April 11, 2013

IconSection 28 – a Thatcher legacy

Some memories, no matter how insignificant they might sound to others, never leave you.  I like to affectionately call these ‘elephant events’, in honour of those gorgeous creatures which, apparently, never forget.  I’m going to share one of my ‘elephant events’ with you now. 

Last year I was sitting in the staff work room at my previous school, marking some essays and generally minding my own business.  Suddenly, from over my shoulder, came the dulcet tones of a colleague from my department:

“Sue, do you think I can show this video to my Year 7 class?”

I turned around, half interested now, to see said colleague in front of a computer; playing on the monitor was Katy Perry’s ‘Fireworks’ video.  The rest of the conversation went something like this:

Colleague: I’m using the song to teach my class about similes and metaphors, and I wanted to use the video to get the kids interested.

Me: That sounds wicked (I might have said ‘awesome’ instead of ‘wicked’; knowing me it would definitely have been one of those two.  Anyway, I digress); what’s the problem?

Colleague: Well, there’s a scene in it with two women kissing.

Me: (a bit bemused) What, are they, like, stark naked and shagging?

Colleague: No.  They’re fully clothed.  Just kissing.  But I’m worried that parents will complain.

Me: These kids are 11 or 12 years old.  They will have seen people kissing before.

Colleague:  But…(in a voice that is desperately trying to think of a diplomatic way to put the next bit) they’re both women.  It’s a lesbian kiss (she didn’t say ‘lesbian’, she mouthed it).

Me:  [insert name here], if it was a heterosexual kiss, would you worry? (Without even pausing for colleague to respond) Because if it wouldn’t bother you in that situation, it shouldn’t bother you in this one.  And if a parent does complain, please direct them to me, because I think that would be a perfect opportunity to educate that parent as well as their child.

“Promotion” of homosexuality

Needless to say, the conversation ground to a halt there.  Just in case you were wondering, my colleague did show the video and no-one complained.  However, rewind this event back to the late 80s or indeed the whole of the 90s, and that teacher would have been in direct violation of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988.  Her ‘violation’, as declared by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government of the time, would have been “the promotion of homosexuality”.

Now, to me, that sounds ridiculous.  For a start, the colleague in question is by far the straightest woman I’ve ever come across; if I were to pick someone to proclaim the beauty and wonder of being a lesbian, it certainly wouldn’t be her.  Secondly, I take serious issue with the word “promotion”.  As you’ve probably guessed, I am a lesbian.  I have embraced the ‘lifestyle’ of fancying and going out with women whole-heartedly and, since coming out as a teenager, I haven’t looked back.  It’s fair to say that I am loving being a lady-lover.

However, that’s my life.  It’s fine for me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be for anyone else.  Not once, in the whole time I have been out, have I ever considered “promoting” the ‘lesbian lifestyle’ (if indeed that concept even exists, which it doesn’t).  “Come on kids, get yourselves gay!  It’s brilliant!  It’s much better than heterosexuality, and if you sign up for at least 12 weeks, and recommend a friend, you’ll get a free toaster!”  What a ridiculous notion.

David Wilshire - 'founder' of Section 28

But, the fact still remains that section 28 legislation had a massive impact on thousands of lives and changed both the educational landscape and that of local government as a whole.  In local authority run establishments across the land, gay support groups were shut down, funding totally removed, in case the support of a minority group were to be viewed as a “promotion” of ‘their lifestyle’.  And, of course, this lack of support couldn’t have come at a better time for the LGBT community, because this destruction of all auxiliary networks coincided beautifully with the demonisation of gay men due to the AIDS/HIV epidemic that was splashed all over the news at the time.

I was only 6 when this happened.

I was unaware of David Wilshire MP’s disdainful statement that the book he had found in his local library, Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin, “portrays a child living with two men … [and] clearly shows that as an acceptable family relationship”.

I was unaware of the 1987 speech made by Margaret Thatcher at the Conservative Party conference when she declared that, “children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay”.

I was unaware of the despair and anguish that must have been caused to the entire LGBT community and the resulting formation of Stonewall (possibly the one positive thing to come out of Section 28).

LGBT rights group Stonewall formed as a result of Section 28 being passed

School days under Section 28

But I did start school in 1987 and finished my GCSEs in 1999.  In other words, the entirety of my education was completed under Section 28 legislation.  And, as a teacher now, I can still see the echoes of that legislation in schools today.

