Comment: The legacy of Section 28, ten years on

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Writing on the ten-year anniversary of the repeal of Section 28 in England and Wales, Tom Hayes, the editor of beyondpositive, says the law meant he was unable to receive basic advice about same-sex relationships at school.

It’s September 1999, I’m fourteen years old; I’m at high school. Less than a year ago, not long after my thirteenth birthday, I came out as gay to my friends, my family, my fellow students – everybody. It didn’t come easily but I’d felt so much better for it – I could finally be myself.

Today was the day we learnt about “the sex” at school. We’d known this was coming since before we broke up from school for summer holidays. As we all piled into the PHSE room (Personal, Social, Health and Economic education) there was a nervous but excited feeling in the air. The boys were playing the big macho image and the girls were giggling.

Our form teacher, walked into the room and pushed a VHS into the player and sat down at her desk. Here it was. I was finally going to learn about sex! I shuffled my chair closer so I could soak in the wisdom…

– A man and a woman walk into the room.

– They’re both wearing dressing gowns.

The guy is pretty hot! Oh boy they’re dropping the dressing gowns I wonder what’s underneath…

– The naked man and woman turn into drawnings before anyone can see anything.

– We get a run down of the internal and external anatomy in cartoon form.

– Back to the man and woman, they’ve got their dressing gowns back on and they’re heading to bed.

It’s going to happen! I’ll get to find out what this “sex” is!

– They shut the door.

– The woman is now pregnant and giving birth. It’s a horrible mess.

– Video ends.

That was my school sex education. I had no idea how the baby came to be. The mechanics of sex weren’t explained. There was no mention of gay people either. I wanted to raise my hand to ask what do gay men, or lesbians do? What do straight people do for that matter? The video was no help at all! But I was too shy to ask in front of all my friends and fellow students – so I let it pass.

A few days later I took my PHSE teacher aside and asked her what happens in gay sex? Is it like straight sex? How come the video didn’t talk about it? She simply said she wasn’t able to talk about it. When I pushed her on why she wasn’t able she told me that they simply weren’t allowed because of something called “Section 28″.

Section 28, also entitled “Prohibition on promoting homosexuality by teaching or by publishing material”, was intended to prevent the promotion of the “homosexual lifestyle” as a valid alternative to the traditional, heterosexual, family model. It included such clauses as: “A local authority shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure a confused fourteen year old asking how sex happens when you fancy boys and not girls doesn’t fall under the heading of promoting homosexuality – but the teachers were clearly so concerned about crossing the line that they chose not to discuss the subject at all.

Another clause of Section 28 states “Nothing in subsection (1) above shall be taken to prohibit the doing of anything for the purpose of treating or preventing the spread of disease”. I received no warning or advice about HIV at school, in fact I received no education about sexually transmitted infections at all. The straight kids were given the message that sex is for procreation in a monogamous relationship – in that model STIs aren’t a big worry, but that’s not real life for most teenagers – and especially not a confused gay teenager.

Fast forward eleven years and you have me receiving my HIV diagnosis, after nine years of getting various STIs – all because my school and my teachers, the people supposed to prepare me for life, felt unable or unwilling to do so because of a piece of legislation passed by right wing homophobes in 1986.

Section 28′s legacy is felt throughout the country, in people who ended up pregnant, with an STI, confused and ashamed about their sexuality or even, like me, HIV positive. Ten years on and the bill remains repealed, but the hurt done remains too.

Over the past few years we’ve seen a incredible number of free schools and academies open across the United Kingdom, with their independent status comes freedom with regards to the way they teach certain subjects – and sex education is one of them. There have been several reports of schools dropping topics like LGBT relationships, STIs and contraception – some dropping sex education all together.

Are you worried? Because I am.

This article was first published by beyondpositive

It’s editor, Tom Hayes, tweets @UKPositiveLad