The Local Government Act 2003

s.122 Repeal of prohibition on promotion of homosexuality

Section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986 (c. 10) (local authorities prohibited from promoting homosexuality) ceases to have effect.

Entered into force 18th November 2003

Ten years ago today, this perniciously homophobic piece of legislation was repealed. Its removal from the statute books was a landmark victory for the gay rights movement and while ten years later there is still much work to do, it is undeniable that the UK is a more tolerant nation than it was when Section 28 was first introduced.

Legislating on social issues is difficult but it is sometimes necessary. There are many taboos that exist for good reasons. However, these must be talked about in the open. Debate must not be replaced with propaganda and innuendo. If something is genuinely a problem, if it is genuinely harmful to society, it will be possible to say so. Section 28 was the product of a society that was unwilling to talk about an issue and tried to legislate it away through censorship. Thankfully it was ultimately unsuccessful and is now rightly consigned to history. It must however, serve as a warning. It was conceived from the fears of the conservative population who could not bear the challenge to their traditional way of thinking.

The language adopted was telling. Local authorities were banned from doing anything to

"promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship."
The inclusion of the word pretended was propaganda in legislative form. Once upon a time this was commonplace. Ancient acts would add colourful descriptions to the crimes they forbade; the words evil, unnatural and blasphemous, have all lent their weight to the statutes of the past. Yet, by the twentieth century this practice had fallen away. Enlightened democracies have discovered they do not need to legislate on matters of fact. The return of this form reveals the fear felt by the legislators that they were losing the argument. Rather than let the facts speak for themselves they created a form of censorship, one that persisted for fifteen years.

Section 28 was an extraordinary approach to education. For the decade prior to its introduction the government had been standardising teaching; introducing the national curriculum to ensure that all school children received the same basic standard of schooling. This was and remains a controversial approach, with many arguing that such prescriptive methods restrict teachers’ freedom to the detriment of their pupils. However, whilst it mandated the teaching of certain subjects, the national curriculum did not explicitly ban anything. If a school wanted to cover a subject, ordinarily they were free to do so. Except for homosexuality.

In retrospect, Section 28 has been defended on the grounds that it was intended to deal with a specific problem that existed at the time it was passed. According to the law’s supporters, children in some authorities were being encouraged to read materials that many people thought were inappropriate. Books celebrating homosexual relationships or graphically explaining sexual activity were allegedly being promoted in some areas. There was a fear amongst many social conservatives that children were being taught that the traditional family was outdated and irrelevant, or that they were being exposed to sexual content at too young an age.

If this is the case, what should have happened is a public debate on what should be taught to children and what is damaging. The merits of the traditional family and homosexual relationships should have been discussed openly. Unfortunately, this could not occur because the supporters of Section 28 did not believe such subjects should be discussed. Their defence was that to right-thinking people, the traditional way of life was instinctive and did not need rational justification. When directly challenged they spoke in terms of shocked, embarrassed innuendo.

Evidence of this bashfulness is found in the law itself. Instead of dealing in specifics, it adopts general and vague terminology, banning the promotion of teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality. No guidance was given by parliament as to what this would mean in practice. By adopting such vague language the legislators made innuendo into law. Statements issued afterwards give the impression that the legislators assumed that teachers would "know what we mean." In a sense they did. Without any formal statement as to what they were or were not permitted to say, and unwilling to teach by allusion, teachers felt that their only option was to avoid the topic altogether. Although some of the law’s supporters have issued statements to the contrary, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this was the intention. If it was not, the wording could have been more specific.

The damage done by Section 28 is hard to quantify and there are people far more qualified than me to write on the subject. I know, however, that anecdotes are widespread. Embarrassed teachers uncomfortably avoiding the subject. Gay teenagers being told that they should hide their sexuality because nothing could be done if they were bullied. Children growing up not knowing that gay relationships are common or that homosexual feelings are normal. The fact that in an early draft of this writeup I used the phrase “I was lucky enough to be straight.”