The Inalienable Right to be Gay: The Legacy of Clause 28

(Photo: The Guardian)

By Bella Robinson – Sub-Editor

Apart from the obvious brilliance of highlighting the cruel and devastating impact AIDS had on gay men and their friends in the 1980s, Russell T Davis’s new show ‘It’s a Sin’ also reminds us just how anti-gay politics was. Whilst gay sex was decriminalised in Britain in 1967(for those over 21), the AIDS crisis heightened stigmatism towards the LGBTQ+ community.  The fear of catching AIDS and the lack of public knowledge around the subject is thought to have led to Margaret Thatcher’s demonisation of the gay community. 

By 1988, the Local Government Act banned the “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities and in Britain’s schools’ under ‘Clause 28’. Local authorities were no longer able to fund LGBTQ+ groups as they had been doing or have gay books in public and school libraries. In the show ‘It’s a Sin’, newly qualified teacher Ash Mukherjees is asked on his first day to censor the school library under Clause 28 by removing any books that may promote homosexuality. He rants to his friends at a party later that day about the absurdity of this.  

“I found nothing. I checked Shakespeare, nothing.  You might get versions on stage that get a bit fruity with men in togas but you need to ban the director not the book because in the whole of Shakespeare there’s not one man with a man or one woman with a woman. Dickens? Nothing. He wrote about the rich and the poor and the dwarfs and saints and orphans and ghosts. Not one homosexual, not anywhere. Jane Austen did not write about Lesbians” 

He goes on to talk about history books, culture, art and religious books and “there is not the slightest danger of any child being infected because there’s not one gay man or women anywhere. There is nothing, that’s what you are protecting them from. Nothing”. 

Of course, he only said this to his friends, any protest could have gotten him fired and the school would have every legal right and government backing to do so. The fear of being ‘infected’ with homosexuality, as one could be infected with AIDS, was enough to keep Clause 28 in place despite protest. The Labour Party’s submitted a resolution in 1985 to criminalise discrimination against lesbian, gay and bisexual people, in part due to the Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) support to the mining unions during the pit closures. However, the Aids Crisis had emboldened Thatcher, who claimed that “children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay”. Moreover, she believed these children were being “cheated of a sound start in life. Yes, cheated.” 

But as Ash reminds us, there is nothing that can encourage someone to be gay or promote the gay lifestyle. You are born gay and censoring any mention of this can lead to a life of guilt and shame, something Thatcher’s government inflicted on a whole generation of LGBTQ+ people. Despite the progress that had been made on gay rights since the 1960s, this was seen by most as a dangerous backwards step

In 2017, an unofficial blue plaque was placed at Parliament commemorating three lesbian protesters who abseiled into the chamber of the House of Lords to protest Clause 28. That year, activists stormed the BBC, handcuffing themselves to a TV camera and disrupting a broadcast of the Six O’clock News and more than 20,000 people marched in Manchester while the actor Ian McKellen came out publicly for the first time, all in opposition to Clause 28. The clause was eventually lifted in 2001 in Scotland and 2003 in the rest of the UK. 

Whilst this may all seem like a difficult, but distant period in history, the recent Zoella ‘scandal’ may be collateral damage from that time. This week, GCSE Exam board AQA made a statement outlining their reasoning for removing content from Youtuber Zoe Sugg, or ‘Zoella’, from their syllabus, claiming that it was due to her ‘sexual content’, specifically regarding her content that highlighted sex toys. Sandra Allan, AQA’s Head of Curriculum for Creative Arts said in a statement that “Zoella’s recent content is aimed specifically at an adult audience and isn’t suitable for GCSE students.” Sugg hit back at these claims, saying that “It worries me that they think 16-year olds aren’t exploring their own bodies”.  

Whilst it may seem like a fairly unimportant story at first, it does perhaps highlight a continuing problem with the curriculum, in that it teaches teenage students that sex isn’t about pleasure. The only legal requirement for sex education schools have is to teach about reproduction. There is no requirement to teach about sex for pleasure, sex for gay people or non-binary/transgender people who may not feel comfortable having sex in the body they have been given. The argument from many LGBTQ+ people is that, for example, sex toys are particularly important, and that removing sex positive and inclusive content is reducing sex to reproductive uses and creating a shame culture around other types of sex or sex for other reasons. This shows that whilst Clause 28 may have been officially removed from schools, some of its regressive attitudes still remain. 

According to the British Social attitudes report in 1987, 3/4 British people ‘disapproved’ of same sex relationships. The same year every household received sombre leaflets warning “don’t die of ignorance”, and 9 out of 10 people thought there was something wrong with sexual relations between two adults of the same sex. Whilst tolerance and understanding has increased every year since, that does not mean that certain attitudes do not remain. David Cameron may have legalised gay marriage in 2014, but as an MP, Cameron repeatedly attacked Labour’s plans to abolish Clause 28 and accused Blair of being “anti-family” and wanting the “promotion of homosexuality in schools’, before voting against its repeal in 2003. In a similar fashion, five of the current government cabinet, including prominent figures Gavin Williamson and Priti Patel, voted against the legalisation of gay marriage. Moreover, 16 out of 22 cabinet MPs, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, were absent in the House of Commons vote to allow same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland in 2019. The British Social attitudes report in 2018 showed that the proportions of British people who support premarital sex and same-sex relations fell for the first time since 1987. For Transgender people this is 10% lower, with 82% of people fairly or totally comfortable with a transgender person as a neighbour, manager, GP, or Prime Minister. 

Attitudes are better but setbacks in education can retain stigma and produce damaging consequences for school children that can have effects for the rest of their lives. British attitudes and governance have come a long way since teachers like Ash Mukherjees were told to censor library books, but the censoring of blogs may be too reminiscent of those times. Whether it be in media, politics, or education, it is important that people are taught that they do have ‘an inalienable right to be gay’, and this fact must be fought and protected so that future generations do not have to live in fear like those in the 1980s.

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