30 years after the Local Government Act 1988 was passed, D H Kelly describes what it was like to grow up under Section 28 and notices uncanny echoes in modern day transphobia
[Content note: Contains descriptions of homophobia and transphobia, mentions homophobic slurs]
I was seven when the Local Government Act 1988 came into force. Section 28 of this Act effectively banned teachers from discussing LGBTQ+ issues in schools, a ban which remained on the statute books for the next 15 years. The exact wording said that local authorities could not “promote homosexuality” and “the accessibility of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.
“Promote” was open to interpretation, as was whether the law applied to local authorities as institutions or the teachers employed by them. Perhaps thanks to this ambiguity, nobody was ever prosecuted. But for most of my generation this meant that LGBTQ+ people didn’t exist as far as our schools were concerned.
In history, we learned about gay leaders, artists and scientists without this crucial context to their lives. We learned about historic oppression and civil rights struggles without a word about pink triangles or rainbow flags. English literature skipped straight over queer subtext. Sex education reduced 80% of all human sexual activity to undefined “foreplay” despite the remaining 20% being the only sort that risks pregnancy.
Personal and social education included in-depth discussions of bullying, but despite lesbian coming second only to bitch in the lexicon of our feminine bullies, we weren’t allowed to discuss what that word meant, why it should be an insult and what harm this was doing to us. When I suggested we do a class assembly about Section 28 and homophobic bullying, our teacher said that she wasn’t allowed to talk to us about that.
“If it’s a class assembly, it’d only be us talking about it,”
“I’m not allowed to talk about that.”
“But it’d be just us, talking about the fact you’re not allowed to talk about it.”
“I’m not allowed to talk about that.”
Things had been pretty grim for LGBTQ+ people in the 1980s, but Section 28 legislation was part of a backlash against the very gentle progress of gay rights. Gay sex between men had been decriminalised for twenty years. The emergence of HIV/AIDS was decimating LGBTQ+ communities but, by 1988, both understanding of the disease and sympathy for people living with it were increasing. Same-sex relationships had been depicted in film and television (albeit without kissing or overt sexual contact) and there were increasing demands to address or even criminalise discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
While same-sex relationships were slowly becoming more acceptable and homophobia was gradually – very gradually – less acceptable, this was still far from a majority view. The alleged appearance of “Jenny lives with Eric and Martin” in a school library – a children’s book featuring same-sex parents – led to something of a moral panic.
Meanwhile, sexual freedom was increasing across the board. Greater numbers of couples were living together before marriage or without getting married at all, and the increasingly standard language of “partners” had a gender neutrality that alarmed social conservatives.
If the world were no longer divided into neat little units of one man and one woman who were married and had – or were likely to have – children, almost anything might be possible. To be clear: this was seen as A Bad Thing.
Section 28 was a ridiculous, reactionary and damaging law but its controversy, along with other anachronistic, misogynistic and hypocritical “family values” nonsense the Conservative government promoted at the time, provided a very useful political distraction. It was far more interesting and profitable for the media to endlessly discuss wanton single mothers and gay people indoctrinating the young than, for example, the unemployment which affected most of the adults in my family during the recession of the early 1990s.
While Section 28 kept homosexuality out of our school lessons, homosexuality and homophobic sentiments remained in the news, in the minds of the general public and in the mouths of our classmates.
I first knew I wasn’t straight in 1992, when I was 11. I’m bisexual, but that word was not yet on my radar and for most of my teens, I assumed I was gay. Section 28 – not just the artificial silence of my teachers on the matter, but the way people like me were discussed in the news, among friends and family – contributed to an overwhelming weight of shame and secrecy. I didn’t think, “I’m not straight!” – I thought, “I’m not normal!”
Before I had the beginnings of a sexual imagination, the super-cute misty-eyed butterflies-in-the-stomach crushes of early adolescence felt to me like something creepy. I remember reading about Lewis Carroll, who (at least so it was speculated at the time) was sexually attracted to young girls, but never acted in any sexual way towards them. I can remember feeling the same way and thinking that I could “live with” my “inappropriate” feelings because I didn’t act on them. I only ever fancied other girls my own age or older and never had any desire to touch or even sit next to someone without their consent and yet had internalised the message that this kind of attraction was predatory.
