It’s ten years since the repeal of Section 28 in England and Wales, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, Gloria De Piero, shares her thoughts on what the policy symbolised for the LGBT community in an exclusive article for PinkNews.co.uk.
Ten years ago today we finally repealed the hateful and offensive Section 28 from our statute books. It was a landmark for LGBT rights, and one of the most important and proudest acts of the Labour Government.
During the 15 years it was in force it came to symbolise the prejudice lesbians and gays faced in society, but it also demonstrated the incredible strength and courage of a community which wasn’t prepared to be bowed by bigotry or ignorance. Stonewall was founded in reaction to Section 28, and by the time Tony Blair repealed it, we had criminalised homophobic hate crime, Chris Smith had been elected as the first openly gay MP and civil partnerships were on the horizon.
I was 15 at the time and went to a Catholic school which – back then – wasn’t the easiest environment to be out in as an LGBT kid; I remember briefly dating a guy in my teen years who came out as soon as we left school. Section 28 only fed the sense of exclusion he and other kids must have felt.
My colleague Fiona McTaggart MP was a school teacher at the time it was in force and was told that she mustn’t “promote the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.
Fiona describes one pupil in particular who joined her class of 10 and 11-year-olds half way through the year because she’d been bullied at another school. When she arrived she was very quiet and reserved and would only write short sentences. She was scared of taking risks, of making herself vulnerable because she knew what bullying was like and so hid her ability.
“My job as her teacher was to make her feel safe”, but Section 28 took away one tool she could use as a teacher, because this girl’s parents were lesbians so Fiona couldn’t talk about families like hers in class. “I cannot think of anything which more excludes a child than denying that the parents who love them so much actually are a family. By the time she left she felt safe enough to write extended pieces, but that law made sure she was always an outsider even if she didn’t feel scared all the time anymore.”
Section 28 institutionalised the idea that homosexuality should be something to be ashamed of, and it taught young people gay and straight that it was right to deny difference rather than celebrate it.
It was right to abolish it, but even in 2003 this was not an easy won consensus. The Tories tried to amend the provision and it was defeated twice by the House of Lords before finally being pushed through by a Labour majority in the Commons.
So seeing the House of Lords ten years later queuing up in huge numbers to vote through equal marriage whilst raucously serenaded outside by the London Gay Men’s Chorus, wonderfully demonstrated just how far we have come as a society.
But while today we rightly celebrate our progress, today must also be an opportunity to galvanise our resolve in tackling the problems which remain.
Recent reports that some schools are using reminiscent language in their teaching codes, and that some teachers are being told to hide their sexuality are shocking and the government must act decisively to it.
The harder task though, is the evolution of attitudes, of language and culture.
The impact of Section 28 on pupils like Fiona’s cannot be underestimated. And its legacy is something which is still felt today by young LGBT people in schools, on social media and throughout the time they are growing up.
That more than half of lesbian gay and bisexual pupils have experienced homophobic bullying, and two in five have attempted or thought about taking their own life is truly shocking.
We have a responsibility to these young people to ensure that they have positive messages and role models to look up to, and I pay tribute to the fantastic work of Schools Out and other organisations which teach all our young people to wear our differences with pride and celebrate those of others.
We need more of this work, much more, and we need other areas of public life from our football pitches to our TV screens to catch-up too.
Gloria De Piero is the Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities.