Ian McKellen | Writings | Activism | Section 28

July 1988| Section 28

Speech notes

Dearly beloved: my text for today is from the Local Government Act 1988 - Section 28:

“A local authority shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality, a local authority shall not promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

There is a sidenote published alongside Section 28 in Hansard - a little précis to clarify its intention for the casual reader, by which I mean the 600-odd members of Parliament and the even odder noble lords and ladies who create the laws in this democracy of ours:  'prohibition on promoting homosexuality by teaching or by publishing material.

This misleading sidenote suggests that Section 28 is only concerned with teaching, with schools and the goings-on going on in them.  It refers to the apparent origins of the clause and the claimed motives of those who introduced it into parliament last autumn.  Despite the furore there are only three education bodies relevant to Section 28 - out of 120 in Great Britain.

First I.L.E.A., ‘Jenny lives with Eric and Martin' is a paperback, illustrated booklet, translated from the Swedish and published in Britain by the Gay Men's Press - you will already be breaking out into a righteous sweat -which I am probably the only person in the room lucky enough to have read.  It is the story of Eric, a gay man in his 20's, who is separated from his wife, and bringing up their daughter Jenny in the home which he shares with his lover Martin.  It tells some of the problems which all four of them encounter in this unusual situation and is evidently meant to be read by any child with gay or lesbian parents, who might otherwise have to cope with the sort of conventional role-models and families which are promoted by Enid Blighton etc.  If I had a child, I should find it an invaluable and humane publication.  ILEA is less sure , because it does not permit it in its school libraries but restricts it to one of the 20 centres where schoolteachers can study specialised material.

Also on these private shelves is another offensive book - a resource guide about homosexuality called 'Positive Images', this deals with information about homosexuality across the curriculum - like explaining that some kings of England were also queens: Edward 11 and James 1 - and one queen of England, Anne, was homosexual.  Some national heroes were homosexual, some prime ministers and writers and artists of all disciplines - I'm thinking of Richard the Lionheart, Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, Lord Louis Mountbatten: William Pitt the Younger, Gertrude Stein, Wilfred Owen, Edward Lear, A.E. Housman, Mary Renault, Vita Sackville West, Christopher Marlowe, Terrence Rattigan, Joe Orton, Noel Coward, Dame Ethel Smyth, Lord Leighton, Francis Bacon (both of them).

At Haringey, too., Jenny lives with Eric and Martin, hidden away on library shelves reserved for parental guidance.  Also this local authority has distributed to parents a leaflet called 'Equal Opportunities' describing their preparations for a working party's report on ways in which schoolchildren can be educated about homosexuality, their own as well as other people's.  This report is not expected until next month.

Which leaves us with the third local authority, also in London, Lambeth.  Baroness Cox, a nurse and a christian new to the Lords but quickly learning that cavalier disregard of the facts, which characterises her new profession, has alleged -that two-year-olds have been exposed to lesbian and gay literature in Lambeth playcentres.  Her source was not of course these illiterate tots, nor their anguished parents but an article in the London Standard.  When Lambeth council rebutted the Standard and Cox, their letter was not published.

These are the origins of Section 28.  If its promoters had been patient, they might have waited for the imminent abolition of the ILEA.  If they were true democrats - they might have recognised that the other local authorities , Lambeth and Haringey, are more properly controlled through the ballot-box rather than from central government.  If they were less hysterical they might have balked at the advert in national newspapers during the last general election, reading: 'My name is Betty Sheridan, I live in Haringey.  I'm married with two children.  And I'm scared.  If you vote Labour they' ll go on teaching my kids about gays and lesbians instead of giving them proper lessons'. 

These desperate pleas were financed by the committee for a free Britain who share an address with the Moony Unification church, this reveals it all.  Whatever the genuine fears of the very few parents who have misunderstood the aims of those very few local authorities who have been trying to properly educate their children, Section 28 is less about education aid much, much more about party-politics. 

Neil Kinnock seems to think that Labour's association with gays and lesbians lost him the election.  He may be right.  Certainly Mrs.  Thatcher thought so.  Soon she had a chance to set the stage for a tussle between the loony left and the moony right.  Enter stage right the ugly sisters, played by Dame Jill Knight, M.P.  for Edgbaston and David Wilshire M.P.  for Spelthorne.  They opened their act and their dirty minds by offering their dirtier little clause to Michael Howard ,the local government minister. 

