An Inalienable Right to be Gay: The Section 28 Battle

On May 24th 1988 Section 28 was introduced. It stated that local authorities could not ‘promote homosexuality’ or ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.

A look back at the controversy and fightback against  its introduction

In 1986 there had been much debate about the book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin

Conservative Minister Kenneth Baker called for the withdrawal of the book which the Inner London Education Authority had made available.

Richard Luce – Arts Minister – warned of the rise in ‘intolerant and lunatic libraries’ in Labour councils that promoted homosexual literature but deemed Enid Blyton racist. He called the books unacceptable to the wider public.

A broadcast on the poll tax alluded to the use of Labour money in relation to ‘GAY SEMINAR’S’

However, a poll showed that 83% of people polled ‘supported a ban on the promotion of homosexuality by schools and councils’.

In 1987 the MP Jill Knight sought to add an amendment to the Local Government Bill to ‘prevent local councils from mooting ‘positive images’ for homosexuals’.

In the Commons, Knight claimed:

‘Millions outside Parliament object to little children being perverted, diverted or converted from normal family life to a lifestyle which is desperately dangerous for society and extremely dangerous for them’

Knight was angered by the ‘evil’ books and videos infiltrating schools, such as The Playbook for Kids about Sex, The Milkman’s on his Way and How to become a lesbian in 35 minutes

It ‘glorifies homosexuality and encourages youngsters to believe that it is better than any other sexual way of life.

Alf Dubs dismissed Knights fears over Aids:

‘I do not understand why she is dwelling on homosexuality. It seems that in the end AIDS will affect all people in about the same way’.

Labour came under great attack in the 1987 election in the press for its links with the ‘loony left’

Patricia Hewitt was caught up in a scandal after she wrote

‘The Loony Labour Left is now taking its toll; the gays and lesbian issue is costing us dear amongst pensioners’

After the 1987 election Mrs Thatcher added it as Clause 28 of the bill.

Thatcher said in a conference speech:

‘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’

Thatcher was boosted by social attitudes surveys that had been impacted by the aids crisis.

In the years between 1983 and 1987, the number of people believing that homosexuality is ‘always wrong’ rose from 50% to 64%

Labour were initially supportive of a policy of not promoting homosexuality over heterosexual relationships to give them ‘positive rights’ over another group.

John Cunningham who was on the standing committee examining the bill, claimed ‘the Labour Party had never believed that local authorities should promote homosexuality’.

Labour were reported to be in ‘two minds’ over the ban but were concerned ‘what would happen when children or young people might be in need of help or counselling’ and whether it would criminalise teachers who supported students.

Cunningham claimed that Section 28 did raise ‘fundamental issues of personal liberty and civil rights’ but wanted to differentiate between the ‘defence of civil liberties of homosexual people’ and giving people ‘positive rights or preferential treatment’.

Bernie Grant was Labour’s strongest early critic of the clause: ‘An example of typical Tory dogma, a disgraceful attack on a minority, some 10 per cent of the population’

Grant claimed that the government would ‘signal to every fascist and everyone opposed to homosexuals that the Government is really on their side’.

In January 1988, Neil Kinnock finally attacked the Clause at the party’s local government conference in Edinburgh:

‘Crude in its concept, slanderous in its drafting, viscous in its purpose. It is an assault on the civil rights of thought and expression’

He claimed it was a clause ‘produced and supported by a bunch of bigots’.

Labour sought to add an amendment to 28 to add ‘other than by any action undertaken for the purpose of discouraging discrimination against or protecting the civil rights of any person.’

Cunningham claimed in the second reading that ‘the Government were bigoted and were seeking to encourage bigotry’

Nicholas Fairbairn called on Cunningham to outline ‘what extent he regards perversion in any psychopathological form as wrong. There is no question at all that homosexuality in either sex is psychopathological perversion’.

