Cross section

Gay rights took a backward step 30 years ago with a law prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality. Fear of falling foul of the law still exists, but the campaign against it galvanised gay people

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They arrived in coaches from across the country and filled the streets of Manchester with multi-coloured union banners and protest placards carried by people of all ages. The city hadn’t seen a protest like it for decades. The noise of whistles, cheers and chants echoed off the side of the Arndale shopping centre and rose up into the cold winter air.

“That day was just incredible. In our heads we were expecting maybe five, ten thousand people,” says poet and playwright Louise Wallwein, who was at the head of the march. As it turned out, more than 20,000 people descended on the city on 20 February 1988.

They had come to protest at the proposed amendment to the 1988 Local Government Act, which was to become law in a couple of months. It was called Section 28, or Clause 28 initially, and it “legitimised homophobia”, says Wallwein. “The protest was the fightback.”

Introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government, Section 28 stated that councils should not “intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” in its schools or other areas of work.

“We were all coming out on that day. It was a radicalisation for so many.”

It emerged, says Josh Bradlow, policy officer at the LGBT campaign group Stonewall, from a period when there was a “growing sense of anti-gay sentiment” in parts of the media and popular politics. Things had been moving in a progressive direction for LGBT people since the partial decriminalisation of “homosexual acts” in 1967 but, as Bradlow explains, the emergence of the Aids crisis in the mid-1980s saw “leading public authorities and mainstream media at the time [equate] being gay… with something wrong. We were seeing public hostility being whipped up in that context. And at the same time, we were seeing sensational news stories that the government at the time and the mainstream media capitalised on.”

One of those stories was a tabloid tale that a book called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, about a young girl who lives with her father and his male partner, was made available in school libraries. It wasn’t. One copy was in an Inner London Education Authority centre for loan to teachers who wanted to know more about lesbian or gay parents, but during the 1987 election campaign, the Conservative Party issued posters claiming, among other things, that Labour wanted other books such as Young, Gay and Proud to be read in schools.

“There were concerns in some sections of society that children were in some way being converted to homosexuality,” says Bradlow. At the Conservative Party conference in October 1987, Thatcher declared: “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.” And in the months that followed, plans to introduce Section 28 were tabled. Opposition to it swiftly followed.

Wallwein was just about to turn 18 when the protest march came to Manchester. She’d grown up in care, but had left because of the homophobic bullying she’d received at the hands of her last foster parent. “The woman who ran the home I was in was forever trying to convince me that it was illegal for me to be gay,” she says, “because the age of consent for gay men at the time was 21”.

Her “radicalisation”, as she terms it, came one night soon after in a Manchester bar. “Someone gave me a leaflet and it had all these little bombs on it, and it was about Section 28. I’d just been through all that in care and I was like, I’m not having it! I turned up to the meeting and became a full-time activist.”

She became heavily involved in the North West Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Equality, touring the country to invite people to Manchester for the march and working from the offices that Manchester City Council had given to the campaign.

On the day of the march itself, Wallwein recalls, she and many others were anxious. While Manchester City Council was very supportive of the protest, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police at the time was James Anderton, a controversial and outspoken champion of “Christian values” who was openly hostile to the gay and lesbian community. Added to that there were rumours of bomb threats and fears of violence.

Wallwein was at the front of the march, one of a line of people holding a huge pink banner, and walking alongside, among others, gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, the actor Michael Cashman, who was still playing Colin in EastEnders at the time, and (the not yet Sir) Ian McKellen.

“I think part of the reason we had that big banner is we were just going to barge people if they started on us,” Wallwein says. “We had plans.”

But as it turned out, the day was trouble free. “I remember loads of people just stopping and staring. They couldn’t believe what [they were seeing] and then they were going: ‘That’s him off EastEnders!’”

