Outrageous: The Story of Section 28 and Britain’s Battle for LGBT Education (Reaktion Books) by Paul Baker

Outrageous: The Story of Section 28 and Britain’s Battle for LGBT Education (Reaktion Books) by Paul Baker

Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin was an infamous book for young children variously described as “terrifying”, “boring” and “ridiculous”. Originally published in Denmark in 1981, a small run of editions appeared in English translation two years later. It sought to present an affirming image of a child being raised by same-sex parents, featuring black and white photographs of Jenny (played by the author’s daughter) and her two dads happily going about their daily lives together.

Produced with the best of intentions, Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin disastrously failed to take account of cultural differences between England and Denmark, notably by including a picture of the family eating breakfast in bed where Eric and Martin are shirtless. Despite the fact that few had apparently seen, let alone read, a copy, the book and similar literature provoked a moral panic in this country, antagonising a range of ghoulish moral entrepreneurs and far-right journalists.

At the same time, Labour-led local authorities in some areas of London were attempting to introduce what would now be referred to as LGBT-inclusive education in schools, which brought them into fierce conflict with Margaret Thatcher’s government. In the shadow of the Aids crisis, the legislation which became known as Clause 28, and later Section 28, was passed into law in May 1988. Its supporters believed that they were protecting children from harm. Section 28 demanded that local authorities should not “intentionally promote homosexuality or promote the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” It reached far beyond school classrooms, emboldening homophobic discrimination as well as fostering censorship and self-censorship.

Paul Baker’s popular history, Outrageous: The Story of Section 28 and Britain’s Battle for LGBT Education, provides a lucid and at times highly personal account of the rise and fall of Section 28, set against a backdrop of the turbulent moral and political conflicts of late 20th-century Britain. The book is at its best when narrating the popular resistance mobilised by the embattled LGBT community, ranging from mass public protests to pieces of audacious direct action. Oral history is used to relate two of the best known of these episodes, which “invaded” spaces at the heart of the establishment. In February 1988, members of “Lesbians against the Clause” evaded security and abseiled from the visitors’ balcony in the House of Lords, disrupting the debate. The protestors (who in a nice touch, supplied the names of famous lesbians in history instead of their own) were arrested. The following month, another group of lesbian activists, frustrated at the way the media was covering stories about Clause 28, launched an incursion into a television studio, disrupting a live broadcast of the Six O’Clock News. The ensuing scuffle generated the memorable headline “Beeb man sits on lesbian”.

The latter part of the book covers the rocky road to the repeal of Section 28 in the early years of the 2000s; the fruit of sustained lobbying of LGBT advocacy organisations and activists. The delay in repeal – six years from the election of Labour in 1997 – demonstrates the difficulty in removing Section 28 in the face of resistant public opinion. There is brief coverage of the separate battle for repeal in Scotland in which a wealthy evangelical Christian businessman bankrolled a “referendum”. Accompanied by a spike in homophobic hate crime, it was claimed to show that a majority favoured keeping the legislation. However, mainstream politicians and the Electoral Reform Society cast doubt on the poll, and the associated “Keep the Clause” campaign was ultimately unsuccessful. This moment in Scottish history deserves its own in-depth account.

If there is a weakness to this book it is perhaps the failure to fully interrogate socially conservative ideology. Firstly, there might have been more consideration of the religious context of Section 28: the secularisation of English society since the 1960s, the declining power of Christian ideas about sexualities and the attempted counter-revolution by Christian moral conservatives in the 1980s. Notably, the pushback in this country failed to generate a religious revival similar to that witnessed in the United States.

Secondly, there is the murky issue of why vocal advocates of Section 28 in the 1980s seemed to genuinely believe that homosexuality was somehow to be equated with child abuse. Baker speculates that perhaps some of the members of the House of Lords who contributed to the debates had been “involved in coercive sexual experiences at boarding school which left them traumatised and confused” – but this theory only hints at one possible contributing factor.

Outrageous will not be the final word on the moral battles over sexual politics and regulation in late 20th-century Britain. It can be assumed that there was simply so much potential source material for this contemporary cultural history that plenty had to remain unsaid. What does make the cut is well chosen, and Baker’s writing style is capable of enlivening even the stodge of parliamentary debate. He has given us a witty, accessible and necessary book.

This piece is from the New Humanist autumn 2022 edition. Subscribe here.