In the shadow of Section 28


Annette Pryce takes a personal look back at the effects of the notorious Section 28.

If you’re my age, you can remember when Section 28 came in; if you’re a millennial, then you grew up with it. And I think we’re all traumatised by it still. Our pain we felt as young people, the bullying some of us might have suffered if we came out, if we were brave enough to come out in that climate of fear and shame. And it all looks different to each one of us, some of us not really being able to face it until we were much older.

We still have to explain to the cis-heterosexual society that despite all that we’ve gained, all that we’ve accomplished, we’re still living in fear, fear of holding hands with our partners, fear of not being accepted, fear of violence, and we’re still all at different stages of coming out, and for teachers this is no different.

My coming out story was a shock to most people, and I suppose I hadn’t really thought about it until a few years ago, because I’d done things since then that helped me move past it, but when you’re 14 and in the deputy head’s office and he won’t challenge homophobia ‘because it might make it worse’, and proceeds to ask you if you know what lesbians do in bed.. and describe it for him, you look back and think .. ‘shit…. that was bad’….. and everyone who hears it thinks it’s horrific. As a teacher, I don’t remember ever experiencing that level of discrimination, and I’m very lucky.

Section 28 was a generational failure of successive governments to inform and protect multiple cohorts of young LGBTQ+ people and its knock on effects have been enormous. I remember attending a local anti-bullying event and a teacher in the local area, in answering a question about Section 28, came out with the usual propaganda that somehow, it meant that teachers weren’t allowed to even mention the word gay or lesbian in the classroom, which of course wasn’t the case.

Baroness Young, in the House of Lords, was the mainstay of this legislation after Margaret Thatcher left office and it took her death to finally defeat it.

“After a backlash over the party leadership’s attitude to gay rights, the Conservative Party allowed its MPs and peers a free vote on the repeal.  With organised opposition in the Lords weakened by the death of Baroness Young peers finally voted in favour of repeal.” Wikipedia

Addressing LGBTQ+ issues in education after the adoption of this law seemed to be third wheel of UK politics even long after it was repealed, and the knock-on effects on teacher training were endemic and resulted in systemic homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools. The Institute of Education, as far back as the year 2000, found that teachers said:

“Because they do not know how to comply with section 28, they err on the side of caution. As a result, they choose to ignore homophobic harassment and bullying whenever possible. This creates a permissive environment in which pupils believe they can, and do, get away with it” The Guardian

Young LGBTQ+ people were abandoned by their government in an apparent attempt to protect them from a few books, the moral panic of the 1980s onwards filtering all the way down into the lives of vulnerable young people.

As a 14 year old, I would hide under the stairs at school avoiding certain lessons, and then I would face outright homophobia from those teachers who were meant to help me.

It’s at this point you probably want to break out into a verse of P!nk’s ‘Conversations With My 13 Year Old Self’.

These days, it’s the adults with all the issues; after all, they were the teenagers of yesterday who bullied young LGBTQ+ people in school. But now, young people don’t have the same prejudice, most of them will trip over themselves to be cool, but the majority of adults are still uncomfortable and uninformed about how to help those young LGBTQ+ people that are growing up now in schools. Again, we can lay blame at the government’s door.

There is a significant confidence gap for teachers, and while there are a plethora of new initiatives, resources and training courses available from NGOs and private providers, addressing this in initial teacher training would have been the ideal way to fix it. However, initial teacher training is now a very different place, with postgraduate courses, SCITT training and in-service training being drilled down to what can help a school get through its next Ofsted inspection; as workload rises and governments move the goal posts, teachers are completely overloaded.

I make a point of challenging HBT language, as do my colleagues. I’ve trained them, but the onus remains on individual schools to drive it forward, and Ofsted is used as a stick to beat them with if they don’t ‘comply’ with basic principles on challenging HBT bullying in schools.

Does the school have LGBTQ+ issues throughout the curriculum and throughout their policies? They’d have assemblies and information freely available, they’d have student advocates and links with local youth groups, they’d have a massive big rainbow flag in the assembly hall, they’d have students be able to answer those questions on what happens in their school positively, authentically and honestly because it would be just one of those things that their school did, and not a one off.  This type of environment would have been a dream in the late 80s and early 90s and for some schools, even today it isn’t a reality still.

The moral panic of the 1980s is in real danger of returning, and it appears the teenagers of yesterday and the adults of today haven’t learned a damn thing. As the right-wing press attack the trans community on a weekly basis , much in the same way they did to the gay community, helped along by anti-trans groups spouting propaganda and lies about what the changes to the GRA would mean, it begs the question, what do they gain by attacking a vulnerable minority in a world that has changed significantly since the 1980s? Have we simply gone backwards? Or has a sudden loss of privilege made people angry?

I told my students that they were living through not only a period in time where the most significant progress had been made on social issues, but that simultaneously, they were also living through a period of significant backlash in modern society. I feel some hope though, because I’ve taught young people who see the world differently, and they are and will be the adults of tomorrow, and I think we can all move past our trauma knowing that tomorrow will be better.

 Follow Annette on Twitter (@LGBTEXEC)

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