After The Act is the daring Section 28 musical with abseiling lesbians and a dragged-up Thatcher

After The Act Section 28 Thatcher

Section 28, which prevented the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools, ended 20 years ago. New musical After The Act is highlighting how its painful legacy is still felt in schools today.

The introduction of Section 28, a 1988 piece of Tory legislation that banned local authorities and schools from “promoting” homosexuality, doesn’t naturally lend itself as source material for a camp, glitzy musical.

How do you capture years of silence and stigma, and turn it into an all-singing, all-dancing stage production?

“That was literally the mess of the show,” says Ellice Stevens, the co-founder of Breach, a multimedia performance theatre company. “It was the hardest show we’ve ever made.”

For the last few weeks, Stevens and co-writer Billy Barrett have been running After The Act, a new show about the implications and aftermath of Section 28. It’s named after the June 1988 benefit gala “Before The Act“, which was staged at London’s Piccadilly Theatre by lesbian theatre group 20th Century Vixen and Sir Ian McKellen in protest against the legislation’s passing.

Through verbatim interviews with the teachers, students and activists who lived through Section 28 and set to 80s synth music, After The Act aims to highlight how preventing schools from discussing homosexuality impacted a generation of queer educators and their young pupils.

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“Section 28 basically stole the opportunity for teachers to be role models and have very vital conversations with students that needed it,” Stevens explains.

Both in their early thirties, Stevens and Barrett were entering secondary school when the act was repealed in November 2003, almost 20 years ago.

Yet many teachers interviewed by the pair for the show say the silence imposed by the act lasted for years after it was wiped from the statute books, leaving a whole other generation without an understanding of their sexuality

“Nobody really let schools know that it had come to an end,” Stevens adds. “It just kind of fizzled out. I think people were still really scared about what they could and couldn’t do.”

“The media discourse around trans rights is being re-run in a way that feels eerily reminiscent of Section 28”

The result, unsurprisingly, was shame and misinformation. Stevens says she only ever heard one reference to homosexuality while at school, which was “riddled” with harmful falsehoods. She came out in her late twenties, and attributes that to the dearth of nuanced discussions about sexuality during her school years.

In putting the show together, Barrett and Stevens spent months scouring archives to learn about Section 28 and how it came about. It was evident that hysteria had been whipped up following the discovery of Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, reportedly the first children’s book about homosexuality, in a school library in London.

In addition, Barrett says that the moral panic around the AIDS pandemic in the ‘80s extended into the 90s and early noughties, creating a particularly “grim” time for young people growing up queer.

Yet, what their research showed is how “terrifyingly current” the language of the 80s feels today.

“A lot of the media discourse around trans rights, particularly in schools, the idea of child protection is being re-run in a way that feels eerily reminiscent of what happened around Section 28,” Barrett says.

Right-wing scaremongering has once again led to trans children being targeted and their schools becoming battlegrounds over their very existence.

For Barrett though, the endless discourse around trans rights is just the “tip of the iceberg”.

“We spoke to teachers who run LGBTQ+ groups, and they spoke about how those groups are monitored”

“I think the the level of respectability and rights that we have is very precarious”, he says. “All of the views that were held around Section 28 about protecting kids from gay relationships – I think a lot of people still hold those views, and I think we’re dangerously close to that being opened up again.”

The narrative around Section 28 always confines it to the history books, as though it was a dark period in British history that we have since moved past.

Interviewing teachers for After The Act, though, Barrett and Stevens found that shame and secrecy around discussing LGBTQ+ issues in schools is actually worsening.

“We spoke to teachers who run LGBTQ+ groups at lunchtime, and they spoke about how those groups are monitored in ways that other school clubs aren’t,” says Stevens. “There’s still such a fear. [One teacher] said that in a training session, the language of ‘you can’t promote homosexuality’ was literally used.”

A still from Breach Theatre's After The Act.
After The Act also shines a light on how Section 28 impacts the teachers of today. (Alex Brenner)

If teachers are struggling to have open conversations about sexuality and gender identity, Barrett and Stevens fear for how queer students today are engaging with the issues. “We’ve come so far,” says Stevens, “but it still feels like people are so scared”.

Section 28’s history and legacy is a heavy topic to cover in a musical, let alone while trying to reflect its relevance in today’s society. Where does the fun come in?

“There’s definitely elements of it that are embracing high camp in quite a fun way,” says Barrett.

He mentions how Stevens appears in the show as a dragged-up Margaret Thatcher in a “comedy take down” of her infamous homophobic speech about children being taught they have an “inalienable right to be gay”.

Ellice Stevens as Margaret Thatcher in Section 28 show After The Act.
Ellice Stevens is a dragged-up Margaret Thatcher in After The Act. (Alex Brenner)

Then there’s the 80s-inspired music, the “groovy” choreography, and the fact it’s a queer cast and crew, too, which allows for “a lot of joy” to be found in the rehearsal room.

“What the show is doing is moving between these different modes of high performance that allow us to look back and laugh,” Barrett says, “and then really chilling and sharp moments of realising the impact this has had.”

After The Act is on stage at the New Diorama Theatre in Camden, London until Saturday 1 April.