Repealing Ban on Discussing Homosexuality in Schools

As a youthworker supporting young LGBT people, the Section 28 campaign felt pretty personal to me. I had to walk to work past billboards saying “protect our children” – and that meant from people like me! It was a very tough year, but we won in court, we won in parliament, and we won the media campaign too.

Patrick Harvie, GREEN

A series of homophobic attacks on LGBT equality and pro-LGBT Labour councils by Margaret Thatcher’s government led to a ban on discussing homosexuality in schools.

Section 28 (s28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was a controversial GB-wide amendment to local government law, enacted on 24 May 1988.

It stated that a local authority should “not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

Teachers, confused as to what was actually permitted, tended to err on the side of caution and were afraid to tackle homophobic bullying, while many LGBT groups were forced to close or limit their activities or self censor.

Tim Hopkins, director of the Equality Network, said: “The first ever demonstration in Britain against the introduction of s28 was in December 1987 in Edinburgh. We set up the Equality Network – originally a group of friends around a kitchen table – in 1996 and repeal of s28 was top of the list of the things we wanted to change. We published a blueprint manifesto and backed the devolution referendum as we knew a Scottish Parliament would lead to better decision-making and hear Scottish voices more clearly.”

The charity, then run by volunteers on a shoestring budget, campaigned along with other equality bodies for equal opportunities to be at least partially devolved in the Scotland bill.

Hopkins said: “We contacted the Equal Opportunities Committee as soon as parliament was up and running in September 1999. The committee took evidence from the Communities Minister Wendy Alexander and in November the Scottish Executive announced the repeal of s28. Scottish Labour had been committed to repeal and perhaps initially it was seen as an easy win for the executive.”

The newly devolved Scottish Parliament made history by repealing s28 as part of the Ethical Standards in Public Life (Scotland) Act, which passed on 21 June 2000. It was eventually repealed in the rest of Britain by the Local Government Act in November 2003.

The repeal paved the way for further devolved legislation and policy to improve LGBT rights and equality on issues: including hate crime, adoption, equal marriage and the inclusion of LGBT issues in the curriculum.

However a Keep the Clause campaign against repeal was launched by conservative religious organisations and backed by the Daily Record newspaper. The Catholic Church claimed repealing s28 would be damaging to children.

Many organisations and individuals joined the Scrap the Section campaign to support the repeal. Five of the six parties at Holyrood supported repeal, while the Conservatives made an unsuccessful case that instead, education law should include a proviso that schools had to promote the primacy of marriage.

Hopkins said: “It was a fundamental indication of the direction the Scottish Parliament was going to take. If we had lost, it would have set LGBT equality back decades.”

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Page last modified on 7th June 2019