The Story of Section 28 and Britain’s Battle for LGBT Education
Distributed for Reaktion Books
The Story of Section 28 and Britain’s Battle for LGBT Education
On May 23, 1988, Paul Baker sat down with his family to eat cake on his sixteenth birthday while The Six O’Clock News played in the background. But something was not quite right. There was muffled shouting—“Stop Section 28!”—and a scuffle. The papers would announce: “Beeb Man Sits on Lesbian.”
The next day Section 28 passed into UK law, forbidding local authorities from the teaching “of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” It would send shockwaves through British society: silencing gay pupils and teachers, while galvanizing mass protests and the formation of the LGBTQ+ rights groups OutRage! and Stonewall.
Outrageous! tells its story: the background to the Act, how the press fanned the flames and what politicians said during debates, how protestors fought back to bring about the repeal of the law in the 2000s, and its eventual legacy. Based on detailed research, interviews with key figures—including Ian McKellen, Michael Cashman, and Angela Mason—and personal recollection, Outrageous! is an impassioned, warm, often moving account of unthinkable prejudice enshrined within the law and of the power of community to overcome it.
336 pages | 36 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2
History: British and Irish History
“I loved Baker's previous book, Fabulosa!. Now he has written this engaging history of Section 28, the act that forbade local authorities from teaching ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretend family relationship.’ Interweaving elements of memoir, it charts how the press fanned the flames around the act, and how protestors fought to bring about the repeal of the law in the 2000s.”
“An important and fascinating deep dive into one of the most damaging pieces of legislation in modern history.”
Matthew Todd, author of “Straight Jacket” and “Pride”
“A surprising, smart, funny, and beautifully written book. Equal parts memoir and cultural history, it tells a detailed and deeply personal story of grassroots LGBT activism and everyday queer life in the United Kingdom over the past thirty years.”
Jason Baumann, editor of “The Stonewall Reader”
“Blowing the lid off a circus of sanctimony with flair, enormous heart, and an eye for the absurd, this indispensable history reads like a madcap caper—reaffirming Baker as an expert malarkey decoder, hope detector amid calamity rubble, and dab had at the queer deep dive.”
Jeremy Atherton Lin, author of “Gay Bar"
“The entirely pleasing thought that Outrageous! will be stocked in school libraries is a satisfying slap in the face to the battle-bus of bigots who thought Section 28 was a good idea in the first place. . . . A lovely conversational social history.”
Paul Flynn, author of “Good As You”
I turned sixteen on 23 May 1988. In the UK, sixteen is a magical cut-off age signifying entrance into adulthood. In 1988, at the age of sixteen you could leave school without parental permission, get married, join the armed forces and have sex, as long as it was with someone of the opposite sex.
This year represented the triumph of the Conservative government in terms of its project to standardize education. They’d just passed a new law called the 1988 Education Reform Act, which created something called the ‘national curriculum’. This covered around 87 per cent of children in the UK, ensuring they were taught the same things and had the same targets. On top of that, a new type of exam for sixteen-year-olds had been introduced, the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education). It replaced the more complicated system of O Levels and CSEs, which had sometimes disadvantaged pupils who were entered for the wrong kind of exam.
My age cohort was the first one to sit these GCSEs and I was deep in revision of quadratic equations when I was called downstairs to attend my birthday party, which consisted of my mother, my twelve-year-old sister Helen, my Nanna Cochrane, my Great-Aunt Ethel and her neurotic black poodle Mimsy (my father was at work). As is the case in many working-class households, the television was rarely turned off, so we sat watching the end of Neighbours on our lime-green three-piece suite (bought in 1973) while my mother sliced the birthday cake in the background. I was too old for candles and ‘Happy Birthday to You’ so we were simply handed generous slabs on plates. Neighbours ended and then the news came on. A clipped, confident male voice declared, ‘The Six O’Clock News from the BBC. With Sue Lawley and Nicholas Witchell.’ Nick was shown on the telephone as the opening credits played. Then Sue spoke. ‘Good evening, the headlines at six o’clock.’
But something was not quite right.
