Last week, we commemorated (not celebrated) the implementation of Section 28.
If anyone is unsure exactly what this deeply damaging display of homophobic from the government (the first explicitly homophobic legislation decades) entailed, here is a quick explanation from PinkNews’ excellent overview of the legislation and the fight to get it overturned:
“From its very beginnings, Section 28 proved highly controversial. The clause, an amendment to the Local Government Act 1988, banned local authorities and schools from ‘promoting’ homosexuality.
In effect, this meant that councils were prohibited from funding of books, plays, leaflets, films, or other materials showing same-sex relationships, while teachers weren’t allowed to teach about gay relationships in schools.”
– What was Section 28? The history of the homophobic legislation 30 years on.
In 2003, after years of unwavering protest from the LGBTQIA+ community (reminding us, once again, that we stand on the shoulders of giants, and that we should be inspired by that on a daily basis), Section 28 was finally repealed. It was a resounding victory for a generation of activists who fought for a better future for all of us
But wounds that wide don’t heal overnight. So toxic was the legislation, particularly in placing a culture of fearful homophobic censorship in the hearts of a generation of teachers, that its poison lingers fifteen years later. And infected wounds will never fully heal.
“The shadow of Section 28 is very long. It is extraordinary to think that it has been dead for 15 years.
“You can go into schools now and there will be teachers who are still afraid to talk about lesbian and gay issues. Their assumption that it’s not appropriate, that it’s not acceptable, that it’s not legal, is still there.”
– Sue Sanders, chair of Schools OUT UK and founder of LGBT+ History Month, in an interview for PinkNews. She also taught under, and protested against, Section 28.
I started secondary school the year that the Section 28 legislation was finally beaten. And yet it continued to impact my life in increasingly sinister ways as I made my way through into adulthood.
From the very beginning (a sex and relationships lesson in our second year, in which a student’s question about same-sex relationships was answered with ‘we can’t talk about that, we’re not allowed to promote it, but if you must do it, so it safely’ – with no further explanation as to what ‘safely’ entailed) to the very end (my head of Sixth Form – I was told when I popped back in some years later – resorted to peppering her desk with LGBTQIA+ leaflets whenever I came in, as she suspected that my difficulties were rooted in confusion over my sexuality but was unable to bring it up with me for fear of ‘promoting’ it), Section 28 was the undead legislation that haunted my school career.
I was once reported because I responded to a teacher’s assertion that ‘homosexuality is unnatural, look at all the horrible diseases like AIDS that are spread by men sleeping together’ with ‘ooh, so lesbian sex is fine, phew, that’s a relief!’. The hypocrisy of the fact that my teacher’s statements were considered acceptable, whereas positive discussions of LGBTQIA+ existence were censored, was palpable. Not only do I have zero regrets for my sarcasm, but I don’t think my mother has ever been prouder of me for getting in trouble.
Several years later, off the back of my activism at university, I requested to return to my old school to give an LGBTQIA+ presentation. I wanted to give the next generation of queer students (and their friends) what I wish I had had. Although the school was initially surprisingly receptive to the idea, I soon found barriers being erected – an ever-growing list of things I wasnt allowed to talk about (including any discussion of intimacy), and then the announcement that it wasn’t ‘appropriate’ if I delivered it to anyone other than just the oldest students.
At that point, I withdrew from the project. Despite my guilt at not being able to give the students something they deserved, I had to step away for the sake of my own wellbeing. Even when I outgrew the school system, the legacy of Section 28 followed me like a bad smell.
My old school recently made the national news for being one of the most LGBTQIA+ friendly schools in the country. Whilst I was initially sceptical – this was the school that disciplined girls for linking arms or holding hands – further reading told me that this was a tale of victory for brave LGBTQIA+ students and their allies.
Against all odds, they set up a Gay Straight Alliance, and worked from within the school to neutralise the toxicity of Section 28.
I am proud of them. I am also angry. Angry that this was something they had to create themselves. Angry that they had to fight for something that should have been there from the beginning. And angry that so many were lost – emotionally and physically – in the decades of fighting that followed, and still follows, in the footsteps of Section 28.
But I want to move away from talking about Section 28 as the independent autonomous villain of modern queer history. I want to focus on what Section 28 really was – the ultimate manifestation of the bigotry of powerful people.
People created Section 28. People upheld it. People used their votes, their words and their pens as weapons to land strike after strike against queer kids – whilst daring to assert that they were working to protect children.
And now here stand those same people, contrition carefully arranged on their faces, equally carefully scripted statements of regret clutched in their hands as they face our community thirty years later. And we are expected to accept their apologies with grace and forgiveness, as if the damage done can be swept away with the benevolence of our queer absolution.
“The intention was the well-being of children, and if I got that wrong, well sorry but I didn’t believe… I’d have welcomed a letter from someone like you who knew what that legislation was feeling like.”
“I’m sorry if anything I did upset you. All I was trying to do was acting on what people wrote to me, said to me, what the papers said.”
– Baroness Knight, one of the architects of Section 28.
I do not accept these apologies. Because I do not believe they are sincere. I do not believe that, were the turning tides of political opinion not bending an arm behind their backs, the would be making these statements.
You can’t apologise for something that you make no attempt to understand. When you make explicitly clear that you don’t concretely believe in the hurt you are apologising for, then your apology is empty. When you apologise ‘if’ your actions hurt someone, rather than ‘that’ your actions hurt someone, then your apology is hollow. And When you insinuate that the person you’ve hurt is culpable for not saying ‘stop it, that’s hurting me’ in a loud enough voice (considering the marches, protests and a group of lesbian activists crashing a national news programme, I think they were plenty loud enough), then your apology is less than useless to me.
Even when I see apologies that do seem more sincere (whether the actually are, and whether they would stand by them should the tide of history turn back the other way, I can’t comment), I cannot find it within myself to forgive. Even without the self-serving ‘ifs’ or buts’, the words I hear (like ‘mistake’) do not address the gravity of what this legislation actually did, and is still doing, to the most vulnerable among us.
Section 28 was an act of violence against the LGBTQIA+ community, and it left a festering wound that is still open. In the face of this, the words of the people who once supported it seem meaningless.
I do not accept their apologies. It is my right to refuse it. It is our right to refuse if. And it is a right that must be respected, by those within the community and those outside of it.
Maybe one day I will look at them and be able to say, wholeheartedly, that I do forgive. And I don’t judge anyone who is at that point now.
But what I ask is that my decision not to forgive, and my longing for more than empty words, is not labelled as unhealthy bitterness and tossed aside.
The anger and indignance that burns inside me keeps me warm, keeps me focused and has brought me so many opportunities to change the world. I will not water it down for the purposes of respectability politics – not when people have died, and are still dying, as a result of their actions.
I won’t be guilted into a forgiveness that would be about as sincere as Baroness Knight ‘s so-called ‘apology’.
And if I do ever forgive, on my own terms, then I certainly will never let them forget.