What was Clause 28?

Liz Highleyman | February 16, 2006

Baron Waheed Alli

The fight against Britain's Clause 28, which prohibited local authorities from promoting homosexuality, galvanized the GLBT rights movement in England and Scotland.

The United Kingdom decriminalized private sex between men in 1967, but the gains of the 1970s and 1980s provoked a conservative backlash. In the midst of an AIDS panic and concern that liberals had become too pro-gay, Lord Halsbury introduced a bill in 1986 banning local governments from endorsing homosexuality. The bill passed in the House of Lords, and in December 1987, Conservative members introduced a similar measure in the House of Commons known as Clause 28, which stated that local authorities shall not "intentionally promote homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship."

Clause 28 galvanized the GLBT community. April 1988 witnessed the largest gay rights demonstration in British history, which brought out 30,000 protesters in London, including numerous celebrities. Educators, civic leaders, trade unionists, and health experts also opposed the law. The day before the vote, a group of women shouting "Lesbians are angry!" swung on ropes from the public gallery in the House of Lords chamber and later invaded the BBC's evening news broadcast. Despite strong resistance, the bill was adopted as Section 28 and took effect on May 24, 1988.

Although no one was ever charged under Section 28, it had a chilling effect. Educators complained that they were confused about what they could say about homosexuality and what services schools could provide for GLBT students. Gay activists claimed the new law legitimized homophobia and discouraged teachers from stopping antigay bullying. "If Section 28 and the attitudes behind it remain, then society will still believe that gay people are second-class citizens," said actor Ian McKellen. In 1989, McKellen and others formed Stonewall, a gay rights lobbying organization, and the following year, longtime activist Peter Tatchell co-founded the direct action group Outrage.

During the ensuing decade, debate over Section 28 only intensified. In Scotland, First Minister Donald Dewar announced plans to repeal the law in 2000. The "Keep the Clause" campaign was funded by millionaire evangelical businessman Brian Souter, head of the Stagecoach bus and rail company, prompting activists to launch a boycott and paint a Stagecoach bus pink. Against this opposition, the Scottish Parliament overturned the clause by a vote of 99-17 in June.

Despite the election of the Labour Party in 1997, the repeal effort proved more difficult in England. The House of Commons voted to overturn Section 28 in February 2000 and again in July, but was twice overruled by the House of Lords, an unelected body. Many religious groups favored keeping the law, with Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Catholic, Anglican, and black evangelical leaders speaking out against repeal. In the House of Lords, the repeal campaign was spearheaded by openly gay Muslim peer Baron Waheed Alli, who stated, "My experience of racism and homophobia has convinced me that Section 28 is a charter for bigots."

As the years passed, repeal became less controversial. In March 2003, the House of Commons overwhelmingly voted to overturn the law, and this time the House of Lords agreed by a wide margin; the repeal received final approval from the queen in September 2003. Exemplifying changing attitudes, Parliament approved a same-sex civil partnership law in November 2004, and the first gay couples were joined in December 2005.

For further information:

  • BBC News. 2000. "When Gay Became a Four-Letter Word." January 20.
  • Stacey, Jackie. 1991. "Promoting Normality: Section 28 and the Regulation of Sexuality." In Off-Centre: Feminism and Cultural Studies (Harper Collins).
  • Powell, Vicky. 1998. "Ten Years of Section 28." Gay Times (July).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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