I went through school terrified that, somehow, by some slip or look or a word out of place, I would give myself away. I thought if any friend found out, they would feel betrayed and disgusted. I fabricated or wildly exaggerated crushes on boys and male celebrities in order to waylay any suspicion.
Of course, Section 28 wasn’t wholly responsible for all of this. These would have been very early days for LGBTQ+ rights regardless (2018 is early days!). My parents – who have since reformed – were vocally homophobic, although if it hadn’t been in the news so much, I wouldn’t have been reminded of this on such a regular basis. It’s possible my school had a more homophobic culture than most.
Growing up, I heard an awful lot of strange ideas about sexuality, sexual orientation and gender. For example, I heard authoritative voices – politicians, church leaders, social commentators – describe how gay people are predatory, were attracted to developing bodies and took pleasure in corrupting the young. I heard that a woman of 16 is an adult who knows what she’s doing around older men, but a “boy” of 20 is still a naive creature who could easily be misled by someone he looks up to (presumably an older woman couldn’t do nearly so much damage to a young male lover because she couldn’t command his respect). The age of consent for gay men was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1994, before being brought into line with the heterosexual age of consent aligned in 1998.
I heard that, if discovered, gay, lesbian and bisexual service-people had to be thrown out of the military because they could be blackmailed and thus posed a threat to national security. The reason they could be blackmailed was because, if discovered, they would lose their jobs.
I heard about powerful groups of gay people with a “gay agenda”, who were preoccupied with corrupting young people. It was one thing to be gay, I heard – perhaps people couldn’t help that – but these people wanted to “rub it in our faces”; they wanted to “shove it down our throats”. These gay people wanted to silence right-thinking ordinary people and impose themselves and their lifestyle on innocent children. Of course, there were very few openly gay people who had any power or influence at all; only a handful of celebrities were out of the closet (despite tabloid attempts to drag them out) and we had just one openly gay MP until 1997. I had to assume that Elton John and Sandi Toksvig were both more sinister and more organised than they looked.
Most of this vitriol was focussed on gay men – lesbianism was rarely mentioned and bisexuality never at all. However, this didn’t make me feel any better. I’ve referred to Section 28’s effects on LGBTQ+ people because while it focused on men’s homosexuality, it affected all of us. To a lesser extent, it influenced an entire generation of cis straight people who – like generations before – had to police everything from the clothes they wore, to how they behaved with their closest friends lest they be seen as less than “manly”, less than “feminine”; a faggot, a dyke, a threat.
Because I was able to keep my sexual orientation under wraps, my childhood was a walk in the park compared to what many of my peers went through in terms of bullying, abuse and rejection. But it was quite enough that I carried this perfectly benign part of myself as a shameful secret during my formative years. Like a disproportionate number of bisexual women, my first serious relationship was an abusive one and my residual shame, discomfort and secrecy about my sexuality was a ready weapon to use against me.
I am fine now. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people still have a long way to go in the UK – our shocking treatment of lesbian, gay and bisexual asylum seekers demonstrates just how far. But should any young person I care about turn out to be gay, lesbian or bisexual, I will at least know they’ll be in a better position than we were.
What really upsets me is when I see uncanny echoes of all this in public conversations about transgender people, as if this recent history has been already forgotten. As the magnificent Shon Faye recently described, the shape and rhetoric of today’s transphobia is very familiar to anyone who grew up in the nineties.
One of the greatest fears in the ’80s and ’90s was that children (who are regarded as being simultaneously without sexuality and also universally straight) would imagine themselves to be gay if they saw homosexuality as acceptable. Despite the overwhelming cultural message that almost everyone is straight and that gay people have a miserable life, a child might suddenly imagine themselves to be gay, begin living as a gay person and find their lives ruined forever.
