Section 28

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1988 Sir Ian McKellen with Michael Cashman at the Gay Rights March on Manchester in protest of Section 28.

Section 28 was a controversial anti-gay amendment to the United Kingdom's 1988 Local Government Act, enacted on 24 May 1988 and finally repealed on 18 November 2003. The amendment stated that 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"[1] (

In essence, Section 28 prohibited local councils from distributing any material, whether plays, leaflets, books, etc, that portrayed gay relationships as anything other than abnormal. It also appeared to prohibit teachers and educational staff from discussing gay issues with students for fear of losing state funding (see Controversy over applicability for more information). It was also used to close lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual student support groups in schools and colleges across Britain[2] (

While going through Parliament, the amendment was constantly relabelled with a variety of clause numbers as other amendments were added or deleted to the Act before the authors settled on labelling it '28'. Section 28 was also sometimes referred to by its old name, Clause 28 - in the UK Parliament amendments are called clauses before they become law[3] ( Since the effect of Section 28 was to insert a new section '2a' into the Local Government Act, it was also sometimes referred to as Section 2a[4] (



Section 28 was a product of intense media interest in homosexuality and the right-wing Thatcherite Conservative Government of the late eighties/early nineties. The spread of AIDS brought about wide-spread public panic and fear, much of which was directed at the gay and transgender communities.

In 1983 the tabloid newspaper the Daily Mail reported that a copy of a book entitled Jenny lives with Eric and Martin - portraying a little girl who lives with her father and his gay boyfriend - was provided in a school library run by the Labour-controlled Inner London Education Authority. It is thought the resulting moral panic made a major contribution towards the subsequent passing of Section 28.[5] (,6000,130836,00.html)

As a consequence, many Conservative backbench MPs became concerned that left-wing councils were indoctrinating young children with what they considered to be homosexual propaganda. In 1986 Lord Halsbury tabled a Private Member's Bill in the House of Lords entitled "An act to refrain local authorities from promoting homosexuality". At the time, the incumbent Conservative government considered Halsbury's bill to be too misleading and risky. However, the law successfully passed the House of Lords and was adopted by Conservative MP Dame Jill Knight. However, swamped by the announcement of the 1987 general election and lacking government support, Halsbury's bill failed.

On 7 December, 1987 Conservative MP David Wilshire re-introduced an amendment to the Local Government Act for a similar clause, entitled Clause 28[6] ( The new amendment was championed by Knight and accepted and defended by Michael Howard, Minister for Local Government. Despite having very little to do with the broad remit of the Act, which dealt with the compulsory tendering of school services[7] (, they attempted to quickly and quietly slip the amendment through Parliament. After being debated on 8 December, 1987 it was presented to the House of Commons on 15 December 1987, shortly before the parliamentary Christmas recess.

Section 28 became law on 24 May, 1988. The night before, lesbians protested, abseiling (or rappelling) into Parliament and famously invading the BBC's Six O'Clock News[8] (, one managing to chain herself to Sue Lawley's desk and sat on by Nicholas Witchell[9] (

Controversy over applicability

After Section 28 was passed there was some debate as to whether it actually applied in schools or whether it applied only to local authorities. Whilst head teachers and Boards of Governors were specifically exempt, schools and teachers became confused as to what was actually permitted and tended to err on the side of caution.

A National Union of Teachers (NUT) statement remarked that "While Section 28 applies to local authorities and not to schools, many teachers believe, albeit wrongly, that it imposes constraints in respect of the advice and counselling they give to pupils. Professional judgement is therefore influenced by the perceived prospect of prosecution." [10] (

Similarly, the Department for Education and Science made the following statement in 1988 regarding Section 28:

"Section 28 does not affect the activities of school governors, nor of teachers... It will not prevent the objective discussion of homosexuality in the classroom, nor the counselling of pupils concerned about their sexuality."

It is said that when Knight heard this, she was somewhat upset, remarking that:

"This has got to be a mistake. The major point of it was to protect children in schools from having homosexuality thrust upon them." [11] (

While it is obvious that the original intention of the bill was to affect schools it is unclear whether Section 28 actually had any such effect. In response to these criticisms, supporters claimed that the NUT and Department of Education were mistaken.

Certainly, before its repeal, Section 28 was already largely redundant: sex education in England and Wales has been regulated solely by the Secretary of State for Education since the Education and Skills Act 2000 and the Education Act 1996. Nevertheless, many pro-gay and anti-gay campaigners still saw Section 28 as a symbolic issue and continued to fight their own particular causes over it until its repeal.

Political response

The introduction of Section 28 was a blow to the gay rights cause, but it also served to galvanise the disparate British gay rights movement into action. The resulting protest saw the rise of now famous groups like Stonewall, started by, amongst other people, Ian McKellen, and OutRage!, subsequently led by Peter Tatchell[12] (

While the gay rights movement was united over Section 28, gay issues began to divide the Conservative party, heightening divisions between party modernists and traditionalists. In 1999 Conservative leader William Hague controversially sacked frontbencher Shaun Woodward for supporting the repeal of Section 28, prompting pro-modernising Tories, such as Steve Norris, to speak out against the decision. 2000 saw prominent gay Conservative Ivan Massow defect to the Labour Party in response to the Conservative Party's continued support of Section 28.[13] (

There is only one case of Section 28 being used to bring a case to the courts against a council. In May, 2000 - the first and last case of its kind - the Christian Institute, an evangelical organisation, unsuccessfully took Glasgow City Council to court for funding an AIDS support charity which the Institute alleged promoted homosexuality.