Mr. Howard is the gentleman villain of this pantomime.  He trained for the role at his Swansea Grammar School , through the well-tried drama schools for politicians, Cambridge and the Bar.  His ambition is to be cast as a member of the Thatcher cabinet.  An ambition, even by the grubby standards of his calling which I can only call abnormal, queer and perverted.  So eager was he to please his leading lady that he adopted Clause 28, without a moment's thought, and put it, where it clearly never belonged, into his local government bill.  He even omitted the normal consultations with the whip’s office and embarrassed them no end.

Perhaps not as well, he was, being new to ministerial office and on the evidence of meeting him, I should say never having knowingly met a homosexual, he was quite unprepared for the hissing, the barracking and the wholesale opposition which his villainy provoked in the wings.  Even Mrs. Thatcher was taken off guard.

So loud was the outrage round the country, that it even woke up the Labour party.  To his eternal credit the first authoritative voice was Bernard Levin's in a magnificent polemic in the Times - soon followed by scathing leading articles in the Observer, the Independent, the Guardian and the Sunday Times.  The archbishop of York agreed with Lord Donald Soper, Lord Olivier for the first time in his life agreed with Sir John [illegible].  Outside Parliament, the government found itself supported by only three comics -Peregrine Worsthorne, Paul Johnson and the Sun.

The Arts Council, who distribute government funds to the arts, was very worried.  Sir William Rees-Mogg - the government's appointed director-general instructed legal counsel to advise him: the barrister concluded that Clause 28 was a Pandora's Box for mischief makers.

It is no surprise to discover that this government is philistine nor that it would hesitate to introduce a censorship more wide-reaching than the powers of the ex-lord chamberlain.  Nor were we surprised that the government denied it had any such aim.  But this government's aim has before now proved devastating, even when the ship is sailing outside the exclusion zone.  But one mightn't have expected a government so concerned with education to be itself so careless of words, so illiterate.

Promote means these days to sell: in the sense that Saatchi and Saatchi sold Thatcher and Thatcherism.  I recently invited a public relations executive who promotes the sale of new motor cars and has an annual turn over in a private company of £80 million to draw up a campaign, at any cost, to promote homosexuality in the media.  That was 6 weeks ago, the truth is that it cannot be done.  The truth is that homosexuality cannot be taught any more than it can be caught.  If heterosexuality could be promoted, there would be no homosexuals, no bisexuals.  Everywhere in the media, in the church, in the teaching of literature, language, art and politics, heterosexuality is daily, hourly promoted.  I still haven't been persuaded. 

I think you straights are safe from Jenny and Eric and Martin, this Section 28 makes no sense.  Or of course it makes a terrible sinister sense, which the courts will eventually reveal to us, it all depends whether you think the government illiterate or plain evil.

Michael Howard has all along been determined that his words made sense, late in the debate he attempted a definition of 'promote.’  His civil servants came up with a synonym from no known dictionary or thesaurus: promote was defined as to glamorise.  As an actor, I am in the business sometimes of appearing glamorous.  Just consider, when Section 28 becomes law next month, were I to return to this building, licensed by your local authority, could I not be accused of glamorising homosexuality by saying as I do today that 'I'm proud to be gay'?  Henceforward any meeting of lesbians and gays in a youth club, every helpline, every night at Heaven - all are now unsafe.

Evil and/or illiteracy meet prurience when we consider the government's definition of 'homosexuality'.  To me sexuality in all its human variety is concerned with healthy relationships: it is respect, affection, love: it embraces a delightful variety of family relationships- how dare they call them pretended!  And of course it's sex, but although the supporters of Section 28 could never bring themselves to talk about sex, (the English disease in truth not being buggery but rather humbuggery), what our legislators and those unhappy people outside Parliament who support them most fear is the very image of love-making between two people of the same sex, maybe they are uncertain of their own sex-life and certainly the churches have traditionally taught them to associate the glory of love-making with mortal sin -- Jesus Christ himself like other confirmed bachelors in their 30's never talked about homosexuality. 

Probably they learnt the facts of life from someone of their own sex in situations about which they have ever since felt uneasy.  What they needed was the sort of gentle open-minded literature which Clause 28 is designed to prohibit.  And so their children are in danger of growing up as they did, ignorant of the range of human sexuality.  Although perhaps not, as of course Section 28 has no jurisdiction over the public schools, where I understand homosexuality doesn't need to be on the syllabus.

