The film Blue Jean sparked some much needed thought about the current state of LGBTQIA rights in the UK
BY HELEN RANDALL, IMAGE BY MARIA TEJADA
The film Blue Jean tells the story of a lesbian teacher and Section 28, which prohibited “the publication of materials or teaching in schools of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.
Even in 2023, when we stand on the shoulders of so many courageous LGBTQIA people who (like Jean) suffered and fought for our current rights, we are at imminent risk of losing those rights for reasons I explain later.
Section 28 came into force in 1988 and lasted for 12 years in Scotland and 15 years in England and Wales. It meant teachers had to avoid any references to queer existence in schools. It was difficult to address homophobic bullying or properly support kids who were part of the LGBTQIA community.
This is what life was like for my lesbian teacher friends while Section 28 was in force: “When we did our weekly shop together, we drove to a supermarket the other side of London, we used separate trollies, kept a distance from each other, scared of being seen in such an intimate act by a parent from school. We had two landlines installed at home so that colleagues could ring and not discover with whom we lived.”
Section 28’s climate of fear even affected the working and personal lives of LGBTQIA people who had careers in other professions. Because Section 28 blighted public attitudes towards queer people, we lived double lives. Now I’m happily out at work, but in the early 90s I used to disguise my partner’s gender and never got too close to colleagues for fear of being found out and fired because I was in the LGBTQIA community.
The 1980s saw a political battle between Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and the Labour controlled Inner London Education Authority (ILEA). Lesbians and gay men got caught in the crossfire.
In 1986, tabloids falsely reported that a book about a little girl and her two gay dads, Jenny Lives With Eric And Martin by Susanne Bösche, was available to children in an ILEA-run school. The ensuing media storm sparked the Conservative government’s introduction of Section 28.
My Spanish girlfriend and I joined the public marches against Section 28 even though we were both terrified about potential arrest, losing our jobs, and in my girlfriend’s case – being deported. I also volunteered at the Gay and Lesbian Legal Advice line. This was before the legalisation of gay marriage and the introduction of the Equality Act, and while Section 28 was in force.
Some callers were teachers scared they could be sacked under Section 28 for “bringing their local education authority into disrepute” if colleagues, parents, governors, or their local education authority discovered they were LGBTQIA.
I remember one caller saying their relationship was secret, so they were not allowed to see their partner who was seriously ill in hospital. Even the partner’s family were not aware of their relationship and so would not let them visit.
There are charities working to redress the decades of fear created by Section 28 which still causes many teachers to lack confidence in referring to LGBTQIA identities in schools. A parent quotes: “All teachers in all schools need [inclusion] training. Thanks so much from a parent whose child has gone through hell with homophobic bullies.”
In the legal profession, LGBTQIA inclusion and equity initiatives are being progressed by the Law Society’s LGBTQ+ Network, diversity groups and many law firms. Clients rightly demand diversity in their lawyers and respect for diversity is required under the Solicitors’ Professional Code.
The Children Commissioner’s recent research indicated that 10% of children accessed online pornography before leading to peer-perpetrated sexual violence. It is more important than ever that young people learn about the different types of loving and healthy relationships that exist, and the importance of respect. People who focus on LGBTQIA identities as being about sexual practices or genitalia miss the point. Inclusion of our identities is about allowing us to be respected and to participate fully in society.
Department of Education guidance now requires all secondary schools to teach Relationships and Sex Education that is LGBTQIA inclusive. Primary schools are “strongly encouraged (but not required) to teach LGBT content”. This policy does connect families – even my great-niece told me she had done a project for her RES lesson about her “lesbian great-auntie and Stonewall Housing” (the LGBTQIA homelessness charity I chair).
The European Court of Human Rights recently ruled an attempt in Lithuania to label a lesbian author’s book of inclusive fairy tales as harmful to children, as a violation of freedom of expression under the European Convention of Human Rights. The couple at the beginning of the book became successful head teachers, by working twice as hard. When their child was conceived by donor insemination they came out to colleagues and governors, knowing they could be risking their livelihoods. The governors confirmed their confidence and the schools excelled. The headteachers’ children have grown up as successful, happy and inclusive people. What more could any “family relationship” hope for?
However, these hard won rights for LGBTQIA people remain fragile in the UK. Our Prime Minister is considering pulling the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights.
If this worries you, (and as an LGBTQIA person it should), then write to your MP.
Helen Randall (she/her) is a member of the Law Society’s LGBTQ+ Solicitors Network & Chair of Stonewall Housing.
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