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36 years

A white woman wearing a blazer and a frilly neck scarf - the image is filtered in red.
Margaret Thatcher

36 years ago on this day, 24 May 1988, Margaret Thatcher and her government enacted Section 28 into law in the UK.

What follows in this post is my own, personal experience. Other members of the LGBTQIA+ community in the UK may feel and have experienced similar, whereas others might not have. It’s all a personal reaction.

I’m writing this as a factual, but opinion post, simply to educate and inform. In this post, I talk about homosexuality – but please note that I intend it to mean all sexualities under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. Content warning: mental health issues.

Section 28 was borne out of fear – something that was different to the perceived heteronormative ideals of the day. The clause banned any material in schools which portrayed homosexuality as anything other than abnormal. Thatcher herself said that children ‘are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay’. The clause itself said that relationships were ‘pretended’ and that any talk of homosexuality in education was ‘promoting’ it. The clause was not repealed in England until 2003 – three years after I left university.

In 1988, I was nine years old, soon to be ten. I hadn’t yet started secondary school and I was coming to the end of primary school in the small village where I grew up. It was around this time that I felt I was feeling differently from my peers. I think the programme Knight Rider helped a lot with that. However, in school, nothing was ever spoken about – it was a taboo. Looking back, it was a complete disservice. I’m sure some of the teachers must have felt the same. Without that education, I wasn’t even aware of the possibility that someone like me could actually exist. Exist and thrive. It pushed me further away from myself.
What Section 28 did for me was to prevent me from exploring who I know I am and without that education, it left me with issues that I am still dealing with today. Currently being in therapy, it’s helping me to understand where these issues come from. And I believe that the vast majority stem from Section 28.

I often talk about anxiety and a lot of it derives from meeting new people and being in large groups, feeling overwhelmed, hiding away. Hiding away, not being seen or being noticed. Not being taught about LGBTQIA+ communities meant that I had to hide my true self from others, not knowing if they were going to be friendly towards me or not. Not knowing whether I was going to be accepted or seen as ‘other’ or ‘abnormal’. Remaining invisible was a shield of protection against discrimination or harm.

I find accepting compliments extremely difficult and I struggle with celebrating any success I have – because again, it puts me in the spotlight. I often feel that this is undeserved because, truthfully, I feel unworthy of value. Someone like me wasn’t talked about at school – the very time when we start to form our character and who we are – so I took it as read that who I was was worthless. I wasn’t even worth talking about, and so fade into the background. It has taken, and it is taking, a long time for me to realise that I have value, and that my voice is important. I grew up believing that I was neither of those things and therefore, the feelings followed me into adulthood.

I believe all of this is partly the reason I get so nervous when giving presentations or attending conferences – because I’m putting myself out there while I’ve always been comfortable being in a box, not being seen, not being valuable and remaining hidden away. Because that’s how I was taught to be. Because we didn’t learn about relationships other than heterosexual ones, I fully believed that I would remain alone and very lonely. Indeed, when I came out to my parents, one reaction was ‘it’s a lonely life’.

In my teens and early twenties, I hadn’t come out to my parents. I was petrified and ashamed. I believed that someone like me would never have, or be allowed to have, a family. I felt guilty that I wouldn’t give my parents grandchildren. I wrote all of this in a coming out letter to my parents while I was thousands of miles away in Japan. I must have been about 22 or 23, and it all poured out of me. The shame, the guilt, the self-hate. The letter actually arrived at my parents’ house on my birthday. I rang them and asked them what they thought of the letter. They said ‘we don’t like the fact that you smoke’ – because of course, why not tell them that, too? A few years ago, after my father died, I found the letter in a drawer. It’s amazing that they kept it.

The main purpose of this is not to garner sympathy. It’s just my experience, and therapy is helping with that. This is just one story of the damage that a narrowly-focused, bigoted education can cause. And I’m horrified that the government appears to be recreating Section 28 point o – but this time against trans and non-binary people. Congratulations, they are going to create more generations who would very possibly feel like I did – and I’m one of the lucky ones that survived.

Inclusive education is vital to ensure better mental health for future generations. I do not want future generations to feel like I have done. I do not want future generations to hate themselves or to feel they have to hide themselves away for something that is natural. I do not want future generations to feel that there may only be one way out.

This is why I do what I do. And to be honest, it helps me, too. It helps me to realise that I actually do have value and that my voice deserves to be heard. And I’m slowly getting there.

If you want to learn more about Section 28, I recommend Pretended: Schools and Section 28 by Catherine Lee.

8 thoughts on “36 years”

  1. Of course you have value Peter and the work you do not only helps to prevent other boys suffering like you have and continue to suffer, it educates the wider population and contributes to the process of normalising the normal. Well done and keep going!

  2. You have so much value and have helped shape a lot of my approach to writing materials. Thank you for this personal post.

  3. I’m so sorry this was your experience and that it reflects such a common one for our community. Imagine how thriving we could all be in better circumstances as many of us, like you, are figuring it out now…

  4. Hi Peter, thank you so much for this. Margaret Bl**dy Thatcher’s pernicious influence spread far beyond England’s shores, and served to boost the same hateful rhetoric here in Canada. 1988 was the same year that Svend Robinson became the first openly gay Member of Parliament in Canada, and was met with the same sort of vitriol now faced by trans folks. I also seem to recall a move in my home province of Saskatchewan to enact legislation similar to Section 28 that year. I remember writing a letter to the editor, saying that it was ridiculous to think that books could “turn” anyone gay, and that I was confident and comfortable enough in my own sexuality that it wouldn’t affect me…. Oh, the irony—I thought I was straight at the time! But then again, at that time, being bisexual was unheard of—you were either straight or gay (and god help you if you were gay in that time and place). I have fought through—and still fight through—all the feelings you talk about here: the unworthiness, the lack of self esteem, the loneliness and the confusion and frustration of just not knowing who the hell you are. It’s been just less than a year since I fully came out, and I’ve been processing the grief and pain of having lived as half a person for 40+ years. I remember that after my letter was published, my friend (at the time) said, “Good letter—but you should have made it clear that you were straight.” I replied that that was the point. Now I wish I could go back and tell my 20 year old self, “you should have made it clear that you’re queer!” Thanks again!

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