Can British education recover from its homophobic past?

Writing by Ruby Kelman. Illustration by Phoebe McGowan.


The acronyms used in this article vary to match the terminology used in the policy and publications quoted.

On 18th November 2003, I was just shy of my sixth birthday - pigtailed and pinafored, with perpetually grazed knees. Eighteen or so years later, I have almost the same haircut, and a similar level of ambivalence towards boys. Other things have changed, though. 18th November 2003 marked the full repeal of Section 28 - a notorious 1988 policy that effectively prevented English, Welsh and Scottish schools from even mentioning LGBTQ identities. This overtly homophobic education policy had legally been in place throughout my first year of school in England; yet, by the time I qualify as a teacher here in Scotland, LGBTI education will supposedly be embedded across all areas of the curriculum. This groundbreaking policy - the first of its kind in the world - is the result of years of campaigning by TIE (Time for Inclusive Education). TIE’s co-founder positions the policy as finally putting the ‘destructive legacy’ of Section 28 to bed. So what is that legacy, and can we really hope to recover from it?

The story starts a few decades ago. Although gay sex had been partially decriminalised in England in 1967, homophobic attitudes were still widespread in the UK in the 1980s, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic emerged. Throughout the 1980s, there were several high-profile scare stories about books with gay characters and themes (such as Jennie lives with Eric and Martin and Young, Gay and Proud) being read in schools in Labour council areas. These cases, against a backdrop of homophobia, led to Section 28 being enacted in law by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1988. The legislation stated that no local authority should ‘promote’ homosexuality or ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. The word ‘promote’ is key, deliberately left open to interpretation. As MP Tony Benn said at the time,

‘.. if the sense of the word "promote" can be read across from "describe", every murder play

promotes murder, every war play promotes war, every drama involving the eternal triangle

promotes adultery; and Mr. Richard Branson's condom campaign promotes fornication. The

House had better be very careful before it gives judges, who come from a narrow section of

society, the power to interpret "promote".’

Unsurprisingly, then, the implementation of Section 28 was characterised by ambiguity and confusion. Initially, it was uncertain whether it even applied to schools; nevertheless, school libraries removed or hid books with LGBTQ themes (as depicted in Russell T. Davies’ drama It’s A Sin); some lesbian and gay student groups were banned; and productions of certain plays and operas with gay themes were cancelled.

By the time it was repealed in England and Wales, Section 28 was essentially redundant, as subsequent Acts now regulated sex education. However, campaigners felt that its repeal would be an important symbolic victory; indeed, Section 28’s power had always been symbolic. The true impact of the policy is intangible, and difficult to quantify, since no successful legal action was ever taken under it. Yet it is undeniable that the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty it created around LGBTQ identities had a destructive impact on children, teachers and the wider LGBTQ community. It never really mattered what the policy said; it mattered what people thought it said. Worse than that, its vagueness left it open to interpretation, meaning that it could say what people wanted it to say and leave them free to enact and vindicate their homophobic prejudices in myriad ways.

Perhaps because of this symbolic quality, Section 28’s impact lasted well beyond its legal remit. A 2019 study [1] found that LGBT+ teachers who had worked under Section 28 still experienced its adverse effects 15 years later, being less likely to be open about their sexuality than their colleagues who had commenced their careers after 2003. This research also found that LGBT+ teachers generally still experience homophobia in their workplace, and fear parent perceptions and power. Moreover, the legislation impacted students post-2003; a striking example can be found in 2013, when the British Humanist Association identified 45 schools which retained policies that echoed Section 28. The 2010s saw a new era of more inclusive education, but the experience of this was patchy. Speaking to friends who attended UK secondary schools in the 2010s, it turned out I wasn’t the only one to be shown FIT, a 2010 feature film produced by the charity Stonewall which follows a group of tracksuited teenagers coming to terms with their sexuality and dealing with homophobic bullying with the help of their gay dance and drama teacher. Others weren’t quite so lucky, and simply sat through PowerPoint presentations about homophobic bullying that mainly served to give the bullies new vocabulary. Across the board, the focus was on homosexuality, with very little mention of trans people. These tentative and incomplete forays into LGBTQ education show that something was shifting, but LGBTQ topics nevertheless remained largely confined to sex and relationships education. As the post-Section 28 generation comes to maturity, Education Scotland’s plans for LGBTI education across the board are much more ambitious.

