This week marked 18 years since the Scottish Parliament repealed Section 28 north of the border, but LGBT+ people still face widespread discrimination and continue to be affected by policies implemented by an aggressively intolerant Conservative government in coalition with DUP homophobes. Brian Finlay reflects on this legacy and what lessons can be learned going forward...
On May 28 thirty years ago at the Ross Bandstand on Edinburgh Princes Street Gardens, one of the largest Scottish lesbian and gay rights events to ever be organised took place. Emotions were high for good reason as they protested the obscenity of Section 28, which had been passed and legislated by the UK government as part of the Local Government Act four days prior. The clause banned the “promotion” of homosexuality by local councils or in schools across the UK. This made it illegal for anyone seeking advice about their sexuality or inclinations to be offered support in school – even literature mentioning homosexuality was prohibited.
For all Conservatives try to defend Margaret Thatcher's economic legacy, the evidence is clear that she systematically sought to perpetuate inequality and cause misery for minorities at every opportunity. She created an environment where LGBT+ individuals weren't just prejudiced against – they weren't permitted to exist in the mainstream, which had the desired effect of making these individuals feel alienated from society. The 'Lark in the Park' event at the bandstand stood in direct defiance to that as prominent gay figures such as Ian McKellen addressed crowds under the banner: “Lesbian and gay rights are human rights”. It's an idea that in recent history become normalised: Pride Scotland events have increased in popularity since 1995 and now take place in most major towns and cities from Glasgow to Aberdeen to Kirkcaldy.
But back in 1988, there was still a huge mountain to climb. Section 28 was entirely motivated by Thatcher's ideological prejudices, which she openly expressed in her Conservative Party conference speech in Blackpool in 1987. The timing of this escalation coincided with an embedded societal impression that homosexuality was wrong, which was being exploited by the right wing media's coverage of the HIV/AIDS crisis which peaked in the early to mid 1980s.
Thatcher addressed her conference with these chilling words: “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. Yes, cheated.” It's sickening to imagine that such political discourse was acceptable three decades ago – even from Thatcher.
However, much of the hysteria that surrounds transsexual individuals' right to express who they are today is reminiscent of the very same tone. The discussion around trans rights has whipped up into a verbal frenzy, with even feminist debates resorting to suggestions trans people are something obscure and somehow to be feared. Less than 1% of the UK population identifies as trans, but the wild coverage in right wing tabloids would suggest it's a much larger social group. Given the tone adopted by many on the left around this issue, it's worth reflecting on the struggles of the past and being mindful of the fact nearly half of all under-26s that identify as trans have attempted suicide at some point in their life.
There's hope here, though, even under a broken system that is at the root of these statistics. The repeal of Section 28 in Scotland was possible because grassroots campaigners worked tirelessly to lobby the devolved Labour/Liberal Democrat government of the time led by Donald Dewar (above). Repeal followed in England and Wales two years later. It can't be overestimated how important a moment this was – a law which targeted LGBT+ individuals at the most vulnerable point in their lives was defeated through solidarity.
Young people develop and form romantic relationships at a young age and inclusive sexual education is absolutely crucial at a school age. I'm now far more optimistic in seeing a bright future for LGBT+ individuals as a result – groups like TIE (Time for Inclusive Education) are keeping these issues on the agenda and ensuring children do know what they need to know.
None of this has happened in a vacuum. The Conservative party is institutionally geared to suppress the rights of the weakest and less supported elements of society. In 2009, then prime minister David Cameron apologised to the House of Commons for the introduction of Section 28 and stated his party had “got it wrong”. He did this because of pressure from down below, not genuine regret. This is exemplified by Cameron's “swarm of immigrants” comment, famously printed on the front of the Daily Mail, and his party's attempts to alienate those who receive state benefits and those who flee war and persecution to make the UK their home.
The fight goes on: Theresa May have softened her rhetoric on LGBT+ rights, but her voting record is more than questionable. In 1998, she voted against equalising the age of consent. In 2000, she voted against repealing Section 28. In 2001, she voted against gay adoption. Her supposed newfound liberalism is undermined by her actions in the home office, where she facilitated the creation of the hostile environment policy that led to “Go Home” vans driving around targeted areas of London. The same policy led to the Windrush scandal earlier this year in which British citizens were denied access to the country after visiting family abroad.
These facts are all relevant in this debate because it demonstrates how easily hard won concessions can be flipped and abused. Section 28 might be consigned to the history books, but its legacy remains. Othering and fearmongering remain a prominent tool used by this Conservative government to achieve its aims. The nasty party is still in effect, aided by media outlets bleating hate from the rooftops. To achieve a society where LGBT+ people aren't just “tolerated” but included and valued, our approach must be intersectional and unrelenting.
This piece has been adapted with permission from Brian's blog, which is hosted here.