Eighteen years ago today, Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was officially repealed in Wales and England. It had been repealed in Scotland in 2000. 

The law, passed under Margaret Thatcher's tenure as Prime Minister, had banned local councils from “promoting homosexuality”, including the teaching of “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

It came to be during the tail end of a decade characterised by widespread, vicious and conspiratorial homophobia, as HIV/AIDs devastated queer communities and the anti-communist fervour of the Cold War era fuelled paranoia that Labour-led “Loony Left” councils were encouraging young people to be gay.

READ MORE: 33 years on we can’t let Section 28 happen again

Scotland’s Daily Record warned of “gay sex lessons” in schools, and in one infamous example, The Sun newspaper ran a front-page splash that read: “Vile Book In School: Pupils See Pictures Of Gay Lovers”.

The controversy centred on a children’s book, Jenny Lives with Eric & Martin, which told the story of a young girl being raised by gay parents – and to the outrage of many, featured a photograph of her waking up her dads to make breakfast.

This tame picture book was only available upon request from a London education authority library, but inflammatory media coverage at the time was sufficient to spark a nationwide panic.

The National Wales: Source: Siriol GriffithsSource: Siriol Griffiths

At the same time, stories about victims of the HIV/AIDs epidemic, believed to have killed approximately 36 million people worldwide to date, took a consistently derogatory and cruel tone. One story, again from The Sun, led with “I’d shoot my son if he had AIDs, says vicar!”

READ MORE: Independence movement - we have a transphobia problem

This atmosphere culminated in a speech by Margaret Thatcher to the 1987 Conservative Party conference, in which she railed against “extremist teachers” employed by local authorities.

“Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay,” she told the crowd.

“All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life."

The National Wales: Margaret Thatcher made her attitude towards LGBTQ education in her 1987 conference speech (Source: Public domain)Margaret Thatcher made her attitude towards LGBTQ education in her 1987 conference speech (Source: Public domain)

Around two months later “Clause 28” was introduced into the Local Government Bill by Conservative MP Jill Knight, and by 1988 it was law.

The law meant that many support services and groups for LGBT people, particularly those supporting LGBT youth, were disbanded, or lost vital funding as councils attempted to remain within the bounds of the new legislation.

Gay school teachers, meanwhile, felt unable to be open about their own identity at work, and schools became more reluctant to intervene when children experienced homophobic bullying.

READ MORE:

Researcher Dr Debbie Epstein told The Guardian in 2000: “Because they do not know how to comply with section 28, they err on the side of caution.

“As a result, they choose to ignore homophobic harassment and bullying whenever possible.”

The National Wales: Source: Siriol GriffithsSource: Siriol Griffiths

A 2019 study suggested that teachers who had worked under Section 28 were “still scarred” by the experience, reporting that they felt held back from applying for senior roles and living in the same area as their pupils.

The law sparked outrage and protest across the UK when it was implemented – and Wales was no exception.

In his book A Little Gay History of Wales, historian Daryl Leeworthy noted that hundreds attended a 1988 “Wales Against Section 28” rally in Cardiff, with attendees reportedly holding up placards bearing the areas they hailed from – in order to prove that gay people lived across the country.

The National Wales: Labour MPs Stephen Doughty and Anna McMorrin, and Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price, at Cardiff Pride. (Source: Siriol Griffiths)Labour MPs Stephen Doughty and Anna McMorrin, and Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price, at Cardiff Pride. (Source: Siriol Griffiths)

That same year, Welsh comedian Griff Rhys Jones and his comedy partner Mel Smith released a book, Janet Lives with Mel and Griff, to mock the homophobic reaction to Jenny Lives with Eric & Martin.

In Aberystwyth, CYLCH (Cymdeithas Lesbiaid a Hoywon Cymraeg eu Hiaith), a Welsh-speaking gay and lesbian group, protested against Section 28.

Wales has perhaps a richer queer tradition than many may realise.

The allyship that developed between striking miners in south Wales and London-based gay rights campaigners was dramatized in the 2014 film Pride.

