December 2017 marks the 30th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s government accepting an amendment into its Local Government Bill. This amendment subsequently became known as Section 28 and, very broadly, it sought to prevent public money from being used to “promote” homosexuality.
In fact, politicians concerns with local authorities ‘promoting’ homosexuality went back a year earlier. The Earl of Halsbury’s 1986 Private Members Bill had tried to do pretty much the same thing. But, the government had chosen not to adopt it, arguing that such legislation would be ‘subject to harmful misinterpretation’.
This did not stop the Conservative’s ‘Raving Right’ working hand in glove with the tabloid media to create a moral panic around the (entirely false) notion that gay rights increased the spread of AIDS.
Margaret Thatcher was not slow to hop onto this bandwagon, delivering her notorious “young people are being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay” speech at the 1987 Tory Party conference.
And so, by December 1987, the government was happy to add Section 28 to its Local Government Bill.
Section 28 remained on the statute books until 2003. There wasn’t a single local authority charged with its infringement in its entire lifestyle. But that’s certainly not to say that it did no damage.
By December 1987, homophobic violence had reached frightening new levels. For example, on Saturday 12th December a group of young men discharged a CS gas canister in a gay pub in Rochester.
On that same day, the offices of London’s Capital Gay newspaper were firebombed.
These constitute, by any standards, terror attacks. And yet when the matter was brought to the attention of Parliament on 15th December 1987, one Conservative MP, Elaine Kellett-Bowman, actually applauded the actions.
When asked to clarify her position she reiterated that she thought that, “it was quite right that there be an intolerance of evil.” Not only did the government fail to discipline her for her support for such actions, Margaret Thatcher made her a Dame of the British Empire three weeks later.
Of course, it’s been a very long time since our communities were prepared to stand back passively. And in the course of the next few weeks, to mark the 30th anniversary of Section 28, I’ll be posting additional material about the fight against it.
I shall also be talking about it in Cambridge on February 22nd as part of LGBT History Month. This will be from 7.30 p.m. at the Friends Meeting House, Jesus Lane, Cambridge CB5 8BA. Admisson is free and I’ll also have my book on sale at the special price of £10.