Remembering Section 28

Religious Fascism, a new book on the repeal of Section 28 and the rise of religious extremism in Scotland was launched last month. We chatted to its author, Garry Otton, about the impact of the legislation

Feature by Tasha Lee | 03 Jun 2014
  • Deviance

Section 28 was a legal amendment introduced in 1988, which barred state schools from ‘advocating’ or ‘encouraging’ homosexuality. Known as Section 2A in Scotland it was in place for more than ten years, eventually being repealed in 2000. Gay rights activist Garry Otton, author of Religious Fascism – a new book covering the repeal of Section 28 and the rise of religious extremism in Scotland – explains the context that the legislation emerged from. He says: “Accompanying the law’s passage in 1988, a firebomb went off at the offices of London’s gay newspaper, Capital Gay.

“Far from condemning the action, Conservative MP Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman stood up in the House of Commons to voice her contempt for gay sex and declared that it was 'right that there should be an intolerance of evil.' What followed were a dramatic increase of attacks on gay men.” The event Otton refers to took place on Dec 15, 1987 during a debate on Section 28 itself. The number of queer-bashing attacks on gay men and lesbians increased dramatically around this time and was commented on by politicians who opposed the legislation.

It’s also important to recall that homosexual sex was only decriminalised in Scotland in 1980. Those involved had to be over 21 and the sex had to take place in private. 20 years later, as the newly founded Scottish Parliament was finding its identity, moves started to be made to repeal Section 2A. The Equality Network, which was recently instrumental in campaigning for same-sex marriage in Scotland, were heavily involved in these efforts. However, many dissenting voices still remained – particularly within religious communities. Stagecoach owner and evangelical Christian Brian Souter ploughed £1m into a ‘Keep the Clause’ campaign, which aimed to halt the progressive dismantling of Section 2A.

Souter privately funded a postal ballot and, although it was dismissed as being unrepresentative, it returned an apparent 86% support. It’s understood that less than a third of Scotland’s 3.9 million population who were registered to vote at the time responded to the ballot. This climate of hate was alarming for those who lived through it. Otton, who began writing for ScotsGay magazine around this time, says, “Social conservatives in churches and mosques united under the Keep the Clause banner to vilify gay people and discredit intellectuals writing to newspapers defending gay people. What was so much like Nazism was to see diagrams in the tabloids at this time showing how to distinguish homosexuals.”

The personal effect of this vilification sometimes had exceptionally tragic consequences. Otton brings up the case of a 16-year-old boy called Ethan who committed suicide on the eve of Section 28’s repeal after being bullied in his Catholic school for being gay. Increased awareness of homophobic bullying was one of the factors in the Scottish Government’s decision to repeal Section 2A. In their consultation paper they wrote: “One of the most convincing arguments for repeal is the way it could reduce the incidence of homophobic bullying in Scottish schools. A significant feature of bullying in schools is the issue of sexual orientation.”

The Scottish Government also recognised that teachers were often afraid to tackle homophobic bullying in school, for fear of legal consequences. The Christian Institute, an evangelical Christian pressure group, published a document called ‘The Case for Keeping Section 28: Protection from Manipulation’ in response. In it they explain the legislation for their readers by saying: “It bans local authorities from using public money to promote homosexuality and from presenting homosexual families as acceptable.”

The document goes on to dismiss evidence that children were being bullied in schools for being gay as ‘anecdotes’ and demands that, not only should Section 28 be retained, but that parents should be given the power to withdraw their children from sex education and expect schools to respect the 'majority' view that homosexual practice is morally wrong. These suggestions were, and still are, exceptionally harmful. Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell wrote during the repeal process that: “The guidelines are not inclusive enough. They do not oblige schools to provide pupils with gay sex education and safer sex advice. To safeguard their well-being, gay students need specific, affirmative information about homosexuality and HIV prevention. The guidelines do not require schools to provide this information. That is a weakness.”

The mention of HIV prevention is especially important in that the first cases of GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency), the name initially given to Aids, started appearing in the UK in 1982. Prior to the outbreak of the HIV virus gay rights in the UK had been steadily improving, but the epidemic caused a backlash and helped to create the initial environment for Section 28 to thrive.

Although Section 28 had a specific exception for health promotion purposes, HIV prevention work was severely restricted by the climate of fear that it nurtured. In practice it prevented safer sex information from reaching school children and, critically, prevented gay and bisexual male pupils from being educated about HIV. 

By 2003 around 10,000 gay and bisexual men had died of AIDS in the UK.

Nearly fifteen years have passed since Section 2A was repealed, but Otton maintains that schools are not doing enough to encourage safe sex. He says: “On the face of it, teachers are able to promote safer sex, but the subject still remains toxic with teachers more likely to err on the side of caution.” To echo Peter Tatchell’s statement from so long ago – in this case caution is weakness. 

Religious Fascism by Garry Otton is out now, published by Ganymedia