LGBT+ Spotlight

1988, Section 28 and Its Lasting Unwanted Legacy

Illustration by Madeline Howell
By Sarah Belger

In 1988, British Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher banned the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by local authorities with the introduction of Section 28 of the Local Government Act. This meant school children received no formal education about LGBT+ identities or relationships. Local libraries were also prohibited from stocking books and films which contained mentions of homosexuality, meaning that most children were also unable to seek out information outside of school. Teachers at the time even felt that they couldn’t step in if they saw a child being bullied or struggling with their identity out of fears that they would get into trouble.

Thatcher attempted to the rules by stating: ‘Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life.’ This was the first new homophobic law to be introduced in the UK in a century and was understandably seen as a huge step backwards after male homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967. The AIDS/HIV crisis had already seen ‘hostile coverage in the right-wing tabloid press’ and these new rules only helped to legitimise the hate being direction towards LGBT+ people across the country. The introduction act sparked numerous protests including the disruption of BBC News and three lesbian protesters abseiling down from the House of Lords.

What may seem most shocking, is that Section 28 was only repealed in England and Wales in 2003 (2000 in Scotland). This means that for 15 years thousands of children and young adults were left completely in the dark when confused or distressed over matters relating to sexuality, having especially long-lasting effects for the (estimated) six per cent of the population who do not identify as heterosexual. The trauma from being bullied at school can, and has, caused serious emotional and physical harm, with many people still struggling to accept their sexuality because of how the subject was treated under Section 28.

To this day, people are still being diagnosed late with HIV (late referring to diagnoses after the immune system has already been damaged) and this is often linked to the fact that they hadn’t received adequate teaching on safe sex or even the symptoms of HIV, such as flu-like symptoms. Although government guidelines now state that sex-education should be inclusive of all genders and sexualities, many teachers remain uncertain as to how openly they can discuss these topics outside of what is on the curriculum.

Progress in LGBT+ rights since Section 28’s repeal in 2000 and 2003 has of course been made, with equal adoption rights having been granted along with same-sex marriage and the criminalisation of discrimination based on gender or sexuality. In 2018, then-Prime Minister Theresa May announced an ‘LGBT+ Action Plan’ in which she pledged to ‘help make us a country where no one feels the need to hide who they are or who they love’. A survey of over 100,000 participants was carried out and it has been praised as the largest survey of LGBT+ people ever carried out. The main points of the action plan included a commitment to end conversion therapy and the appointment of a National LGBT Health Advisor to improve quality of care and treatment across the NHS. However it has been noted by Stonewall that the most important part of the report was the government acknowledging the daily prejudice faced by those in the LGBT+ community.

That being said, with many people still feeling vulnerable and marginalised, there is clearly still progress left to be made. We currently have a Prime Minister who publicly referred to gay men as ‘tank-topped bumboys’ and compared homosexuality to bestiality. Boris Johnson openly attacked Labour’s motions to include LGBT+ representation in sex-education in 2000 (while Section 28 was still in place) and has hardly proven himself a beacon for gay rights since becoming Prime Minister back in December 2019.

The conversations being had today surrounding trans rights are eerily similar to those held 30 years ago about Section 28. Myths that receiving what should be seen as a basic standard of education turning children gay are now echoed in the media as the fight for trans rights moves forward. Conservative plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) has launched ‘a barrage of abuse’ towards trans and non-binary people in the media. The government fell short on a lot of their promises and didn’t do enough to make real, impactful change for trans and non-binary people; changing your gender is still seen as a medical process and a self-determination process still has not been put in place.

In 2017, research from Stonewall showed that 40 per cent of children are still never taught about LGBT issues in school and only 20 per cent of pupils have received education on safe sex in same-sex experiences. This needs to change. Data from Teach First has shown a 4 per cent rise in the number of LGBT+ teachers, with many explicitly stating that they chose the careers because of the experiences they had faced at school. Changes like this are what will be necessary moving forward in making schools, and the country as a whole, a safe place for everyone, regardless of gender or sexuality.

If you’re struggling with any issues mentioned in this article, Stonewall has a bank of resources designed for the LGBT+ community and you can also reach out for help via the student intranet if you are a Cardiff University student. Cardiff University also has an LGBT+ Society if you are looking for a safe space with your community, and currently the LGBT+ Association are running History Month if you are interested in finding out more about LGBT+ history.


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