The lesbian battle against s. 28
For Lesbian Visibility Week here’s the second of our articles in which supporters of the Labour Women’s Declaration share their personal experiences of being a lesbian on the Left.
Let me take you back to 1988, the year Section 28 of the Local Government Act received Royal Assent. Section 28 prohibited Local Authorities and schools from ‘promoting homosexuality’ and also prevented them from funding lesbian and gay initiatives. The Act received a majority vote in Parliament on 24th May. Margaret Thatcher said: “They think they have an inalienable right to be gay.” The day before, four lesbians disrupted the BBC 6 O’ Clock News – shouting “No to Section 28!”. The 9 O’ Clock News then reported the story. (The lesbians spent some time in a police cell before being released.) In February of that year, another group of lesbians got into the House of Lord’s public gallery. Two of them abseiled into the chamber, using a washing line they’d bought in Camden Market. 1988 was also the year children’s book Jenny lives with Eric and Martin became famous as a threat to the State and was banned from schools, along with a book for teenagers called Young, Gay and Proud.
In 1988 I lived in North West England. I was at Lancaster University and was a member of the Uni Lesbian Club. People often think that a North West lesbian and gay world didn’t exist outside Manchester – but it did. There was strong, working class lesbian life present in many towns beyond Manchester. Sunday night was often disco night, as women travelled to pubs where the landlord had let women take over a function room. The ale flowed, the dancing could be manic, relationships started or ended and there was always some woman crying in the toilets! Many of us were not out – not even to our families. There were few lesbian role models and lesbians with children could lose custody of them as Courts agreed with angry husbands that there was a real danger we could ‘indoctrinate’ these children to a life of homosexuality.
Section 28 was known about in the North West, but I only remember talking about it with Labour Party friends and in the Uni Lesbian Club. Despite the apparent lack of awareness, the notice of a demonstration against Section 28 in Manchester on 20th February was being talked about at the discos. I went on a coach that started in Chorley, went through Preston and picked up in Blackburn. We marched through the centre of Manchester to Albert Square. Tom Robinson sang Glad to be gay and Jimmy Somerville sang There is more to love than boy meets girl. I don’t remember who spoke, or what was said, but my most abiding memory was thousands of lesbians – some holding hands and some kissing. “You can’t put put us back in the box,” I thought. Stonewall was established in 1989 and became the main campaigning organisation for the equality of lesbians, gay men and bisexual people.
Section 28 was repealed in Scotland in 2000 and the rest of the UK in 2003. Lesbians were not put back in the box. We grew to be a significant part of the gay rights community, campaigning and successfully achieving a reduction in the age of consent (2001), adoption rights (2002) and civil partnerships (2004). Many of us would have said we had a place at what would later become the ‘LGBT’ table and the advances made were won by all of us working together. Section 28 was repealed because it was obviously discriminatory but also it was senseless trying to pretend we, lesbians and gay men, did not exist.
Was the campaign to repeal Section 28 the same as today’s transgender campaign for sex-self identification? I would say the campaign I was involved in during 1988, and the subsequent years, was about the collective desire for equality, the rights of millions of people to be accepted as they were: same sex attracted. The transgender campaign for self-ID is not about accepting who someone is, but is based on a belief that by simple declaration you can change your biology and become a something different: the opposite sex. This then gives a man the right to call himself a woman, to take the space of a woman, to take prizes and awards meant for women and to speak for women – all examples of male dominance that feminists have been campaigning against for centuries. Lesbians are campaigning with others to stop the loss of sex-based rights, services and spaces – and we are also fighting for ourselves and our rights to love our same sex: women. This women’s rights campaign seems to me to have more in common with the fight against section 28 than the campaign for self-ID does.
About the author, Carol Angharad. “I would not change the twists and turns of my life. I’m a proud lesbian and LWD campaigner.” Carol went travelling straight after leaving school and worked in shops and offices upon her return. She got married at 23, then had three lovely children, found feminism, in the shape of Spare Rib and the Women’s Press, and fell in love with a woman. She lost her children in a custody battle (but they chose to live with her as soon as they could). After university, she trained as a child care social worker – a career she followed for more than 20 years. She now lives in Derbyshire with her partner of 30 years and is blessed with grandchildren and great grandchildren.