My overriding memory of being in school is that being gay didn’t exist.  It wasn’t frowned upon, it wasn’t derided, it just… wasn’t.  Nobody ever spoke about it.  The main outcome of this for me was that, when I started having sexual feelings towards women, probably at about the age of 10 or 11, I had no idea what the hell was going on.  I didn’t know anyone who was gay, or bisexual, and certainly not transgender, and I wasn’t really aware of any gay role models on television (my joy, by the way, when a couple of years later I discovered kd lang was unadulterated; I fell in love instantly).  In short, I didn’t have anywhere to go for information or advice and so I just kept quiet, hoped the feelings would go away, a bit like my liking for shell suits, and then all would be well again.

Needless to say, this didn’t happen.  I continued to experience life at school, including sex education as I went through my secondary years, none of which even went near touching upon being gay.  I knew how to avoid getting pregnant and how to avoid STDs (as long as I was straight) but as a teenage lesbian the latter information, most importantly, was completely unavailable to me.

What’s changed?

Comparing this to my experience as a teacher, the difference is clearly evident.  I have taught sex education every year of my 8 year career so far, and each time every kind of sex, gay sex included, has been discussed.  It is true that some of these discussions have incited homophobic comments from students, possibly because they have heard these views from family or other friends, but the point is that every time that happens, the opportunity to give them all the necessary information presents itself.  That way, whether the students decide to ‘agree’ with the idea that some people are gay or not, they at least have their facts straight (excuse the pun) before they make that choice.

And it’s not just sex education where these discussions come up.  Let me give you an example: I’m in a lesson giving my Year 11 class an introduction to their Shakespeare set text, Much Ado About Nothing.  As I’m sure you can guess, we’re all having unimaginable fun.  A hand goes up at the back:

Student: Miss, this play has got a lot of blokes and girls getting it on.  Wasn’t Shakespeare gay?

Me: Well, no-one’s really sure but we think he might have been bisexual.

Student:  So, gay then?

Me:  No.  Bisexual.  It’s different.  If he was gay he’d only fancy men.  If he was bisexual he’d fancy men and women.  And even if he was gay, it wouldn’t mean he couldn’t accurately write about a man and a woman falling in love.

And so the conversation sort of went on for a bit, fizzled out, and then we carried on as we were.  But I can’t imagine a scenario where I couldn’t have those discussions with kids.  No topic should ever be closed for discussion in a school, ever.  Young people need information.  The more accurate information they have on a subject, the better equipped they are to do what we really want them to do – form their own, independent ideas.

Community values

Most of all, though, young people need support.  We all do, really.  The notion of community is something that we, as human beings, are inherently drawn to.  And that, in essence, is where Maggie Thatcher fell down in her policy-making.  From Section 28 to the miner’s strikes, the idea that we can all exist independently from one another, being responsible only for ourselves and no-one else, goes against all our natural instincts.  Perhaps her theory was ‘divide and rule’?  Well, it worked for 3 elections…but thankfully no longer than that.

Thatcher - a 'divided' legacy

I’m not going to ‘Thatcher bash’ and I’m certainly not going to rejoice that an old lady, a mother and a grandmother, has died.  But I am going to be happy that Section 28, a policy that caused devastation to thousands of lives by marginalising the LGBT community and declaring that they were ‘abnormal’, has been repealed.  But then, I was happy in 2003, when that actually happened.

It’s important that we learn from Thatcher’s Premiership.  She was indeed a strong and independent leader who clearly knew her own mind.  She still remains our only female PM.  I can only presume that she wasn’t completely homophobic, because in 1967 she voted in favour of decriminalizing homosexuality.  Having said that, I can’t imagine what changed between then and the late 1980s.  Whatever it was, it wasn’t good.  I will never believe that Margaret Thatcher’s political ideology was a positive one and I can totally understand the anger of all those affected by her policies and their families.  But I also believe in affording dignity and respect to all human beings.  If you don’t want to listen to me, listen to the man who epitomises these values:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” - Martin Luther King Jr.

Thatcher’s legacy?  Teaching all of us the importance of community, of support, and of mutual respect.  As far as the LGBT community goes, she didn’t want these things; let’s mark her death by making sure they are present in all of our lives.



9 Responses to Section 28 – a Thatcher legacy

  1. Anita says:

    Nicely written. However, I disagree with the statement “nothing bad about the dead” (housewife, mother, grandmother). She managed to set back England by decades compared to the rest of Europe. It’s good that you teach your schoolchildren the diversity of human kind. The fact remains that you are a positive exeption to the rule of the general teaching culture.
    When this dark cloud called Thatcher died, people celebrated their relief but (most of them) did not do this to vent their hate.

