Lessons from History

Polly Penter London, England


February 23, 2023

A record number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills filed across a raft of US states in 2021 led some to label it the worst year in recent history for LGBTQ+ legislative attacks. Many of these seek to limit or even ban discussions of sexuality and gender identity in the classrooms, and some could see books being banned and even students being outed to their parents.

For those of us who grew up in the UK in the 80s and 90s, this brings back painful memories and a sense of disbelief that, 20 years after we consigned our own "don't say gay" law to the realms of history, there are forces working to impose versions of that same law on the next generation.

Almost my entire schooling took place in the shadow of a law called Section 28 of the Local Government Act, a pernicious piece of legislation that banned the "promotion" of homosexuality by local councils and in schools, underpinned by overtly homophobic rhetoric from the Prime Minister herself, who said: "Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life. Yes, cheated."

The results were immediate and widespread. Books were taken off library shelves and out of school curricula. Gay teachers were forced to live double lives, fearing their employment would be at risk if they so much as hinted at their sexuality. Many teachers felt that they could not intervene if they witnessed homophobic bullying among students, for fear that any resulting conversation about sexuality would put them on the wrong side of the law. Non-heterosexual sexualities were erased from sex education, which was becoming more widespread in schools across the country. This meant any student questioning their sexuality was made to feel that they should not - or did not - exist. If young people learned anything at all about what it meant to be LGBTQ, it was either from media headlines - which in the 80s often focused on the horrors of AIDS, fuelling fear of LGBTQ+ people (and gay men in particular) - or from films and books, which often presented an overly-dramatised view that did not chime with reality. (If you're interested in finding out more, the film Blue Jean was inspired by the experiences of teachers at that time.)

While attitudes towards heterosexual sex liberalised into the 90s, Section 28 remained. Teenagers in classrooms across the country found themselves putting condoms on cucumbers and other appropriately phallic items in an attempt to ensure that their inevitable sex would at least be safe but gay students were not instructed - despite the continuing prevalence of HIV in the gay community - how they could stay safe. As for bisexual, pansexual and many other students, I'm sure there were many who, like me, didn't know that such a thing even existed, and rather assumed they were simply "going through a phase" or failing to mature at the rate of their classmates.

Section 28 was not repealed until 2003 - the year I left university. Today the UK is a very different place - the UK's first museum dedicated to Queer life opened last year - but the flurry of bills in the US, as well as the UK government's reluctance to commit to Trans rights, is a wake-up call that history often repeats itself. So, in this year's LGBT+ History Month, I'd like us not just to learn about history, but from history, and to continue to learn and reflect beyond the month itself.

Arcadia is running a number of events in March which I hope many students will join, including:

  • A screening of the film Pride on Monday 13th March in the Tower Room (there will be snacks!) Pride is the astounding true story of a group of lesbian and gay activists in London who raised money to support striking miners in the 1980s - the friendships that grew out of it contributed to the Labour Party's support for gay rights in the decades that followed.

  • A Talk of the Town event on Tuesday 21st March at the Lamb on Lambs Conduit Street with Gethin Roberts, one of the real-life activists depicted in the film.
  • A Hidden London trip to the Queer Britain Museum 

We hope to see some of you there!