The story of Section 28 – its heroic opposition and eventual rescind
by Jake Rosenberg, Internal Communications Executive, Close Brothers Group
The story of Section 28 can be seen as a key milestone in advancing care, medication and research for HIV/AIDS across the UK. For me, it’s one of the strongest examples of a LGBTQ+ movement shifting the goal posts and changing the mind of a nation.
Section 28 was introduced into law in May 1988 across the UK. Teachers were prohibited from discussing even the possibility of same-sex relationships with students, whilst councils were forbidden from stocking libraries with books or films that contained LGBTQ+ themes. This forced young people to look elsewhere for educational material and role models, often putting themselves in harm’s way by doing so.
The introduction of Section 28 stirred the British gay rights movement to a halt. It was met with uproar from LGBTQ+ activists, highlighting the inequalities and lack of support from the government for adequate care, medication and research for HIV/AIDS victims.
Key opposing campaigners
Booan Temple, together with three protestors, stormed BBC1’s newsroom where Sue Lawley was reading the Six O’clock News. The BBC decided not to press charges, so they made their way from Shepherd’s Bush police station to the Houses of Parliament to join protesters, as Section 28 passed into law that night.
Now a Labour politician, in 1988 Michael Cashman was in his second year on EastEnders, where he played Colin, one of the first gay characters in a national soap. As a gay man with such a public spotlight, Michael helped lead the campaign against section 28. He later helped to form the political lobbying group Stonewall.
During the 1980s, the activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) staged multiple ‘die-in’ protests, laying down on a road or in a public space to represent the many forgotten gay and bi men and trans women who lost their lives to the virus.
On 20 February 1988, one of the largest LGBTQ+ demonstrations ever held in the UK took place throughout Manchester City Centre. 20,000 protestors took to the streets to demonstrate against the government and Section 28.
In one of the most memorable protests, a group of lesbian activists abseiled into the House of Lords after the Section 28 bill was voted in favour for. Sally Francis helped orchestrate the protest.
Concerned about its effect upon the arts, and fearing for its implications on a wider scale, actor Sir Ian McKellen went live on BBC Radio and came out at the age of 48.
The following year, he also became a founding member of the political lobbying group, Stonewall.
Section 28 was voted in favour of repeal in Scotland, in 2000, and the rest of the United Kingdom, in 2003.
The heroic protestors and lobbyists not only laid the groundwork for the eventual withdrawal of Section 28 but also sped up the process of finding a critical treatment for AIDS. They also led the charge on demanding equal rights and drove much of the activism - eventually leading to legal protections for LGBTQ+ people decades later.