Protesters who fought Thatcher’s Section 28 explain what we can still learn from vile law today

On 24 May 1988, 34 years ago to the day, under Margret Thatcher’s Conservative leadership, Section 28 was enacted in England, Scotland and Wales.

The legislation prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality‘, making it illegal for schools to present homosexuality as an appropriate orientation to their students or for local authorities to publish any material with the intention of promoting homosexuality.

In doing so, Section 28 reinforced a culture war between the LGBTQ+ community and the government at the time.

LGBTQ-inclusive education was already unheard of schools, but the legislation ensured that it was not even an option, reinforcing homophobic ideology across Britain.

The LGBTQ+ community of the 80s and 90s did not take Thatcher’s decision to implement Section 28 lightly. During the 13 years that legislation was in place, thousands of queer people and allies alike joined together in multiple protests across the UK. Their intention was to have their voices heard, united in condemning the hateful and discriminatory nature of the act.

Matthew Hodson, executive director of charity aidsmap, was one of these protesters taking part in demonstrations across the UK.

“Homosexuality and LGBTQ+ rights had become a political battleground,” the London-born Hodson told PinkNews.

“Unusually for the time, it was a law which attacked lesbians as much as it attacked gay men. Most legal inequalities – not all, but most – were against gay men. The age of consent laws, for example, didn’t mention lesbian women – but this one did.”

Hodson joined in a number of marches against Section 28 in the 80s and 90s in cities including London and Leeds. It was a demonstration in Manchester, however, that he recalls as being a stand out memory.

Starting at Manchester Town Hall on 20 February 1988, the furious march against Section 28 involved around 20,000 people. For its era, it was regarded as being one of the largest LGBTQ+ rights demonstrations to take place in Europe.

“20,000 people might be seen as pretty small by modern standards, but at the time, to have that many people turn up for a protest of this sort was extraordinary,” Hodson said.

“Being part of that crowd, and suddenly finding yourself surrounded by people who are LGBTQ+ or LGBTQ-affirmative, is a very emotional moment. I think many young gay people grow up feeling very isolated and alone.

“So to be part of a movement that was so powerful and large was incredibly moving.”

During his time demonstrating against Section 28 with the help of a group of friends, Hodson was also responsible for painting pink triangles all over Fleet Street in 1988.

A worldwide symbol of queer resistance and solidarity, he did so in protest against the UK tabloids’ use of homophobic language when referring to gay people, including the use of slurs like ‘pervert’ or ‘poofter’.

Reflecting on his own experience and LGBTQ+ activism in the present day, Hodson said: “I think it’s important that we should never be complacent.

“If you pay attention to history you can see that rights get taken away just as quickly as they’re granted.

“At times of liberation, it’s very easy to think that the rights we have gained now are permanent and sacred – but they’re not. It’s important not to underestimate the scale of the risk we face.”

Section 28 protests helped the public become ‘familiar’ with LGBTQ+ people

Nico Macdonald, an educator, facilitator and consultant from Kent, also took part in protests against Section 28.

Keen to show solidarity towards those being discriminated against by the legislation, in 1988 Macdonald was involved in organising an anti-Section 28 demonstration outside Harringay Town Hall in London.

He recalled protesters showing their support by attending the demonstration with banners.

“During this era, the family was very important to social and political life,” he said. “Because the Conservative government regarded the traditional nuclear family as being foundational to society, homosexuality was seen as challenging that.

“From my time protesting, I learnt that people change their views as a result of familiarity. The less something is politicised, the more likely people are to change their attitudes. Politicising differences always leads to greater division.”

LGBTQ+ Pride in London, July 1998, as protesters call for the scrapping of Section 28. (Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

While spending time campaigning, Macdonald would sell newspapers on the street, giving him the chance to interact with the general public and explain the importance of supporting LGBTQ+ rights.

He suggests that this is one piece of advice he would give to contemporary protesters.

“I think protesting these days is a good tool for media discussion, raising profiles and putting politicians on the spot – but in many ways, it jumps the process of arguing with our fellow citizens about why they should support and campaign for something,” he said.

“My advice to protesters would be if you believe in something, have an argument with everyday people about it. That’s the way we’ve tended to make progress in the past.”

After 13 years, Section 28 was repealed in Scotland in 2000. England and Wales followed suit three years later.

Although the protests of the 80s and 90s did not see Section 28 scrapped sooner, Hodson recalls their impact as playing a part in something just as important.

“The protests help build the LGBTQ+ rights movement,” he said.

“When we started out we could call it ‘gay rights’. Then we called it ‘lesbian and gay rights’. Then we adopted LGBT and now we’re the LGBTQ+ community.

“That was absolutely the right direction for us to go in.”