Monday, Nov. 18, will mark a special day in the UK: the 10th anniversary of the repeal of Section 28. Introduced by Margaret Thatcher's government in 1988, Section 28 was part of the Local Government Act and prohibited authorities in England and Wales from "promoting" homosexuality. The law also went as far as labeling same-sex family relationships "pretend."
Section 28 stated that "a local authority shall not promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship." This led to the teaching of gay issues in schools becoming nonexistent. Teachers became confused about what they could or could not say and were unsure about whether helping pupils deal with homophobic bullying was something they were able to do, so homophobic bullying went largely unchallenged. An amendment to Section 28 in 2000 meant that teachers could not be prohibited from taking steps to prevent any form of bullying, but the damage had already been done, and nothing really changed.
I went to school during the period of Section 28, starting in 1989 and leaving school in 2003, the year that the law came to an end. Homophobic bullying was rife throughout my school years. I was bullied from the age of 5, but at the age of 10, the bullying changed focus and became about my perceived sexuality. When I moved up to secondary school at 11, the bullying became more intense as the other children came to understand what being gay means. I was called homophobic names on a daily basis and would often be physically attacked. The teachers did nothing to help me or stop the bullying. Other people who were bullied because of their race or religion would be helped, but I was not, simply because it was about being gay.
There were a number of instances when I attempted to stand up for myself or ask the teacher for help. On many of those occasions, I was told to stop making a fuss and being a drama queen. I could not believe that this was being allowed to happen. It seriously affected my mental health, and I fell into a deep depression that lasted for 12 years.
It is fair to say that there have been improvements since the repeal of Section 28 in 2003. However, this doesn't reflect the wider picture. Homophobic bullying is still rife in many schools, and young people continue to face the same issues that I did in my youth. The Equality Act 2010 basically means that discrimination on the grounds of one's sexuality or gender identity is illegal, but it does not stop the discrimination that goes on within schools.
I now work as a therapist and diversity consultant, in addition to running Push Projects, an LGBTQ youth support charity. Through my work I get to come into contact with a number of young people and professionals. It has led to me returning to my old school to discuss my experiences and work with them on challenging homophobia and celebrating diversity. There is still a problem at that school, but they are now at a juncture where they are ready to do something to combat the issue. This is a positive development, but again, it does not reflect the bigger picture.
Many schools still see issues related to sexuality and gender identity as taboo and do not wish to discuss them. It's not just faith schools, either. In fact, the school that I returned to is a Catholic institute. This demonstrates that not all religious people or institutions are against homosexuality. However, getting back to the point, many schools in general still do not want to talk about "gay" topics. Some of this is perhaps the result of ignorance or denial. Some of it may be the result of fear -- a fear of not knowing how to combat the problems that exist, or a fear of how parents and governors may react. The former fear is a particularly important point.
I believe there to be a fear of not knowing how to combat bullying of LGBT students and promoting a positive representation of diversity, a fear that stems from a lack of training and real awareness. This is something else that I am trying to improve in my local area. I offer training and workshops on raising awareness of LGBT issues, how to tackle homophobic bullying, and promoting diversity in all its forms. It is a sad fact that no school or teacher is yet to take me up on that offer, but again, I feel that part of the reason is fear.
There are some individuals who are making great efforts and strides forward in working with schools and teachers, providing training and raising awareness. One particular person is Shaun Dellenty from Inclusion for All. A longtime admirer of Shaun's work, I was lucky to meet him in August when I invited him to speak at an LGBT Pride festival I organized. To hear of Shaun's inspiring work has spurred me on in my own efforts. I have contacted all the schools in my area once more, in an effort to open up a dialogue with them. It's a lengthy process and is infuriating, at times, but it is something that I will continue with until I achieve the desired outcomes.
Although there have been great strides toward equality in recent times, we are still reminded that there is some way to go. The situation in Russia and some other countries is sickening, and closer to home, I deal directly with young people who remain persecuted because of their sexuality or gender identity while their schools sit back and do nothing about it. Yes, it's getting better, but there's much more work to do. Section 28 has a lot to answer for.
"If Section 28 and the attitudes behind it had remained, then society would still believe that gay people are second-class citizens and that it is right that they should be treated as second-class citizens."
--Sir Ian McKellen