Last year, David Cameron won the gay community’s praise by apologising for Section 28 of the Local Government Act, the law that enraged activists in 1988 and led to Wadham’s first Queer Week as a protest. Cameron condemned the old legislation as “finger-pointing” and “offensive to gay people”, despite having been a vociferous critic of Labour’s repeal of the law in 2003.
This law made it a criminal act to “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’, stopping tachers (as well as health and welfare workers) from saying gay was okay. Even now, the gay community hesitates to vote Conservative, though Cameron’s contrition did mark a turning point. This year’s freshers were the last to enter secondary school under Section 28 – so while 2010 might seem the time to move on, is the now-PM’s apology enough?
Not quite. For one thing, Section 28 wasn’t only something “offensive”. Making a generation of students, gay or not, defenseless against homophobic abuse, depriving them of proper sex education and stopping schools tackling lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans issues in class was more than offensive: it was injurious. The effects of the legislation are still visible: over 60 per cent of LGBT teenagers – already with suicide rates four times the average – have been bullied over their sexuality, 20 per cent with death threats. 58 per cent of teachers have witnessed homophobic bullying “on a daily/weekly basis” and 96 per cent on a termly one. 80 per cent considered this “a serious issue demanding action,” but only 39 per cent said their school addressed it. We can’t know how different this was from before Section 28, but a law stopping teachers fighting homophobia helped no one.
Apologies are only meaningful if they acknowledge what damage was done, and sincere as he generally seems on equality, Cameron’s sounded worryingly casual.
The trouble is, broadmindedness only stands out in the Conservative Party because it’s unusual. While Cameron supported civil partnerships, only 65 per cent of his MPs did versus 99 per cent of Labour’s and every single Lib Dem. 26 per cent of Conservatives supported the Equality Act against 96 per cent of Labour and 88 per cent of Lib Dems. Chris Grayling’s statements on B&B owners, Philippa Stroud’s prayer-cure for gays and Julian Lewis’ comments on the age of consent all came this year, quite apart from Tory ties with homophobes in Europe. Cameron is welcomed in LGBT circles exactly because his party isn’t – in either of the other big two, MPs would make headlines for not supporting equality.
A reliably liberal ex-teacher of my own shows shock at the sound of what British laws said: “It’s almost like censorship, isn’t it?” she tells me, when I explain to Mrs. Sadowski what Section 28 did. “I always assumed it was the norm to just be… whatever.” With my other teachers largely uncomfortable on LGBT issues, I wonder if she was especially well-trained in the area – but when she asks me what LGBT stands for, I realise there’s still far to go. “The fact that I don’t even know what that acronym stands for… that’s ignorance, isn’t it?” I’m struck then that barring discussion of gay issues leaves even open-minded teachers disadvantaged.
How could Cameron’s government reverse this? Elly Barnes, campaigner extraordinaire and LGBT coordinator at Stoke Newington School in Hackney, (where, she tells me, Ed Balls has just sent his daughters) has a few suggestions. Branded a militant by Christian Voice this February, she has links to the Socialist Workers’ Party and deleted an activist contact when she saw he was a Conservative (“I should really be more political”, she says with bizarre non-irony). Her activism strategy centres on teacher empowerment, and brandishing a business card she tells me her constant motto: “It’s only ignorance that causes homophobia. Once educated, attitudes do change.”
When I say my teachers were alienated by gay issues, she tells me she’s now setting up Stoke Newington as a training centre in LGBT topics for student teachers. Biro in hand, she even mocks up a disciplinary form for me, complete with “Homophobia” tick-box to deal with bullying as it happens. Schools already have a legal duty to tackle homophobia, but can clearly get away very easily with not doing so, so perhaps these are measures that the government should make mandatory. While Ofsted don’t specifically examine homophobia in schools, they do seem to reward schools with policies like Stoke Newington’s. Perhaps if schools were rated explicitly on how they address homophobia (as well as sexism, racism, and all other forms of prejudice) the continuing effects of Section 28 could be curbed; we could also make dealing with it an official part of teacher training, and expand LGBT topics out of PSHE and into other parts of the National Curriculum. Are these the kind of positive measures we can expect Cameron’s government to take?
So far the signs aren’t promising. While Labour plans this year made anti-homophobia lessons compulsory in PSHE, Michael Gove’s free schools and the Academies Act this year both threaten to annul this progress. “We don’t want Academy status,” Elly tells me. “We’re an outstanding comprehensive, and we want to stay one.” In both cases the worst people possible will get free rein on sex and relationships education: Stonewall’s study in 2008 found state-maintained faith schools (many of them applying for Academy status) ten per cent more homophobic than others, while free schools will let both religious extremists and secular homophobes push homophobia on their children. Not only this, but interviewed for The Independent this year, Cameron told Johann Hari he thought no new laws were necessary for equality, and refused to discuss homophobia in particular rather than simply the “broader question of bullying in schools”.
Apologising for Section 28 might have been a milestone, but there’s no actual evidence Cameron will do anything to repair its damage. While soundbites and a positive attitude aren’t automatically bad, more is required in actual policymaking if he really wants to fight homophobia – and worryingly, these policies don’t seem forthcoming. Before we let the Tory Party off the hook on Section 28, let’s have them show they really care about the issues.