Skip to main content

Section 28, and LGBTQ+ people in UK schools

This tweet was getting a lot of attention in my feed last week:

SOCIAL EXPERIMENT: If you come across this tweet, reply with the grade you were in when you had your first LGBTQ+ teacher. #edchat

Like many people, the answer for me is “never”. I was in full-time education until I was 21, and I don’t remember having any openly LGBTQ+ teachers.

There are lots of reasons that might be the case – but reading the replies to Patrick’s tweet, there’s at least one reason that not all UK readers seem to be aware of.

Section 28 was a UK law introduced in 1988, which banned local authorities from the “intentional promotion” of homosexuality and homosexual relationships. That meant schools too – you couldn’t teach students about same-sex couples or relationships, or even mention them.

This was in a backdrop of negative attitudes towards homosexuality. Gay sex wasn’t illegal any more (the laws used to prosecute Alan Turing had been gone for two decades), but surveys of social attitudes were generally not favourable towards LGBTQ+ people.

The law lasted 15 years – enacted in 1988, repealed in Scotland in 2000, and in the rest of the UK in 2003. During that time, it was incredibly risky to even mention gay people in a school classroom – so how likely was it that a gay teacher would be willing to be publicly out?

Section 28 was rolled back while I was still in school, but I’m sure it cast a long shadow over what I was (and wasn’t) taught. I think same-sex couples got a very brief mention in one RE lesson, and that was it. But I didn’t learn about the law until I was much older – maybe 2013?

This is why a lot of people get touchy when politicians like Esther McVey say “parents know best” about whether to teach children about LGBTQ+ people, because it conjures up painful memories of Section 28.

It’s not the only reason you might not have had an openly LGBTQ+ teacher – but if you grew up in the UK, it’s likely a factor.

After my original reply to Patrick’s tweet, I had several people say “I’d never heard of Section 28 before!”, even though it overlapped with their schooling – hence this post.

This post was originally a thread on Twitter.