We’re hearing exactly the same thing about transgender people right now. Children (who are regarded as being simultaneously without gender identity and yet also universally cisgender) might imagine that they are trans if they see being transgender as acceptable. Despite the overwhelming cultural message that almost everyone is cis (so much so that some people are offended by the descriptor!) and that trans people have a miserable life, a child might mistakenly believe they are a member of one of the most violently persecuted minorities on the planet.
Just as in my childhood, I learned that being a woman attracted to women made me a threat to other women, we now hear that having once been identified and treated like a man makes a woman a threat to other women.
Public figures like journalists and politicians describe a powerful “trans lobby” who are attempting to silence dissent, despite the difficulty one has in naming a single truly powerful trans person in the UK just now. The UK has no openly trans MPs. We might have a handful of successful and extremely talented trans performers, writers and activists (including the indomitable Paris Lees), but they are not household names.
As a child with nobody to talk to about these things, I was confused and frightened by my sexual orientation, but also fairly mixed up about my gender identity. I stated my wish that I could be a boy instead and had I heard about trans men in simplistic headline terms, I might well have thought I was one, just as the transphobes fear. Certainly, when I did hear about trans men as a young woman, I’m ashamed to say I thought that these people were probably like me only I’d somehow got over that phase.
But just as talking to other gay, lesbian and bisexual people – people whose sheer awesomeness made it impossible to judge myself for being like them – helped me accept my bisexuality, the thing that led me to understand my own gender identity was talking to, reading and listening to brilliant trans people. I learned the difference between a strong dislike and embarrassment around one’s feminine body – largely born out of other people’s reactions to it and badly managed gynaecological issues – and dysphoria. I learned the difference between being a queer cisgender woman and being a man or a non-binary person.
What young people need is education, not simplification. Children find themselves in a chaotic and complicated world and start looking for rules, but there was never a point in history where children absorbed the available binary information about sex and gender and lived happily ever after. LGBTQ+ children have always existed. Heterosexual, cisgender children, who were nevertheless gender-nonconforming (which for a long time included being a clever girl!), have always existed.
In the ‘90s, a lot of people were genuinely ignorant about homosexuality and bisexuality. Many straight people, like my parents, who had grown up in a homophobic culture and imagined they didn’t know any gay, lesbian or bi people, were actively misled by people who had studied the issue and knew full well that gay, lesbian and bi people were arguing for their basic human rights and posed no threat to children, families or anyone else. In the same way those who dedicate time and energy to peddling myths about confused children undergoing irreversible medical treatment, or the idea that self-identification will invite violent men into places that they’ve been previously successfully kept out, know they are lying. But these are profitable lies – they sell newspapers, they yield political influence among social conservatives and they mislead good-hearted folk who are new to the idea that biology might not be destiny.
In the real world, nothing is changing quickly apart from awareness. Many more young people are getting referrals to Gender Identity Clinics (of which there are still only 8 in the UK) because many more parents and doctors are aware that if a young person, previously regarded as a boy, repeatedly asserts that they are a girl, then specialist support is probably a good idea. Given that almost half of transgender teens in the UK have made a suicide attempt, this support is about saving lives.
Proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Certificate process are not only urgently needed but will change nothing for anyone apart from trans people themselves. Trans people already use appropriate bathrooms, hospital wards, changing facilities and domestic violence refuges and have done so for many years.
We need to stand firm against this backlash and make sure that children are protected – not from the influence of LGBTQ+ people – but from the same ignorance and misinformation that has always put them in danger.
[Image is an old black and white photo of a classroom. Mostly white girls sit in rows with a white woman teacher standing close by. The girls are wearing old-fashioned dresses and pinafores, all have long hair tied back and they wear a mixture of expressions from happy to fearful or annoyed. The elderly nature of the photograph has rendered these girls rather dark around the eyes, so that they appear to be staring at the camera more intensely than they probably did at the time.
This photograph was taken in 1908, which was only slightly before I was at school. It was found on Wikimedia and is in the Public Domain.]