November 2023 marked the 20th anniversary of the repeal of Section 28. Section 28 of the Local Government Act was a piece of homophobic legislation in force between 1988 and 2003, which prohibited schools and local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality as a “pretended family relationship”. It blighted the lives of LGBTQ+ people, and inspired bold, defiant acts of protest and pride. Its afterlives continue to be felt to this day.

Although Section 28 represents an important period of recent LGBTQ+ history, it is less widely known than it should be, including among younger LGBTQ+ people. This is a continuation of how it operated while it was still in force – as a silent, forbidding presence, seldom explicitly cited or invoked but effective nonetheless in sustaining an atmosphere of shame and secrecy. This silence was amplified in contexts like the South West, where LGBTQ+ people could often already feel isolated from community and information.

Section 28 tried to suppress LGBTQ+ voices: this project aims to ensure that they are heard, and the experiences of LGBTQ+ people under Section 28 are acknowledged and put on the historical record. At the heart of the project are oral history interviews conducted with LGBTQ+ people living in the South West today. In November 2023, we showcased these testimonies in an exhibition in Exeter, and across 2024 we’ll be collecting even more stories by LGBTQ+ people who lived through the Section 28 period, so we can better understand its impact and legacies.

The project team are proud to acknowledge the generous support received from sources within the University of Exeter, including the Alumni Annual Fund, the AHRC Impact Accelerator Account, the ESRC Festival of Social Science, and the Faculty of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. From November 2023, the project is being funded by a National Lottery Heritage award, for which the project team are extremely grateful.

What was Section 28?

Section 28 of the Local Government Act was a piece of homophobic legislation introduced under Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It came into force in 1988, and was only repealed in England and Wales fifteen years later, in 2003; it was repealed in Scotland a little earlier, in 2000. It prohibited local authorities from “promoting homosexuality” as a “pretended family relationship”.

Here is the relevant part of the legislation in full:

A local authority shall not —

(a) intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality;

(b) promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.

Although no one was ever successfully prosecuted under it, Section 28 caused a huge amount of fear, pain, and confusion over the course of its lifetime, and its after-effects continue to be felt to this day. It dismissed the possibility of LGBTQ+ relationships as anything other than “pretended”. It blighted LGBTQ+ people’s experiences of schooling and education, whether as students, teachers, or parents. It sustained an atmosphere of silence and shame deeply felt at home and work, as well as in the public sphere. And it inspired bold, defiant acts of protest and pride.

At the time Section 28 was enacted, it is important to remember that LGBTQ+ people in Britain were subject to a wide range of other legal inequalities and societal prejudices. There was nothing in the law to protect people from being sacked or evicted because of their sexuality or gender identity. Sex between men had been partially decriminalised in 1967, but only for two men over the age of 21 in private, and gay men in particular were vulnerable to prosecution for “gross indecency” by police and to extortion by blackmailers. The age of consent for gay men was only lowered first to 18 in 1994 and finally to 16 in 2000, after sustained campaigning for equality. This was also the period of the AIDS crisis in Britain, which began in the early 1980s. Many, including politicians and the media, seized on the AIDS crisis as a “gay plague”, fuelling a homophobic moral panic. Section 28, in other words, didn’t come out of the blue.

The project to date

To raise awareness about Section 28 and its legacies in the South West, we conducted oral history interviews with LGBTQ+ people who lived through this period across summer 2023. These testimonies were at the heart of the exhibition which launched to mark the twentieth anniversary of the repeal of Section 28 in November 2023 in the Forum at the University of Exeter’s Streatham Campus. The exhibition has been on the move ever since and has been on display at the Positive Light Projects on Sidwell Street in Exeter, the Intercom Community Centre in Exeter, and Exmouth Library, and will be at Penryn, Torbay, and Exeter Pride in the coming months . If you’d like to host the exhibition, please get in touch – we’d love for as many people as possible to learn more about Section 28, and we are happy to loan copies of the exhibition without charge.