Paul Baker’s book Outrageous is a long overdue analysis of how the Tories introduced Section 28 in the late 1980s. The title sets the mood—both a condemnation of the Tories’ attack on LGBT+ people and a humorous, camp, satire of the bigots’ reactionary attitudes.
Section 28 was Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to outlaw the “promotion of homosexuality”. It was a response to Labour local authorities, such the Greater London Council (GLC), which had started to take homophobia seriously. Books like Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin became a target for the right wing press. The Tories wanted to end gay activism in councils and erase any mention of LGBT+ issues in schools.
The absurdity of the phrase “promote homosexuality” is explored well in the opening chapters. Baker documents the vicious level of homophobia that came from the Tories. At the 1987 Conservative conference, Thatcher argued, “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.”
The Tories’ hate ran deep. When the office of Capital Gay—London’s free weekly newspaper—was burned down, Tory Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman said, “It is quite right that there is an intolerance of evil.” Section 28 came at the height of a moral panic over the HIV and AIDS pandemic. It was bound to raise the level of homophobia.
Section 28 became law in 1988. I was a student teacher and saw it create a fear of raising any issues around LGBT+ rights. Educators started to self-censor. Schools became wary of making policy or developing strategies for an inclusive education. Educators were worried about using texts or resources with LGBT+ content for fear of being disciplined or facing parental complaints. Little was done to challenge homophobic bullying. Many educators and students felt unable to come out. Baker is clear about the disastrous effects of the law.
Baker is less clear about why this happened. After three election victories and defeats for the trade union movement, the Tories were confident about dividing the working class further. They used the ideology of marriage and the nuclear family at the heart of capitalism to outlaw any other lifestyle that did not fit the heterosexual norm.
The chapter, The Path of Most Resistance, shows the range of responses to Section 28. They involved stunts like abseiling into the House of Lords and zapping the BBC Six O’Clock News. The two London demonstrations, and the 20,000-strong demonstration in Manchester, in 1988 were angry and raised the level of protest nationally. They didn’t stop Section 28.
However, Baker raises an important question—what turned the tide? In 1987 the British Social Attitudes Survey reported that 64 percent of people said that relations between two adults of the same sex “was always wrong”. Yet, by 2003 that figure was down to 31 percent. By 2016, 64 percent were in favour of gay marriage. How did that happen?
Baker argues that it was a mixture of things—more people coming out, HIV infection staying low and, ironically, more understanding of sex and sexuality in society.
However, a key form of resistance and organisation was being built as the Tories were developing their hate campaign. During the Miners’ Strike of 1984/5 Lesbians and Gays forged solidarity with the South Wales Miners as documented in the film Pride. After this, the Labour Party and every trade union established LGBT+policy, representation and organisation. Trade unions were way ahead of the curve in popularising LGBT+ rights. By 1997 Section 28 looked like the bullies’ charter that it was. This is underplayed in the book.
Nevertheless, Baker is right to be critical of Tony Blair’s government, which took six years and two parliaments to abolish Section 28.
Today, Section 28 still resonates. After I explained to the LGBT+ Lunch Club at my school what Section 28 was, they said that they felt it had never been abolished. The prevalence of homophobia is still real. Furthermore, the way that trans people have been treated in the last 10 years echoes the Section 28 campaign. They’ve seen vilification in the press, demonising and othering, and the refusal to make rational changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) or to recognise the legal rights of non-binary people.
At the end of Outrageous, Baker sees Section 28 as “a story of good coming out of bad”. In one way that is true—the resistance won. But there is so much more to do in schools today to make life better for LGBT+ students and educators. There is so much more to achieve than just “rights”. There has to be liberation.
A film that deserves its acclaim
The greater terror was internment
A story of excitement and fear