Section 28 Stories

Members of ASLEF remember the impacts of Section 28 which prohibited the 'promotion' of homosexuality in schools

This September sees the 20th anniversary of the repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1988) which was a piece of legislation that added, to the previous Act, these words:

‘A local authority shall not intentionally promote homosexuality, or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality, or promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.’

A bit wordy. But, in this 21st century, there was still a piece of legislation that made it illegal for any local authority department – including schools – to say it was okay to be lesbian or gay.

"To me, section 28 was a crime on humanity. To be made to feel like I was abnormal and inferior is something no one should ever be made to feel again. It deprived me of a life and left me with mental scars which I will carry forever" - Nick Marland, Equality Rep

So, let’s look back to its introduction. It was enacted in May 1988 by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. It was seen by the Tories as a populist vote winner and we have to look at why.

The AIDS epidemic was all over the television, with public information films. Every single household in the UK received a ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ leaflet and those on the right-wing of the political spectrum, and their chums in the media, especially papers such as The Sun and Daily Mail, used the situation to stigmatise HIV and AIDS and to promote hatred of the gay and lesbian community.

That was the background to the introduction of this amendment to the Local Government Act, fuelling anti-LGBT prejudice and forcing many people back into the closet, which was, ironically, responsible for increasing the spread of HIV.

the aslef logo with rainbow colouring

Many campaign groups took to the streets to protest at this incredibly discriminative piece of legislation. The Northwest Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Equality was responsible for orchestrating a march in Manchester of about 20,000 protesters including the actor Ian McKellen – who was prompted to come out publicly to oppose the Act – and Michael Cashman (who, in EastEnders, enjoyed the first gay kiss on British TV), now Lord Cashman, a Labour peer, and lifelong campaigner on equalities issues.

The Act was in force until 2000 in Scotland and 2003 in England and Wales, affecting thousands of lives - preventing teachers from living as their true selves, and generations of young people from being able to get support to understand their sexual orientations at school.

But it would appear that the terrible threat to life as we know it, that Section 28 was meant to prevent, hasn’t materialised in the 20 years since its repeal. Local authorities continue to organise community groups and promote acceptance and tolerance in their workplaces. Schools are allowed to acknowledge the positive family units that may involve two men or two women as the parent model. And, when teaching sex education, are able to help educate those children who may need specific advice on the difficulties of growing up lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

Sadly, the rhetoric around Brexit, and even covid, has, once again, seen a rise in right-wing rhetoric. A recent petition gathering more than 190,000 signatures has demanded that the government brings back Section 28. At more than 100,000 signatures this petition will now be debated in Parliament.

We can never take for granted the hard-fought for victories we have achieved. Socially conservative right-wing reptiles will always look to take us back to the Dark Ages. Let us never again deprive young people of positive role models of people just like them.

Richard's Story

richard gray

As a young gay man of 25, 20 years ago I was so pleased to see the back of Section 28.

This restrictive, prescriptive and divisive act ruined and ended many lives denying any question of education for gay kids at the height of the HIV+ crisis.

I, like many my age, got taught the birds and the bees at school, how to prevent pregnancy and how to stop STI transmission but it meant nothing to me. Living in Kent and going to a conservative and Christian school and, not being out at school for worry of ridicule, I said nothing.

It would have been great for gay or lesbian sex to be covered on the curriculum but alas it was not.

Time passed and I became a sexually active adult but I knew nothing about condoms as these were to stop babies, right? I could have asked a college tutor but they couldn’t tell me by law!

So, looking back and seeing how far we have come, teens can ask and we keep them healthy and safe, we must guard this freedom and never go back.

Richard Gray

Morden Branch

Watch: Ross

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Nick's Story

I personally, didn't know what it meant to be gay while I was growing up. I just knew that it was wrong. It was something to be ashamed of.

I was constantly worried that people didn't like me or that they're making fun of me, and I will always carry with me the idea that I'm not good enough, that there’s something wrong with me.

The lack of information I received about LGBTQ+ issues in school has affected me in later life. I didn't get any advice about what a healthy relationship should be like. I had no role models. There was a lot of loneliness and isolation.

People, I’m sure, noticed I was different, and I was very aware that I was not like others, but how could I grow up normally and work out my identity as a person? I had no education about it, I had no friends that I could talk to, I had no teachers to confide in and I had no family I could take comfort and love from.

