April 11, 2013
Section 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mike Freer HoC speech on gay marriage
Mike Freer, Conservative MP for Finchley and Golders Green, gives a speech in the House of Commons in favour of same sex marriage proposals.
February 5, 2013