightly looks like a relic in 2022. But are there any positives we can draw from this story?
Paul Baker: Well, at the end of the book I try to draw on what activists told me about Section 28 and turn it into the story of their courage and refusal to be told they were second-class citizens. I think we can view Section 28 as something that kind of backfired for the [Thatcher] government. Yes, they got it passed and maybe it helped them win an election they probably would have won anyway. But what it ultimately did was politicise a lot of people who weren’t political before. And that in turn fuelled the growth of the LGBTQ rights movement. So maybe without it we wouldn‘t have got things like equal marriage or an equal age of consent (for men who sleep with men) quite so quickly. It’s hard to know, but we have a lot more freedoms in 2022 – things aren’t perfect, but they’re much better than I think people would have predicted in 1988. So some good came out of it, and that’s because of the LGBTQ’s response. I would say that the story of Section 28 is ultimately a triumph of love over hate.
Outrageous! The Story of Section 28 and Britain’s Battle for LGBT Education by Paul Baker is out now