I don’t think this was because they were homophobic or anti gay, but no one really knew how to start a conversation or approach the subject. It was a taboo subject and that was primarily driven by section 28. I became very insecure, unhappy, lonely and quite quiet. And I know now there were many others like me too, whose lives have been affected long term.

To me, section 28 was a crime against humanity. To be made to feel like I was abnormal and inferior to others is something no one should ever be made to feel again.

It deprived me of a normal life and left me with mental scars which I will carry forever. No government should ever be allowed to create laws like this ever again.

Now I’m very open and I talk about my life. I feel that with understanding, barriers between people are broken down and it is easier for us all to live our lives as our genuine selves without constraint.

Nick Marland


Watch: Darran

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David's Story

When I left school, I went to university to study to be a teacher. I did a BEd (Bachelor of Education) degree, with the intention of becoming a music teacher. The introduction of Section 28 came during the spring term of my first year at university.

My first experience of the Act was a briefing document I received before my first teaching practice. This laid out all the ills of the world for which we should be on the lookout. Things like child abuse, suspicion of a notifiable disease, head lice, and, of course, anybody mentioning the ‘gay thing’. Yes, there I was, a motivated young educator, raring to influence young minds, but being briefed that my very existence was up there with child abuse and nits.

I was out at university – something that was far more difficult in the 1980s than it is now – however, I was proud of who I was and wasn’t relishing the thought that I may have to hide it again.

My second brush with Section 28 was whilst on my second year teaching practice at a rather conservative school in Monmouth where the headteacher called me aside to advise: ‘Don’t mention the gay thing; our sort of parents don’t want sexual deviants teaching their little ones.’ Adding, for good measure: ‘Oh, and you know it’s against the law to tell the kids, anyway.’ As far as memory allows, these quotes are verbatim.

My first thought on receiving this advice was, of course, that I appeared to be missing out on all this sexual deviancy. If I was having the name I quite fancied having the game, as it were. This was the ’80s, don’t forget, and a time before Tinder and Grindr. My outrageous homosexual activities consisted mainly of the gay night on the first Monday of the month at the aptly-named Queen’s Hotel in Newport. Where you got to do a slow dance at the end of the night with another fella.

My second thought was to reflect on how I could have been a positive role model to any child who, like me some years previously, may have been struggling with their sexual identity.

I did complete my BEd; however, I never did enter the teaching profession. I regret to say that the purpose of this legislation had the desired effect on me.

David Jones

Swansea High Street Branch

Watch: Nick

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James's Story

james sutherland

I was in my late teens when Section 28 was put into statute by Thatcher.

As a gay man, working Edinburgh as a chef at the time I pretended to be straight with a girlfriend.

As I worked with hostile colleagues who were very homophobic.

Walking along Princess Street I couldn’t hold my partner's hand at the time in public. Due to one occasion I did and was set upon by a group of lads who beat us up, one evening.

In the 90s even as I got older, at work, in my late 20s and 30s moving down south in ‘95 to become a bus driver homophobic comments were still rife.

But even when I joined the railway in 2003, homophobic 'banter' was even more rife than I could ever anticipate.

I would say it took 15 years to gradually get less and less.

Where I am now there is no homophobic abuse I am pleased to say at EMR, St Pancras, that I’ve experienced.

It is true what they say, you grow a thick skin over time but you also die a death inside of a thousand cuts.

James Sutherland

St Pancras Branch

Watch: Alan

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Watch: David

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James's Story

James sutherland

20 years ago, I was a confused teenage lad, growing up in rural North Wales. 

Like many gay folk; before I had fully realised, accepted and began to enjoy my sexuality, I felt a deep feeling of 'other'.

Social policy, and its manipulation by heinous political leaders, transcends to all areas of life; there was little to no discussion of sexuality at school, there were no LGBT+ youth groups; all a result of Section 28.

This policy 'othered' gay men and woman and left thousands of LGBT+ youths in schools to suffer in silence, whilst a blind eye was turned to us.

But thankfully, one teacher at my school did the right thing; 'You know, it is fine and normal, just come and talk to me if you are struggling.'

That’s all I needed, someone to acknowledge my then unease and offer help.

Let’s celebrate the end of this vile policy, and celebrate those who fought against it!

James Sutherland

Manchester Victoria Branch