On 24th May 1988, Section 28 of the Local Government Act came into force in Britain. It required that a local authority ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’. Nor should it ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. In that same year the British Social Attitudes survey reported that 74% of respondents believed that homosexual relationships were ‘always or mostly wrong’, a 12% increase from the previous survey in 1983. It seems unlikely that these two outcomes are coincidental.
Conservatives and their media allies deliberately exploited and exacerbated homophobia to discredit the Labour opposition. And they did so comfortable in the knowledge that the Labour leadership’s immense discomfort with lesbian and gay rights would prevent any real challenge.
For the greater part of the decade, the Conservatives and the tabloid press had traded extensively on three particularly alarmist myths. The first was that, because homosexuals could not reproduce, they were keen to ‘recruit’ young people. The second was the notion that discussing homosexuality with young people would inevitably lead them to adopt it. And the third was that giving equal rights to homosexuals would increase the spread of HIV/AIDS. Dame Jill Knight, a principal supporter of Section 28, had expounded this view in a 1987 speech to the House of Commons:
Millions outside Parliament object to little children being perverted, diverted or converted from normal family life to a lifestyle which is desperately dangerous for society and extremely dangerous for them.
The tabloid press had also done much to misinform the public about HIV/AIDS. Continued reference to the disease as ‘the gay plague’ and the use of headlines like ‘Blood from gay donor puts 41 at risk’ (The Sun, 21st December, 1984) suggested that gay men were not only the host community but also culpable in the very genesis of the disease. Digby Anderson’s opinion piece in The Times (21st November, 1984) made this absolutely explicit when he wrote, ‘The infection’s origins and means of propagation excites repugnance, moral and physical…’ [author’s emphasis].
Headlines and straplines continued unabated: ‘It’s spreading like wildfire’ (The Sun, 1st February, 1985), ‘Brutal truth about AIDS: No one’s safe’ (The Sun, 12th August, 1985) and ‘Kiss of Death’ (The Star, 27th September, 1985). So too did the persistent use of the term ‘plague’, massively exaggerating the risk of transmission and further instilling fear in the wider public.
Against this background it was only a very small step to the conclusion that any local authority support for gay men would put ‘innocent’ people at risk. For example, on 9th December, 1986, The News of the World, opined, ‘Some Labour councils encourage AIDS with grants to homosexual centres. So do Labour education authorities telling children that homosexuals living together are as stable as married couples’.
Given the Labour Party leadership’s immense reticence on lesbian and gay rights, any chance of a spirited challenge to these assertions was out of the question. Leading Labour Parliamentarian Neil Kinnock set the tone in December 1981 when the National Executive Committee (NEC) refused Peter Tatchell’s endorsement as a Labour candidate. When asked if he thought there had been a witch hunt against Tatchell, he replied:
I’m not in favour of witch hunts but I do not mistake bloody witches for fairies!
In 1987 Patricia Hewitt made the NEC’s view clear in a much-leaked letter to Labour Member of Parliament (MP) Frank Dobson: ‘The “Loony Labour Left” is now taking its toll; the gays and lesbians issue is costing us dear amongst pensioners’.
This certainly explained Labour’s National Executive Committee’s sustained resistance to lesbian and gay rights (bisexual and trans rights were yet to feature on anyone’s political agenda). At the 1985 Party Conference they ignored a 58% majority vote in favour of a lesbian and gay rights motion because it was insufficient to constitute a mandate. In the following year that mandate was achieved with a 79% majority vote. Nonetheless, it was watered down to a one-line manifesto commitment to ‘outlaw discrimination against lesbians and gay men’.
The 1988 conference passed, with an 84% majority, an extensive lesbian and gay rights motion that included a commitment to oppose Section 28. At a meeting of the NEC in May 1989 Deputy Leader Roy Hattersley initiated a successful vote to remove the motion from Labour’s policy platform.
Deleting a requirement to oppose Section 28 came as little surprise; the Parliamentary party’s opposition had ranged from non-existent to ambivalent during the Bill’s passage through Parliament. In December 1987, in the committee stage of the Bill, Labour MP Jack Cunningham expressed Labour’s support for it, arguing that neither councils nor schools should promote homosexuality.
Even when the Bill was debated for the second time in Parliament, the Labour leadership were undecided as to whether they should call for the deletion of Section 28. They opted instead to seek amendments – none of which were successful.
The constant concern with Labour’s media profile, combined with the leadership’s own discomfort with the so-called ‘Loony Left‘, left Labour ambivalent about outright opposition to Section 28. Instead they sought to navigate a safe passage that suggested that the spirit of Section 28 was laudable; it just needed a few tweaks. Having painted themselves so tightly into that particular corner, it was inconceivable that they could come out fighting from there.
Despite the complete absence of any prosecutions under Section 28, it would be 15 years before a Labour government finally repealed it. It seems that they had finally got the message. But not so the Conservatives: when repeal was first debated in 2000, Prime-Minister-to-be David Cameron argued that its repeal would be ‘deeply unpopular’.
Colin Clews is a freelance writer following a career in the HIV/AIDS field in the UK and Australia. He is the author of the blog Gay in the 80s and the newly-published book Gay in the 80s: From Fighting for Our Rights to Fighting for Our Lives.
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