The National Wales: Left wing gay rights activist Mark Ashton organised support for striking Welsh miners from the "Gay's the Word" bookshop in London. He died of AIDS aged 26. (Sources: Fæ/Bob Walker/Spudgun67)Left wing gay rights activist Mark Ashton organised support for striking Welsh miners from the "Gay's the Word" bookshop in London. He died of AIDS aged 26. (Sources: Fæ/Bob Walker/Spudgun67)

Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners raised thousands for the striking workers and their families, and in turn the National Union of Mineworkers was a vocal opponent of Section 28. A group of Welsh miners led the 1985 Gay Pride march in London.

Jan Morris, a transgender Welsh journalist and historian, was a member of the 1953 British Mount Everest expedition, a World War 2 veteran, and one of the first authors to write a candid autobiography about her own transition experiences. She died last November, aged 94.

The National Wales: Cardiff Pride (Source: Siriol Griffiths)Cardiff Pride (Source: Siriol Griffiths)

In A Little Gay History of Wales, Daryl Leeworthy also writes about textiles worker Tom Davies, born in the Afan Valley in 1899, who made a name for himself as a female impersonator performing as “Peggy Deauville”. He performed both locally and in Paris and London, and entertained troops during the First World War.

The National Wales: Norena Shopland, LGBTQ historian and author, will be speaking at this afternoon's event. (Source: AgeCymru)Norena Shopland, LGBTQ historian and author, will be speaking at this afternoon's event. (Source: AgeCymru)

Section 28 was officially repealed by the Scottish government in the year 2000, and the rest of the UK followed in 2003.

That year, as Rhondda MP Chris Bryant spoke on the subject in the House of Commons, himself openly gay, he was told by Conservative MP David Wilshire: "I believe that section 28 has worked, because the things that were happening stopped.

"If local government has no wish to promote or to attempt to promote homosexuality, what is the fuss all about?"

Conservative member Edward Leigh, who still sits in Parliament, added: "The current law works. It prevents the promotion of a lifestyle with which many disagree."

More recently, schools have become a battleground for those opposed to education on gender identity. Parents in the Isle of Wight attempted to sue their son's school over the issue in 2017.

A Telegraph headline from this summer reads: "CBBC's trans messaging is damaging children, says mother."

Reflecting on today’s anniversary, Norena Shopland, LGBTQ+ historian and author, says: “From the time Section 28 was enacted in 1988 to its repeal in 2003 not a single prosecution took place.

“But this iniquitous law was not without effect.

“For example, libraries, museums, and archives were banned from ‘promoting’ homosexuality, the legacy of which is that is even today it is difficult to name a museum that includes LGBTQ+ people in their permanent galleries.”

READ MORE: Non-binary Bangor mayor Owen Hurcum on making history in Wales

Jeffrey Weeks OBE, gay activist and sociologist says: “In my recent memoir Between Worlds: A Queer Boy from the Valleys, I look back on a Wales that refused to recognise me and people like me.

“It’s a great pleasure to be in a new Wales today that thrives on diversity and can celebrate those who struggled over many years to achieve fundamental and lasting change with and for LGBTQ+ people of all ages.”

The National Wales: Jeffrey Weeks OBE (Source: Age Cymru)Jeffrey Weeks OBE (Source: Age Cymru)

The two, along with leading trans rights campaigner Jenny-Anne Bishop OBE, educator Nazmia Jamal, National Museum curator for LGBTQ history Mark Etheridge, and theatre director Jane Hoy, will be speaking at "Here and Cwiar" today - a free AgeCymru Zoom roundtable celebrating the rich history of Wales’s LGBTQ+ community and commemorating the repealing of Section 28.

The charity says the event, which will begin at 4pm, has been “carefully crafted to help attendees of all ages discover the real stories of LGBTQ+ people in Wales”.

Norena Shopland will chair the discussion, which will feature Mark Etheridge on value of recording the lives of ordinary LGBTQ+ people in Wales and beyond, Jenny-Anne Bishop OBE on the power of transgender representation, and Jane Hoy on her favourite queer Welsh characters - including the ladies of Llangollen, the subject of her acclaimed recent play.

Tickets to the event are available here.

Localised support for LGBTQ people can be found here.

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.