Let me quote an anonymous letter I received on Sunday last:  [webmaster’s note: hope to find letter to insert here]

This is the sort of person who tried to stop me acting in Edward 2 at the Edinburgh Festival in 1969, who complained in the House of Commons about Martin Sherman's Bent, when I acted in it in 1978.  And in 1988 the M.P. for Luton said that a touring production of The Normal Heart (an expose of the world's indifference toward AIDS) would bring shame on his city.  It was, he claimed, just the sort of play which Section 28 would prohibit.  Last week, Arthur Law of Wolverhampton, made video of the irony that his local library had on hire a film showing the graphic murder of a gay youth by boot, throttling and gunfire but next door had removed, in anticipation of the new law, books about homosexuality -- one cataloguing Nazi atrocities against the pink triangles in Auschwitz, another called, you've guessed it, 'Jenny lives with Eric and Martin'. 

Arthur Law's video, even before it has been seen by anyone has, simply because it attacks Section 28, itself been banned from being shown in any local authority building.  Ottingham Playhouse has just turned down a play it commissioned, because its subject matter is homosexuality.  As they left Croydon Warehouse last Saturday after performing their new play This Island's Mine by Philip Osment, two actors from Gay Sweatshop were kicked and punched in the face by skinheads who objected to their linking arms.  Two days ago, two gays were fined £40 each for kissing in the street.

Reading Matters, a public service bookshop in Haringey, sells lesbian aid gay literature.  On these grounds the Tory councillors tried on Monday to remove the annual grant.  They failed by 30 votes to 15.  Had they succeeded they would have also inadvertently banned the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, Catherine [illegible] and Jeffrey Archer which are also on sale there.

Michael Howard told me he would be surprised if their were a single prosecution as a result of the new law, he may well be right, who needs the courts when there is self-censorship.  Who needs judicial thuggery.  But can we separate the skinheads from the evangelism of James Anderton and the Chief Rabbi or indeed from the bland politesse of Michael Howard aid the Prime Minister.

In the final debate in the House of Commons, Mrs.  Thatcher, was not there, nor was David Owen.  Neil Kinnock arrived for the vote so I think did David Steele.

Clause 28 returned from the Lords , amended because of our collective pressure: nasty, brutish and a little bit shorter.  It was a good debate with all the arguments paraded in the classic speeches of Mark Fisher, Tony Benn and Chris Smith -the only openly-gay M.P.  A few closeted Tories did their best, but what I most enjoyed was the horrific embarrassment on the face of Michael Howard as he suffered the sillier eccentrics behind him, in the strangers' gallery. 

I considered abseiling down onto the fat head of Geoffrey Dickens M.P. as he shouted that gays must not flaunt themselves and they really must stop thrusting it down our throats.  Jill Knight was asked who had ever complained about teaching about homosexuality in schools, she had the evidence but she didn't have it with her.  She wasn't sure where she'd left it.  But she remembered reading about it in the Sun.  Same with David Wilshire which leads one to wonder whether Jilly actually lives with David and Geoffrey!  Parents had complained that if their kids read about gays they'd be turned into them -the sort of logic which might claim that teaching French encourages emigration.

The nation was frightened.  Frightened of poofs.  Gay activists were to blame for the backlash against them.  'If you don't complain, there'll be nothing for you to complain about.'  I'm not sure that anyone mentioned AIDS.  A threeline whip managed a majority of 80-odd.

Where are we now?  Are we heading back to 1967?  Parliament will go on being obsessed by sex as it continues to debate capital punishment.  Next time what we need is a free vote.  Many Tories were appalled by Section 28 right up to one whip who described it as red meat thrown to the wolves in the party.  I'm prepared to believe the ex-member of her cabinet who tells me that Mrs. Thatcher has no objection to individual homosexuals and employs quite a few of them. 

What she cannot stand is groups of homosexuals.  By the same token she doesn't mind trade -unionists, it's just that she doesn't like them joining trade-unions.  You can't have homosexuality on the rates anymore.  She is privatising homosexuality.  Well I for one intend to take out shares.

One old campaigner who advised Leo Abse and Lord Arran in 1967 tells me all his work is in vain, but he shouldn't despair.  He's forgotten that the law was changed to bring gays out from the tyranny of blackmail so that they might be cured of their disease.  That, unbelievably, was the main argument,  Five months ago 20,000 lesbians and gays, freely and peacably marched through Manchester in the biggest crowd assembled there for the last ten years.  This Saturday in London twice as many will do the same, there is no going back.

We can't forget Thatcher or the Pope or the Chief Rabbi or the Moral Moony Majority but we should wonder whether there isn't a desperation in their queer-bashing.  As we look down on these puny people, perhaps we can dedicate ourselves -- we normal homosexuals, bisexuals, and heterosexuals -- to promoting ourselves and our certainty that we occupy the high moral ground.  I've some ideas how we can defeat this new law -- but first I'd like to hear about yours.

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