In July 2022, Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi sparked fears of a return to Section 28 when he promised to “protect” children from “radical activists”.
The former education secretary, currently serving as equalities minister in Liz Truss’ cabinet, made his comments while launching a failed leadership bid to become PM.
For LGBTQ+ people, alarm bells rang.
Zahawi’s suggestion that children are being subjected to “damaging and inappropriate nonsense” sounded a lot like Margaret Thatcher’s infamous 1987 speech in which she said kids were being taught they had an “inalienable right” to be gay.
Section 28, which came into effect in 1988, banned the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities. It gave rise to a culture of fear that stopped teachers from talking to kids about LGBTQ+ issues, and the scars run deep for queer people who grew up under its shadow.
It was repealed in Scotland in 2000, and in England and Wales in 2003.
More than 30 years on, a culture of hostility for LGBTQ+ people is threatening to boil over. Anti-trans sentiment is at an all-time high, with hit pieces appearing in the right wing press almost daily.
Comments from senior Tories such as Zahawi, Suella Braverman and Liz Truss herself have led some to question whether there could be a new version of Section 28, this time focused on trans issues, right around the corner.
UK government could ‘create an atmosphere’ that discourages LGBTQ+ inclusion
Sue Sanders is chair of Schools OUT UK, an organisation that works to eliminate prejudice from schools. She doesn’t think the Tories would be “foolish enough” to enact a new version of Section 28 – but is concerned the government might introduce guidance that could make schools a cold environment for LGBTQ+ youth.
“I think they’ll do it through producing the sort of language we’ve seen from the likes of Suella Braverman,” Sanders tells PinkNews.
In August this year, Braverman said schools should not be teaching kids “keywords” about the LGBTQ+ community or affirm trans identities.
“They’ll make statements which will cause an atmosphere and will then promote self-censorship in teachers unless we give them the resources and the confidence to say, look, you’re still legally able to do this stuff,” Sanders says.
“It’s the stirring of the atmosphere that the media and right-wing politicians do which then makes the atmosphere very unsupportive.”
‘Section 28 had a profound effect on kids and teachers’
Reflecting on Section 28, Sanders says it was “horrendous”.
It created a culture that forced teachers back into the closet and starved children of LGBTQ+ representation and discussion in the classroom.
“The trauma that both teachers and kids went through is something that some of them have not in any way recovered from,” Sanders says.
“It would have had a profound effect on kids and teachers alike… I’m sure we had suicides because of it.
“What’s needed is our teachers’ unions to be very clear and to keep sending out guidance and clarity on where they stand legally.”
Tories want to ‘cement their power’
Drag Race UK star Divina De Campo grew up under Section 28. She says the UK was “incredibly homophobic” during the ’80s and ’90s, and Thatcher’s government was quick to capitalise on that.
What’s happening today around trans rights and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment isn’t dissimilar to what happened then, de Campo says – the Conservative Party has targeted Muslims, migrants and, most recently, the trans community.
“Section 28 created a hostile environment, which is exactly what the Tory party have done again but for other people,” de Campo tells PinkNews.
She points out that the government instructed schools to not use materialsfrom organisations that oppose capitalism in 2020 – for de Campo, that suggests they could do the same with LGBTQ+ issues.
“They’ll do exactly like they did in the ’80s and they’ll use [us] to try and cement their power,” de Campo says.
The media and political figures are driving a moral panic about trans people because it pays to do so, de Campo says. The media is trying to create an “emotional reaction”, whereas the government is listening to the wrong people.
“Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have both said, ‘Is a trans woman a woman? No.’ They very clearly said that.
“For 20 years we’ve operated under a system where trans women are women so there’s plenty of data about whether trans people are a danger to society in the way they’re being painted and the fact is, no, and we’ve got plenty of evidence about whether self-ID is a danger to women and the answer is no.”
‘Show solidarity, just like we did with the miners’
De Campo says the solution is solidarity – people from marginalised backgrounds need to come together and fight the oppression that’s coming from government. It’s the best way to avoid a repeat of Section 28 in the future.
“If we’re not going to see it get as bad as it was then, now is the time for us to organise,.
“We need to do exactly like we did before. It becomes about solidarity with other groups – showing solidarity with the Muslim community, with the Jewish community, with working class people who are all going to be struggling a lot through the winter and through next year.”
She continues: “It’s going to become about writing to your MP, showing solidarity, just like we did with the miners – just like how it worked before. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
Few have confidence in Truss
It’s vital we avoid a new version of Section 28 because its effects were so far-reaching, according to LGBTQ+ rights activist Peter Tatchell. It had a “devastating effect” on LGBTQ+ teenagers and caused many to suffer from anxiety, depression and self-harm.
The problem is that avoiding Section 28-like policies could be difficult under a government that’s decidedly right-wing.
“The Tories have shifted to the right under Liz Truss,” Tatchell tells PinkNews.
“They are waging a culture war against our community and see political mileage in appealing to their conservative bases.”
He says the future for LGBTQ+ rights in the UK right now is “gloomy”.
“Regression seems more likely than progress. We’ve already witnessed more than four years of delay in banning conversion therapy and trans people will not be protected if the legislation finally gets tabled. Reform of the Gender Recognition Act has been kicked into the long grass, despite a majority of those who responded to the public consultation urging change.
“The government wants to deport LGBTs and other refugees to Rwanda, even though it is not safe. There are rising levels of anti-LGBT+ hate crime and no serious government action to remedy it.”
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‘A cabinet dominated by homophobes’
Tatchell has “no trust or confidence” that anything will improve for LGBTQ+ people under Truss’ rule.
“She’s appointed a cabinet dominated by homophobes, including some who oppose marriage equality and trans rights.”
Much is uncertain for LGBTQ+ people right now, but one thing is certain: queer people are facing into a dark period, and they’re going to have to fight hard to protect their hard-won rights.