LGBTQ education has always been on the agenda for the Scottish government. In fact, Scotland repealed Section 28 in 2000, three years ahead of England and Wales, as one of the first acts of the new, devolved Scottish Parliament. The government press release about the new inclusion policy, first announced in 2018, brags that ‘Scotland will lead the way in inclusive education’, and this world-first approach certainly fits with the government’s progressive self-image. Education Scotland has promised to implement all 33 of the recommendations of its LGBTI Inclusive Working Group, which include updating the guidance on relationships education and educating trainee teachers on LGBTI issues. These recommendations are supposed to be delivered by March this year. There is certainly reason to be hopeful about this policy, however it is also important to be cautious. Although Section 28 is the complete ideological opposite from LGBTI inclusion, it can teach us that only in the interpretation and implementation of a policy can we start to see its true impact.

The problem of interpretation is evident in other areas of Scottish education policy. In Scotland, language learning is supposed to be ‘an entitlement for all’ in the first three years of secondary education, yet a survey conducted last year found that 30% of Scottish secondary schools are not teaching a single modern language in S1 to S3. If a fundamental and time-honoured part of the curriculum such as languages can be so easily squeezed out, the prospects for something as new and contested as LGBTQ inclusion look bleak. The patchy implementation of language policy also shows how a single word can open the door to ambiguity and confusion. The sticky word here seems to be ‘entitlement’, just as it was ‘promotion’ for Section 28. With Education Scotland’s new LGBTQ policy, it’s likely that we’ll trip up over the word ‘inclusive’, which is vague and open to so many meanings. Clearly, teachers need to be supported in implementing this policy effectively. However, they are also bombarded with policy from every direction, and it’s certainly possible that even teachers with the best intentions could let LGBTQ inclusion fall by the wayside.

Then there’s the more sinister side to why this policy’s implementation might prove difficult. Homophobia and, in particular, transphobia are still rife in Scotland and the UK more widely. Even the most unambitious LGBTQ initiatives in schools face disproportionate backlash, often whipped up by the media. Take No Outsiders, an equalities project in a primary school in Birmingham that attracted huge protests at the school gates in 2019, with detractors spuriously claiming that 4 year olds were being taught about gay sex. In actual fact, LGBTQ equality was only a small part of the project, which simply put forward the modest idea of welcoming people of any race, colour, religion or identity. Similarly baseless and hyperbolic claims have been made about Education Scotland’s guidance for supporting trans students, published in 2019, which states that schools do not have to inform parents if their child comes out as trans, recognising that being trans is not a child protection issue. This has somehow been interpreted by organisations such as The Christian Institute as a totalitarian or extreme agenda. Just as widespread homophobic views allowed Section 28 to flourish in the 1990s, homophobia and transphobia could derail even the most basic attempts at LGBTQ inclusion today. What’s all the more frustrating is that the prevalence of such beliefs is exactly why LGBTQ education is so vital in the first place.

Scotland’s policy of LGBTI inclusive education has been positioned and received as a chance to heal from the harm done by Section 28. This trailblazing policy decision - and the campaigning that made it happen - should be celebrated, and we are right to feel hopeful. However, Section 28 itself is a stark reminder that policy is as powerful as its implementation, and we should be critical of varied interpretations of what it means to be ‘inclusive’, especially amidst a climate of misinformation and panic about gender. For this reason, the effectiveness of the policy depends heavily on how schools and teachers choose to engage with it. But perhaps this in itself is a reason to be hopeful, especially as a new generation of British teachers, who never experienced the harm of Section 28 in their own schooling, emerges. Institutionalised homophobia and transphobia have inflicted deep wounds so, while education policy is a step towards recovery from them, we cannot be complacent about what happens next.

[i] Catherine Lee (2019) Fifteen years on: the legacy of section 28 for LGBT+ teachers in English schools, Sex Education, 19:6, 675-690.

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