In the background a muffled woman’s voice repeatedly shouted something that sounded like ‘Stop Section 28!’ As Sue read the headlines over various clips of news footage (the Lords’ vote on the poll tax, changes to nursing, the collapse of a football hooliganism court case, a glimpse inside the Soviet Army, a Reagan–Gorbachev summit meeting, cones on the roads) there were sounds of a scuffle happening off-screen. The shouting woman’s voice seemed to have been suppressed as if someone, equally unseen, had placed a hand over her mouth. When Sue returned, a box inset showing a picture of the Palace of Westminster appeared to be incorrectly imposed on the screen, blocking part of her face.
‘Someone’s going to lose their job,’ observed Great-Aunt Ethel, while feeding Mimsy bits of cake. She’d been a nurse in the war so nothing fazed her anymore.
Momentarily, Sue seemed uncharacteristically alarmed and her eyes flitted down and around as what was happening off-screen battled for her attention. ‘And I do apologize if you’re hearing quite a lot of noise in the studio at the moment. I’m afraid that, erm, we have rather been invaded by some people who we hope to be removing very shortly.’
It is the rather that I love the most about Sue’s apology. Throughout the twentieth century, members of the Establishment peppered their speech with these kinds of adverbs: fairly, somewhat, vaguely, quite. It’s a Rather British Thing, helping them to cultivate an air of indirectness and detachment; nothing can ever really bother you if you’re one of the elite. Nowadays it’s a linguistic tic that marks you as old-fashioned and perhaps a bit posh, and instead we tend to unconsciously follow the more direct speaking style of the Americans, who have little time for such nonchalance.
The news continued as normal although I wasn’t watching it. I was thinking about what I had just seen, its oddness and suddenness. I was wondering how the news people in the television studio could have let it happen, and why it happened. I was also wondering what Section 28 was.
While I knew that it was now legal for me to get married or have sexual intercourse with someone of the opposite sex, I also knew that wasn’t for me. In those days I only had eyes for Bruce Willis, a smirking, balding 33-year-old actor in a detective comedy show called Moonlighting. Clearly this was not a realistic proposition but at sixteen I was old enough to know the sort of person I was attracted to. Yet if I wanted to have sex with a man, I’d have to wait another five years. In the UK, we tend to think of homosexuality as being legalized in 1967. However, it was decriminalized rather than legalized and only in certain contexts: sex was allowed to take place between just two men, both over the age of 21, in private (ideally in a locked room in your house with no one else at home), and only in England or Wales. It did not apply to the merchant navy or the armed forces, or to Northern Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Jersey or Guernsey.
Marrying a man was an impossibility, like time travel. In fact, I’d have had to time travel over a quarter-century to 2014 (2020 for Northern Ireland) if I’d wanted to marry a man in the UK.
An outrageous law
I came of age at the exact moment of a Very British Crisis, during a time when there was an enormous amount of fuss over my future sex life. I was the embodiment of the hypothetical young person whom the government so desperately did not want to be gay. During this period of our history, people expressed a great deal of concern about children. On my birthday the number one slot in the pop charts was occupied by a double A side of two Beatles hits: ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ (by Wet Wet Wet) and ‘She’s Leaving Home’ (by Billy Bragg and Cara Tivey). Proceeds went to the charity Childline, a telephone-based counselling service that had been set up for children and young people. Children suffering from abuse could (and still can) phone 0800 1111 and get help from a counsellor. The success of high-profile campaigns like this indicated that the British public loved children. Many of the actions described in this book were carried out in the name of children, because the people involved claimed that they cared about children and their futures, and possibly even because some of them fervently thought that they were doing the right thing.
The day after the BBC News studios were invaded by women protesting against the thing called Section 28, the law changed. Here is the full wording of Section 28. It isn’t the most enthralling read, I’m afraid. There are five uses of shall (a word that by this point most English speakers had largely abandoned), and the fussy little phrasings like ‘such inferences as to’ and ‘as may reasonably be drawn’ cry out that this is a document written in the driest of legalese, which gives an air of importance and inaccessibility, effectively stating: ‘You there, you little person, this is not your concern, go back to watching Neighbours!’ But if the language is dated, the attitude it espouses is even more so.
(3) In any proceedings in connection with the application of this section a court shall draw such inferences as to the intention of the local authority as may reasonably be drawn from the evidence before it.
(4) In subsection (1)(b) above ‘maintained school’ means, –