On 7 February, 2000, the first attempted legislation to repeal Section 28 was introduced by the Labour Government, but was defeated by a House of Lords campaign led by Baroness Young.

In the newly devolved Scottish Parliament the repeal process was more successful. Despite the efforts of various groups - including an attempt by millionaire and evangelical Christian Brian Souter to run his own privately funded public poll as part of his Keep the Clause campaign in an attempt to discredit reformers[14] ( - Section 28 (more popularly known as Section 2a in Scotland) was successfully repealed by the Scottish Parliament on 21 June, 2000 with a 99 to 17 vote, with only two abstentions.

On 24 July, 2000 legislation to repeal Section 28 was once again re-introduced and passed the Commons in a free vote. In the intervening period between the last attempt to repeal Section 28 the Labour Government had drastically reformed the House of Lords, removing the majority of the hereditary peers. Concessions were also made in the form of the new Learning and Skills Bill which emphasised family values and which was hoped would win over opponents. However the repeal once again stalled in the House of Lords.

Despite consecutive defeats in the House of Lords to repeal Section 28 in England and Wales, the Labour government passed legislation to repeal this section as part of the Local Government Act 2003. This passed the Lords and received Royal Assent on the 18 September 2003 and the repeal became effective on the 18 November 2003.

Kent County Council

However, Parliamentary repeal was not the end of the story for Section 28. In 2000 Conservative councillors at Kent County Council (KCC), lead by Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, narrowly voted in favour of introducing a new, local regulation meant to replace Section 28 in the event of its repeal.

This new regulation was sometimes referred to as the "Kent Section 28" or, more tongue-in-cheek, "Son of Section 28" and was hotly opposed by gay rights groups, particularly youth-orientated ones such as the Queer Youth Alliance. It stated that "KCC shall not publish, purchase or distribute material with the intention of promoting homosexuality". There is no mention of "pretended family relationships" as in the original and the new regulation, in a nod towards tolerance, also stated that the new education directives would:

"Enable children to lead a healthy, fulfilling and meaningful life in which they respect themselves as individuals, whilst developing an understanding, tolerance and respect for others and their differences, treating all people as equal."

In December 2004 KCC re-worded their regulation to remove any references to homosexuality, apparently after Lockheart read an article in the Gay Times.[15] (


Section 28 was primarily supported by religious groups such as The Christian Institute, the African and Caribbean Evangelical Association, the Christian Action Research and Education, the Muslim Council of Britain, and groups within the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. The Conservative Party, despite dissent within its ranks on the issue of gay rights, remained in favor of keeping Section 28 up until its repeal. In the House of Lords the campaign against the repeal of Section 28 was successfully led by the late Baroness Young, who became synonymous with opposition to gay rights in the House of Lords. Newspapers that strongly supported Section 28 included The Daily Mail and The Telegraph.

In Scotland the most visible supporters of Section 28 were Brian Souter and the Daily Record newspaper.

The main argument used in support of Section 28 was that it protected children from predatory homosexuals and advocates seeking to indoctrinate vulnerable young people into homosexuality. Various other arguments were also used in support of Section 28 which are summarised as follows:

  • The promotion of homosexuality in schools undermines marriage.
  • Section 28 only prohibited the promotion of homosexuality and did not prevent legitimate discussion.
  • Section 28 did not prevent the counselling of pupils who are being bullied.
  • Proponents pointed to various polls to demonstrate that public opinion favoured keeping Section 28.[16] (


Gay rights advocates, such as Stonewall, OutRage!, the Pink Paper and the Gay Times formed the major opposition to Section 28 and led the campaign for its repeal. Prominent individuals who spoke out for the repeal of Section 28 included Sir Ian McKellen, Michael Cashman, Ivan Massow, Mo Mowlam, Simon Callow, Annette Crosbie, Michael Grade, Jane Horrocks, Michael Mansfield QC, Helen Mirren, Claire Rayner, Ned Sherrin and Alan Moore. Boy George wrote a song opposed to Section 28, entitled "Clause 28". The song Shoplifters Of The World Unite by The Smiths is also rumoured to be about Section 28. It was also opposed by some religious groups and leaders, such as Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford. Newspapers that came out in opposition included The Guardian, The Independent and The Daily Mirror. Political parties that were opposed to Section 28 included the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party. In the House of Lords the campaign for repeal was led by openly gay peer Waheed Alli.

The main point of argument against Section 28 was that it discriminated against homosexuals of all age groups, and that it was an intolerant and unjust law, unfairly and needlessly labelling gay family relationships as "pretend". Various other arguments were also used against Section 28 which are summarised as follows:

  • Evidence was emerging that, by excluding gay support groups and gagging teachers from protecting victims of homophobic bullying, Section 28 was actually endangering vulnerable children.
  • Section 28 came with a loaded, homophobic assumption that homosexuals were inherently dangerous to children, wrongly equating homosexuality with paedophilia.
  • Not only did Section 28 prevent the promotion of homosexuality, it appeared to give a legal reason to oppose it in schools and other forums.
  • The fact that Section 28 was law gave an impression to the public that the government sanctioned homophobia.
  • It was legally flawed and redundant thanks to the Education and Skills Act 2000 and the Education Act 1996.
  • Despite claims that Section 28 was used to manage teaching about gay issues in schools it didn't actually directly apply to schools and, in fact, it only applied to local authorities (see Controversy over applicability for more information).
  • It was poorly worded and ambiguous leading to confusion for teachers over what they could and couldn’t say and whether they could help pupils who faced homophobic bullying and abuse.
  • Polls indicated widespread acceptance of homosexuality and indicate that parents would like their children to be taught tolerance for LGBT people.

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