A bit of a ramble on Section 28 at 30
Thirty years ago today I was two days shy of my fifth birthday. I was in my first year of compulsory schooling at a Church of England school. I was either in, or looking forward to, a half-term holiday. It's entirely possible I'd already read all the Peter and Jane books I was meant to read over the next few years.
But, at five, Section 28 was not exactly on my radar.
The next few years at that school apparently revolved around me asking awkward questions about dinosaurs (which i don't really remember) and getting ready to revolt over collective punishment (which I do remember) - this was before I was ten so the motivation and revolt was more "I'm getting punished anyway, why bother behaving" than any critique of the misapplication of power.
I was bullied. Mostly for being a swot, a nerd. I didn't know how to make friends, I didn't know how to laugh at myself. But I wasn't bullied for my sexuality or perception - there were much more obvious targets for that and my other "flaws" were better targets. Although I may not have been directly targetted for homophobic bullying, this was the era of "that's gay" as a background radiation. The generic insult for anything uncool, unwanted or damaged. It wasn't spat at me, but I was surrounded by it as a negative idea. I therefore knew enough not to push it and so pretended to have crushes on girls when forced into admitting anything.
I've talked before about my subconscious sometimes knowing something but my conscious not fully understanding or accepting it. I know trhat I didn't fully get I was gay until Queer as Folk came out, but I also knew I was chatting in gay IRC rooms, mailing list etc. before it came out. My conscious just hadn't put everything together quite in the right way to link me and the concept of gay.
So it was online where I first came across this idea of Section 28 - after all, schools were scared to talk about it. I remember talking about it online. I recall the wording of it and the way it hurt - "pretended family relationships". That phrase is one reason why equal marriage has been so important to me - Civil Partnerships has always stunk of "pretend". Why I was so furious about Labour only giving Civil Partnerships and the failure of Stonewall to take it further. Section 28 was not just about the effect in school - it was that phrase, embedded in law.
I thinhk it's important to also remember that gay characters in books and tV were almost non-existant unless you really looked hard. In soaps I believe there had been some characters and those plots mostly dealt with AIDS. Youth Groups (which I could never get to) were all funded by the NHS and/or Terrance Higgins Trust and had a large focus on HIV/AIDS reduction. It felt like that was all there was to being gay - ensuring you had safe sex. It's hard to understand and explain how all these multiple forces interacted and reinforced each other, but they did. And it damaged people. It damaged me.
When I got to Sixth Form we had a PSHE session (or whatever it was called at that point). This was shortly after I'd come out to a couple of friends. There were two options, only announced on the day - something to do with driving tests (meh) or a debate on Section 28.
I don't know how they chose the speakers but the person speaking in favour of Section 28 was someone who I considered myself at least friendly with. The person speaking for its abolition was someone who had bullied me (he was a very popular guy, very funny and quick-witted, but a bully). Both, as far as I know, straight.
I wish I could remember more about the debate itself. I remember the dryness of the speech support S28, and that the anti-S28 speech was full of humour. But I don't recall anything more. I know I wished I had had the strength and courage to out myself and speak the things which I'd been discussing online.
But I didn't. I was still quite closeted. I wasn't out to my parents or most of my friends at that point. Section 28 was still in force, even if the school felt they could allow sixth formers to have a debate on it.
I was in uni when S28 was finally repealed. I believe I wrote to my MP about it when it came up - I was certainly involved quite heavily in Queer Youth alliance as it was then and NUS/YUSU LGB (as it was then) activities. I remember a phone call from a Kent Police Officer about a protest QYA was organising in Maidstone against the local council's adoption of it's own localised Section 28. I had no idea about protesting and the thoughts of having to notify the police, or what the fuck we were meant to actually do with the petition we had gathered.
EDIT to add
One of the reasons I was writing this kinda got lost along the wayside as I went on that trip down memory lane... that's why it fizzled out at the end. I was going to bring it back round to the fear that we have in the trans community that a Section 28-alike is being fought for by transphobic bigots (TERFs) allying with far-right elements. People who weren't nearly five at the tie of the build up to the original are seeing very concerning parallels in the articles and defences being put out. And its terrifying. Barely a week can go by without something happening - often some transphobic bigot calling for a debate on trans women using women's bathrooms. Or using their national platform to complain they're being silenced (Next week's New European is going to be the latest in this attack I fear, branding itself The New Feminist and the list of people involved includes some outright transphobic bigots and some apologists/defenders).
Today, the government announced it would create a new LGBT Action Plan. It will probably include details of the proposed Gender Recognition Act reform which much of the transphobic bullshit is focusing on. This is an Act which desperately needs updating to allow self-definition and, I hope, acknowledgement of non-binary identities. You should see more of this as it comes forward, especially on Twitter (@penwing).