A commentary and resource on Law and Sexuality by Professor Chris Ashford and guests
You will search Margaret Thatcher’s 1993 biography – The Downing Street Years – in vain for a reference to Section 28 or Clause 28, yet the legislation, designed to prohibit local authorities (and by extension, schools) from ‘promoting’ homosexuality as a ‘pretended family relationship’ has become synonymous with the Lady.
With her passing today, there is the inevitable outpouring of sadness, anger, mockery and bitterness that befits someone who had such a dramatic impact upon Britain and its social, legal, and political landscape.
For many gay activists, Section 28 has come to typify a Prime Minister who was seen as homophobic. For these same people, any sadness at her passing by those who identify as gay is apparently met with a mixture of bewilderment and anger.
Yet as Pink news report, Margret Thatcher did vote in favour for the ‘decriminalisation’ of homosexuality (not that it had ever been criminalised) in 1967. In her memory, the Local Government Act 1988 – infamous for introducing Section 28 – was better remembered for requiring that ‘refuse collection, street cleaning, the cleaning of buildings, ground maintenance and repair and catering services (including school meals) be put out to tender’ (1995: 651).
The former gay Tory MP, and parliamentary sketch-writer, Matthew Parris has recalled on numerous occasions the kindness she showed him as a gay man and the (perhaps surprising) number of young gay men that worked for her in the 1980’s and who Parris was sure she must have known or suspected were gay. You could conclude that it simply didn’t matter to Thatcher. What business was it of anyone else what people did in bed? I think she was a Conservative on matters of sexuality, just like anything else.
Yet, to say she didn’t care would also be an over-simplification. Colvin and Hawksley’s excellent (1989) Section 28: A Practical Guide to the Law and Its Implications, published by the National Council for Civil Liberties (now renamed Liberty) includes a letter she sent out (the recipient unknown) on 3 March 1988 in response to concerns expressed about Clause 28 as it was at the time. It’s worth repeating in full:
Thank you for your letter of 6 January about the provisions of the Local Government Bill prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities.
The Government is against discrimination in any form, and it is no part of our intention in supporting Clause 28 to remove the rights of homosexuals; as ratepayers and electors they are entitled to receive council services on the same basis as everyone else. There is nothing in the clause that would damage this right, and allegations to that effect are quite without foundation.
These provisions were introduced because of the growing concern in parliament and in the country as a whole about the use of ratepayers money by some local authorities intentionally to promote homosexuality. In particularly, there was a real concern that local authorities were targeting some activities on young people in schools and outside, in an apparent endeavour to glamorise homosexuality. Not unnaturally, parents have become increasingly worried and resentful about public money being used in this way to influence the attitudes and behaviour of impressionable young people. The Government shares the view of the sponsors of this clause that there can be no justification for local authorities using public money for this purpose.
There can be no doubt that these activities have provoked considerable public disquiet. Clause 28 would ensure that this undesirable development could not continue. In our view, removing this source of disquiet will go far to alleviate the resentment which was building up and having a growing and adverse effect on tolerance and understanding.
I consider such incidents sch as the attach on the offices of Capital Gay to be intolerable. Michael Howard, the Minister of State for Local Government, took the opportunity at the debate on Clause 28 in the House of Commons on 15 December 1987, to state the Government’s unqualified condemnation of this incident.
I have taken careful note of your remarks on the Pres and the right to reply. I know, probably more than most, of the difficulties and hurt which unfair and inaccurate reporting can cause. But there are already a number of bodies whig consider complaints about the written press and media, and these bodies can provide for publishing their findings where appropriate. I do not think there would be any real advantage to be gained by legislating in an area like this.
In this long letter, one can see sufficient Thatcherism to support the claims of her gay attackers and defenders. We see someone who is concerned that children might be influenced by materials relating to a behaviour which must by implication, be undesirable.
Yet we also see someone standing against discrimination, and advocating a strategic argument about gay rights (one that was ultimately taken up by Stonewall you might argue), and also criticises the attacks on the offices of Capital Gay.
Thatcher and her legacy was and is a divisive force. However, when it comes to remembering her, we must also remember the complexities and contradictions that defined her and her premiership.