34 years since Thatcher’s Section 28 came into law and LGBTQ+ people are still under attack

Margaret Thatcher

It has been 34 years since Section 28 came into law, banning the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools and by local authorities.

On 24 May, 1988, the discriminatory law came into effect, emboldening anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment as the AIDS epidemic continued to ravage the queer community.

Section 28 remained in place until 2000 in Scotland – and until 2003 in England and Wales – meaning countless queer young people were left in the dark, unable to access vital information to better understand their identities.

The clause – an amendment to the Local Government Act 1988 – was a direct response to the ever-worsening AIDS crisis, and to calls from gay and lesbian campaigners for equality. Instead of responding with empathy, the government opted to push queer people even further into the margins – an approach best captured by then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher in her now infamous 1987 Conservative Party conference speech, which was met with rapturous applause.

“Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay,” Thatcher said.

“All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life. Yes, cheated.”

Section 28 allowed homophobia to run rampant through Britain’s schools

When Section 28 was enacted on May 24, 1988, it marked the dawn of a dark new era for LGBTQ+ children, those from queer families, and Britain’s LGBTQ+ community at large.

Teachers were forbidden from informing children about LGBTQ+ people and same-sex relationships, meaning homophobia against both pupils and staff grew out of ignorance.

Councils were prohibited from funding books, plays, leaflets, films or other materials showing same-sex relationships, and LGBTQ+ youth support groups up and down the nation were shuttered.

Section 28 became law against a backdrop of fear-mongering and misinformation about queer people – much of it spread by leading political figures of the day.

In the lead-up to the 1988 general election, the Conservative Party whipped up fear and hatred, issuing posters claiming that the Labour Party wanted LGBTQ+ friendly books like Young, Gay and Proud and The Milkman’s on His Way to be read in schools.

The law itself was introduced shortly after the election, and was based on a prior amendment by the Earl of Halsbury that had stalled months before.

Its journey through parliament was met with some of the largest and most memorable displays of queer protest in history.

On February 20, 1988, some 20,000 queer people marched through Manchester city centre against what they recognised as an existential threat – one of the most well-attended LGBTQ+ demonstrations ever held in the UK.

Days later, as the bill passed in the House of Lords, a group of four lesbians abseiled into the chamber. It made national news broadcasts and to this day remains one of the most notorious acts of protest in British history.

Lesbians frustrated the establishment again the night before Section 28 became law, storming the BBC’s live broadcast of the Six O’Clock News wearing “Stop the Clause” t-shirts.

One woman chained herself to a camera, the other to the news desk.

Despite the best efforts of LGBTQ+ activists, Section 28 was passed into law, plunging an entire generation of LGBTQ+ people into darkness. A year after it was enacted, the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall was officially founded to fight the reviled legislation.

David Cameron – who voted against the repeal of Section 28 in 2003 – apologised for the hateful law in 2009, shortly before he became prime minister.

He condemned the law as “offensive to gay people” and admitted that his own record on gay rights was not “perfect”.

After the repeal of Section 28, the UK entered into something of a golden age for LGBTQ+ rights. The Gender Recognition Act was passed in 2004, giving trans people the right to legal gender recognition for the first time, while couples were allowed to enter into civil partnerships for the first time in 2005.

Finally, same-sex marriage became a reality in England, Scotland and Wales in 2014, while Northern Ireland joined its UK counterparts in 2020.

Up until 2015, the UK was considered a world leader on LGBTQ+ rights. Each year, ILGA-Europe publishes a Rainbow Map showing where LGBTQ+ rights are progressing and regressing across the continent.

LGBTQ+ rights in 2022

The UK was named the best country for LGBTQ+ rights every year up until 2015 – but it has been in freefall ever since as the country grapples with tired, harmful debates around whether trans people should be allowed to self-identify or use toilets that correspond with their gender identity.

In the most recent Rainbow Map, the UK finished in 14th place with a score of just 53 per cent, showing in very real terms that the LGBTQ+ community is no longer a legislative priority.

Meanwhile, the UK government continues to stall on banning conversion therapy. Theresa May’s government first promised legislative action in 2018, but to this day, no bill has been advanced.

Most recently, Downing Street confirmed that it will proceed with a conversion therapy ban that excludes trans people and so-called “consenting” adults. The prime minister has faced resounding criticism from LGBTQ+ organisations for bowing down to anti-trans organisations who have argued against banning conversion practices for trans people.

Elsewhere, the UK government faced condemnation for its refusal to reform the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) – despite the fact that it is now painfully outdated.

In the background, senior Cabinet ministers have used their platforms to make insensitive, derogatory comments about trans people. In April, health secretary Sajid Javid was criticised when he suggested some trans people could be transitioning because they have been victims of child sexual abuse or bullying.

In the 34 years since Section 28 came into law, LGBTQ+ rights have advanced significantly – but it’s now abundantly clear that progress has not only stalled, it’s actively going backwards.

A rapid policy turnabout is needed if the UK is to avoid repeating its devastating, harmful history of persecuting and erasing LGBTQ+ people.