[This was originally a twitter thread but as twitter could possibly die (at the time of writing, Nov 2022) I’m reposting it here.]
I’m clearly not going to get around to writing a blog post so instead here’s my thread on Section 28 that was in place during my time at school. Relevant now because of the rising backlash to LGBTQ rights in the US, UK and many other countries. [cw: CSA, suicide]
What was Section 28? It was part of the Local Government Act that came into force in 1988. The section prohibited the promotion of homosexuality in schools. It also prohibited teaching that homosexuality was acceptable as a family relationship: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1988/9/section/28/enacted
I was 13 years old in 1988. I had been attracted to other boys from many years before but I think I can say that around the age of 13 was when the attraction became ‘sexual attraction’ (we could debate what counts as ‘sexual’ but let’s leave that aside). So there I was at 13 years old having feelings for people of the same gender as me as well as other genders. My school could only teach about heterosexual relationships (the act prohibited ‘promotion’ but effectively ended all teaching about homosexuality). For context, there was the HIV/AIDS panic, UK media regularly demonized gay men, my parents like the majority also held homophobic views at that time. What did 13-year old me need in 1988? Someone to talk to about my feelings, to say that they were OK, that I wasn’t evil or defective.
Section 28 was in place until 2003, which meant all of my secondary education took place in an environment where homosexuality was effectively rendered invisible and off-limits. I was a confused teenager coming to grips with feelings and emotions and needed support.
For many years before this I’d been regularly bullied and my bullies would shout homophobic slurs at me as they spat, kicked or punched me. Of course I internalized this and felt deep shame at my ‘deviant’ feelings. I felt extremely alone. I thought I was the only kid at school with these feelings. Sex education consisted of the biology of reproduction. When safe sex was discussed we were taught to use condoms but entirely in the context of heterosexual sex. Weird terms like ‘heavy petting’ were used that made no sense and it seemed like the teacher was more embarrassed than the students.
The hardest part of the whole experience was that feeling of loneliness. My friends were straight. All the other pupils at school were straight (I thought—I’ve subsequently found out that of course it wasn’t true).
As I turned 14, then 15, I was already smoking and drinking and at 15 I’d decided that I wouldn’t live beyond 25 years old. School, the media and many of my friends added to a hostile environment towards anyone with homosexual desire. I wanted to die.
(A quick aside: Bisexuality was rarely discussed except in the media where bisexuals became seen as a dangerous vector bringing the ‘gay disease’ (AIDS) to heterosexual couples. Bisexuality wouldn’t have it’s moment until the mid-‘90s).
When I was 8 years old a man had molested me and made me perform sex acts on him. All I knew about sex at that point was how babies were made because my parents were very open to answering questions straightforwardly. But I didn’t know about consent. I didn’t know what ‘sex’ was.
When I was 15 I was sexually assaulted by a woman, her husband and their friend. By that point I’d recognized in myself that I was attracted to all genders (though not using that language), but I still didn’t understand what sex (or sexual assault) was. It had never been taught to me. I lost my virginity (in a heterosexual sense) at the age of 15 while high. I was doing a lot of self-destructive behaviour, living in a world where I developed strong feelings towards people of the same gender and other genders but it was the love that dare not speak its name.
I came out as bisexual at 18 at university (here’s my coming out story: https://sheepchase.net/2020/10/coming-out/). I had a breakdown about a year later which I now know was a development from the trauma I’d experienced as a child.
Now in middle age I’m having therapy to deal with childhood trauma and while mostly focused on the violence I experienced, this violence was mixed with queer-phobia which unquestionably affected my developing personality and self-image.
Section 28 hung over my education from that first-sexual-feelings age right through until I graduated university. So here’s the thing. Queer kids existed then as they do now. Prohibiting discussion of homosexuality/non-heteronormative gender identity etc. won’t prevent kids from being queer. It only prevents queer kids from understanding themselves. In many cases this can lead to suicidal ideation, self-destructive behaviour and even death. The current anti-trans discourse is developing into an anti-queer discourse. Cis lesbians and gay men shouldn’t feel they are safe because the same forces that led to Section 28 are in play again (bisexuals have pretty much always been vilified, especially bi men). LGBTQ people need to stick together and fight this together. Queer kids’ lives literally depend on it.
You’ll notice I haven’t addressed the main argument FOR this kind of legislation: that without it kids could be ‘turned’ queer. Why? Because there is NOTHING WRONG with being queer. All talk about whether we’re ‘born this way’ or not is a distraction. Either society supports queer people or not.
So, in summary. Section 28 was awful and damaging. Any attempts to create similar legislation should be vehemently opposed.