    • Sue Curley says:

      I think you’ve got a good point. However, I would argue that celebration would have been more appropriate when Thatcher was ousted from her political post. That was a great day for Britain. Celebrating her death is more of a personal attack. But then, I perhaps have the luxury of being able to have this view as I was too young to feel directly affected at the time and I cannot, therefore, speak on behalf of anyone who probably felt personally attacked by Thatcher themselves.

  2. Jo says:

    Great article Sue. Thanks for helping me to understand a lot more about what Section 28 was and the impact it had on me at school. I am now 31 and was at school when this was in force and I could never understand why there was such little support or even acknowledgement for lgbt people. I came out at the age of 16 to a teacher at school who was rumoured to be gay. After getting together enough courage to go and confide in her she basically told me that she’d like to help me more but couldn’t because she wasn’t allowed to promote being gay and people may think she had corrupted me! I ended up speaking to the school counsellor who was much more supportive but it is so sad that the teacher I approached who would have been a great role model felt that she couldn’t help even though she wanted to. I still struggle with being openly gay now and it no-doubt stems from growing up trying to keep it a secret due to the fear of being rejected or bringing embarrassment on my family for being something that wasn’t seen as socially acceptable. Thank goodness there are teachers like you out there who are helping things to change for the better.

    • Sue Curley says:

      It’s so sad that you had that experience. I’m sure you’re not the only one but I imagine at the time it must feel like that. I’m glad the article has helped your understanding of the situation a bit. It is such a positive thing that the ridiculous legislation that caused incidents like this has gone and that kids are now able to be open. Thank you so much for your comment.

  3. Milly says:

    Wonderful article. It’s really powerful to see how the echoes of section 28 are still being felt by some teachers, and I’m glad there are more switched on ones like you around too to give the new generation of school kids a chance not to grow up homophobic!

  4. Beth says:

    Fantastic article! :o D

  5. Claire McGhee says:

    Really good article Sue, but I’d just like to make the point that the invisibility of homosexuality in schools didn’t start with Section 28. I left school for University in 1987, so had all my schooling before it came in, and homosexuality was never mentioned or acknowledged either in sex education or anywhere else. My experiences when my sexuality began to dawn on me were therefore, word for word, the same as you describe. The Section didn’t cause that, but it was part of a right-wing backlash against work being done by some progressive local authorities, mainly in London, to move things forward and open up the issue.

    I also doubt that Thatcher’s views on homosexuality altered dramatically between the decriminalisation vote and Section 28. Voting for decriminalisation was entirely consistent with her belief that the state should not interfere in the private business of individual adults more than was necessary, and decriminalisation of private behaviour was essentially what she supported. What she objected to when she brought in Section 28 was the use of public money and the influence of schools and local government to ‘promote’ the idea that homosexual ‘families’ and ‘lifestyles’ were normal and acceptable. Essentially, you can behave as immorally (as she might see it)as you like in private, but don’t advertise your morals to impressionable children as being acceptable, and don’t use taxpayers’ money to do it.

    I went on a number of protest marches against Section 28 (or Clause 28 as we first knew it) from the moment it was first proposed, and think it’s one of the enduring shames of our countries that it took as long to remove from statute as it did. As a proud Scot, I’m glad our parliament led the way, scrapping it in 2000, but it was still a long and bitter process. We need all our collective vigilance to ensure nothing similar sneaks its way onto the statute books ever again. Thank you for your article.

    • Sue Curley says:

      Claire, thank you for your comments. It’s really interesting to hear about the experiences of someone who went to school before the legislation came in; I had suspected that it was probably the case that being LGBT wasn’t discussed but you’re the first person I’ve heard from who has really confirmed that. Writing this article has made me want to do some more research into this area, from an education perspective, possibly with a follow-up article in mind.

      You’ve also got an excellent point with regards to Thatcher’s reasoning behind her vote for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. I hadn’t really thought of it that way before but it makes complete sense.

      Thank you very much again for your comments; writing articles is so much more worth it when they provoke debate and discussion.

  6. amelia says:

    Great to see this article. Sue, maybe you and others who feel inspired could get involved with Schools Out? you can join as a member here, http://www.schools-out.org.uk/?page_id=379

    Or stand for the committee,/ help the work it does, which included founding and now running LGBT History Month each year. It is all volunteer-lead and does a huge amount of work. Would be great to have you on board!

Sue Curley


Are women funny?

We were at Funny Women in Brighton attempting to find out if women are as funny as men.

June 13, 2012