Cunningham replied: ‘he fails to recognise the reality of different people’s sexual orientation. His intervention shows that he is portraying the very characteristic about which I was complaining among Ministers’

Fairbairn responded: ‘Sadism and masochism are not just orientations of human conduct; they are psychopathological manifestations of morbid conduct—and homosexuality is the same’

Cunningham concluded: ‘I make it clear that we do not support the intentions of the clause. The motives and implications behind it are deeply to be deplored. It should not be accepted by Parliament. I make it absolutely clear that a future Labour Government would not allow the implications and provisions of the clause to remain on the statute book’.

Chris Smith raised concern about children:

‘Important advice and counselling that ought to be available to that very concerned, very scared, teenager will not be available to him. That worries me deeply’

Smith dismissed the Tories framing of one type of relationship:

‘That form of sexuality will be endorsed, approved, applauded and given enhanced legal status, and everything else will become second-class….’

‘It is a view which refuses to recognise the difference, the diversity and the very richness of human life and human society. It is intolerant, immature and undemocratic, and I venture to assert that it is profoundly immoral’

Smith concluded his speech:

‘true morality and true decency mean accepting and celebrating diversity and being tolerant of the fact that everyone, no matter who or what he is, is entitled to live and lead his own life’

Fairbairn again dismissed the claims:

‘homosexuality is not one of the paths of sexual expression which diversify and enrich human experience’ and that ‘it is a major and unnatural perversion’.

Tony Benn responded to Fairbairn:

‘I can think of nothing more psychopathologically sick than to devote one’s life to the pursuit of those who follow practices which the hon. and learned Gentleman finds undesirable and to incite the public to hate them’

Benn called it

‘a campaign has been whipped up by the gutter press which has done more to lower the standard of personal and public morality than any others in modern British society’

Benn believed he was on the right side of history:

‘The day will come when people will look back on this debate and be glad that there were hon. Members on both sides of the House who stood against what is an incitement to harass decent people’

The arts community came out strongly against the clause. Some predicted that ‘Britain would fall prey to censorship where intolerance would be encouraged’. Actresses such as Susannah York, Shelia Hancock and Jane Asher opposed.

The debate also prompted Ian McKellen to finally ‘come out’ in a BBC interview in January 1988.

‘It’s offensive to anyone who is – like myself – homosexual, apart from the whole business of what can and cannot be taught to children’

Here is McKellen urging people to do what they can as individuals to resist the Clause and ‘come out’ against Section 28 (Diane Abbott also features)

‘Gays and lesbians are everywhere and they should be seen to be everywhere’

The playwright Ned Sheerin was critical of both Labour’s and the Tory response.

He claimed the parties could publish a new book ‘Neil lives with Margaret and Edwina’

In February 1988, there was a protest in the House of Lords where ‘lesbians swung on ropes commando style’ down the press gallery.

Protestor Rachel Cox claimed ‘we did it because we are very angry lesbians’

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman claimed that ‘it was the most extraordinary scene’ ad ‘one chap almost lost his trousers in the malaise’.

She added ‘It beat anything that ever happened in the Commons’

The man who let the protestors in – by mistake – was Lord Monkswell. He claimed the protest was inevitable

The Lords cried Shame! as Monkswell attacked the Clause

‘I conclude with the words of a 12 year old girl yesterday in connection with Clause 28 – that it is just what the Germans did to the Jews’

On 24thMarch 1988 it was finally passed. It stated:

Local government ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’ or ‘promote the teaching in state schools of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’

In the month before it was due to become law, numerous rallies and protests were organised.

On May 1st1988, Chris Smith joined Michael Cashman (of EastEnders) in ‘Britain’s biggest ever gay rights rally’.

Sir Rhodes Boyson, dismissed the rally in a TV debate, linking homosexuality to AIDS:

‘Homosexuality it is unnatural. Aids is part of the fruits of the permissive society. The regular one-man, one-woman would not put us at risk with this in any way’.

Boyson called on homosexuals to ‘withdraw totally from their practices’ in order to wipe out Aids and ensure ‘the rest of society is protected’.

In the final 24 hours before it was due to be implemented, a group of female protesters interrupted the one o clock news

How it was reported by 9pm

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