Two cheers for Section 28

It provoked Ian McKellen to come out and inspired the birth of Stonewall. Far from crushing gay voices, ten years of anti-gay law have proved a powerful catalyst for change
Click to follow
IT IS crass, badly drafted and, according to legal opinion, virtually impossible to enforce. But for gay men and women, it is one of the most pernicious pieces of legislation ever passed, a reviled symbol of their second-class status in society.

Section 28 has cast a vicious shadow over the gay community for 10 years, and the Government's recent decision to delay its repeal came as a bitter disappointment. Some campaigners fear that it may now slip off the political agenda altogether.

There are issues that touch gays and lesbians more directly, such as the absence of any legislation protecting them from discrimination, and the failure of the law to recognise their partnerships. But the overt bigotry of Section 28 affects them on a particularly deep and visceral level.

The section, a last-minute amendment to a local government bill on compulsory competitive tendering, prohibits the "promotion" of homosexuality by local authorities, thus implying that sexual orientation is a matter of choice. It also forbids schools from teaching "the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". This is an offensive concept to the thousands who live in committed gay partnerships, some with children.

The language sounds strangely antiquated now. Yet it is easy to forget how much things have changed from the fevered climate of the late Eighties. This was the era when moral panic about Aids, "the gay plague", was at its height - fuelled by the excesses of the tabloid press - and when Tory MPs were parading their prejudices under the approving gaze of Margaret Thatcher. Elaine Kellet Bowman, a backbencher, told the House of Commons that she was proud to be "intolerant of evil".

Section 28 was a vindictive dig at an increasingly vocal and self-confident gay community, an attempt to reverse a liberalising trend and to rein in "loony" Labour councils that were allegedly using ratepayers' money to plug deviant lifestyles. Its effects were more far-reaching than could ever have been anticipated.

This was the first new legal restriction on homosexuality since the 19th century, and it sparked unprecedented defiance. Some 30,000 people spilled on to the streets of London and Manchester for the biggest-ever homosexual protest rallies. Debate in the Lords was disrupted by three lesbians who abseiled into the chamber from the public gallery. The day before the law came into force, four lesbians invaded BBC television studios while Sue Lawley was reading the early evening news.

But it was not only homosexuals who demonstrated. Section 28 was seen as an attack on freedom of speech, human rights and civil liberties. A rainbow coalition united against it: miners, librarians, libertarians and academics, not to mention celebrities from the arts world such as Sir Ian McKellen, who decided that it was time to "come out" and be counted.

It was the first taste of militancy for many "ordinary" gays and lesbians. Section 28 galvanised the community like no other issue, not even the 1960s campaign for the decriminalisation of gay sexual intercourse.

After two decades in which the march towards equality appeared inexorable, it was a nasty jolt and the new activists wanted to make sure they were never caught off guard again in the future.

Thus Stonewall, the first mainstream gay rights group, was founded by Sir Ian McKellen and his fellow actor Michael Cashman. Stonewall, which used professional lobbying techniques to win over MPs and the media, helped to change the shape of gay politics. OutRage!, Peter Tatchell's direct- action group, was also set up in the early Nineties.

"The Thatcher Government, quite unintentionally, unleashed an unstoppable momentum for reform," says Martin Bowley, QC and chairman of the Bar Lesbian and Gay Group.

"It was a watershed," says David Northmore, news editor of The Pink Paper. "For the first time in our history, campaigners had rights of audience with society's power-brokers. Protest moved off the streets and into courtrooms and debating chambers."

It is not only politics that have been transformed in the 10 years since Section 28. Many towns and cities now host Gay Pride events.

"It had the reverse effect of what Thatcher intended," says Mark Watson, Stonewall's campaigns director. "She hoped that we would quietly disappear. Instead, we became more visible than ever."