LGBT+ inclusion: Teaching in the time of Section 28
Section 28 was introduced in 1988 – the year I started university. Growing up in the 1980s, LGBT+ people were visible in youth culture, from Boy George’s colourful performance of ‘Karma Chameleon’, through Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s then-controversial ‘Relax’, to Bronski Beat’s haunting ‘Smalltown Boy’. Against the backdrop of an HIV epidemic, with the media increasingly prejudiced against gay men, and an establishment fearful of counter-cultural political movements, the government enacted an overtly discriminatory law stating that local authorities shall not promote ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.
Working in South London in my gap year after university, I fell in love with a woman. Being pre-internet, I’m grateful to Balham Library for providing access to information by courageously keeping gay and lesbian books on its shelves, despite Section 28. Having a church-going background, coming out was not straightforward. Going back to uni that autumn to do teacher training, I left home thinking I’d gained a girlfriend and lost my family.
Overall, the course was brilliant. The photo in the article shows the group of five science trainees from my placement school – I’m in the middle. However, I felt the effect of Section 28 in the session about teaching sex education. We were told never to talk about gay sex. Perhaps this was good advice, given Section 28 and the fact that it wasn’t until 2003 that gay people had employment rights – before this, you could lose your job for being gay.
In the science departments I worked in, I don’t think Section 28 changed sex education; it remained similar to my experience from the 1980s – limited to facts about sexual reproduction, with homosexuality unmentioned. Perhaps PSHE did better: I remember a Year 10 PSHE day in the late 1990s where external visitors taught about safe sex.
I believe the lack of discussion of LGBT+ relationships was harmful to young people. Section 28 silently promoted a culture of bullying and stigmatisation, contributing to a higher proportion of young LGBT+ people struggling with ill mental health, greater drug use, truancy, lower academic achievement, and suicide. This is why it’s so important that we talk openly about LGBT+ people in schools.
Thankfully, Section 28 was repealed in 2003. And today, I’ve reclaimed the toxic language of Section 28 and live happily in my ‘pretend family unit’ with my partner, our four cats and three dogs. But there’s more work to be done to make our education system more inclusive for LGBT+ pupils and teachers. If you’re teaching, take a look at Stonewall’s resources for creating more inclusive lessons.