On 20 February Louise Wallwein will take part in a recreation of the march in Albert Square

The march ended in Albert Square, in front of the city’s grand and gothic Town Hall. The crowds were welcomed by Manchester City Council leader Graham Stringer, before hearing speeches from the likes of McKellen, Cashman and fellow actor Sue Johnston. Tom Robinson played guitar and led everyone in a rendition of (Sing if you’re) Glad to be Gay.

In the crowd that day was Stephen Davis, an undergraduate at Lancaster University at the time. He had come down on a coach organised by the university. A gay man himself, and originally from Manchester, he had never felt so confident being out and proud in his own city. And he had a special insight into the potential effects that Section 28 could have, since he’d heard concerns expressed during interviews he’d conducted as part of his research for a social policy and administration degree.

“I was interviewing a number of lesbian and gay parents at the time and the issue of Section 28 kept coming up,” says Davis.

In one interview he heard how the five-year-old daughter of a lesbian parent had come home crying from school. “[She was] crying because the picture she’d done hadn’t been put on the wall with everyone else’s. So the mother went down to the school to find out why.”

The picture was part of a class project looking at families, and the teacher was worried that displaying the girl’s picture would be contravening Section 28.

“It wasn’t that the teacher was homophobic,” says Davis. “She was really upset. But she was scared about being seen to promote a same-sex family and the repercussions that would have.”

It’s a fear that still prevails in schools to this day, says Bradlow, despite the fact that no one was ever prosecuted under Section 28 and it has now been repealed. A 2014 Stonewall report found that three in 10 secondary school teachers and two in five primary school teachers didn’t know if they were allowed to teach about LGBT issues. “And that’s something we’re still hearing from teachers today,” says Bradlow. “We know that the shadow of Section 28 looms large.”

And as both Wallwein and Davis also state, it was not just children who thought they might be LGBT, or children who had LGBT parents, who were affected by legislation. A whole generation of young people grew up not learning about LGBT issues, which, says Bradlow, led to a rise in homophobic bullying.

But there was also an unintended consequence of Section 28, as Davis, Bradlow and Wallwein also all testify. And that was to galvanise people in the fight against it.

As a response to Section 28, McKellen came out on a Radio Three programme a month before the Manchester march and in the years that followed, he, Cashman and others founded Stonewall, which became an influential lobbying group on LGBT rights.

“No one stood still with this,” says Davis reflecting on how local authorities such as Manchester, and other organisations which worked with young people, began to publish guides on how to work within the new law. “People who were genuinely concerned with the education of young people, whatever their sexuality, looked at ways they could get around it.”

There were political ramifications to the introduction of the law too, as it proved to be a divisive issue within the Conservative party in the years to come. An attempt to repeal the legislation by the Labour government in 2000 was defeated in the House of Lords, by which time William Hague had already sacked shadow frontbencher Shaun Woodward for supporting the repeal of the bill. Woodward crossed the floor of the house and joined the Labour Party. Section 28 was eventually taken off the statute books in 2003 and in 2009 David Cameron apologised on behalf of his party for supporting the law.

The Manchester march itself proved to be an important day in the history of the city. “There were people who came to Manchester that day and never went home,” Wallwein says, as she talks of her pride in welcoming people to the city she loved. “The march, coupled with the city council’s progressive policies around housing and support, and the emerging gay scene, helped create the gay paradise that Manchester is today.”

And it was an important day for everyone who came on the march, says Wallwein. “We were all coming out on that day. It was a radicalisation for so many people.”

The city’s Contact Theatre is planning to recreate the rally in Albert Square on 20 February this year and has been asking for people who were there in 1988 to be part of a project led by photographer and artist Manuel Vason. Wallwein will be there, of course.

“It was an amazing group of people,” she says of her fellow campaign members. “They raised my aspirations. They all had these magical things called degrees and I was a young working-class girl who’d grown up in care. Nobody that I’d ever lived with had been to university. They all really believed in me and put me at the front of it.”

The irony of the situation only occurs to her as she reflects upon those days. “This terrible law, helped me find my voice. It was supposed to do the opposite of what it did to me. It educated me.”

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