UK law which banned 'promotion of homosexuality' and obstructed HIV prevention passes into history

Michael Carter, Michael Carter
Published: 11 July 2003

The repeal of Section 28, which since the late 1980s has prevented UK local authorities from “promoting homosexuality” cleared its last major Parliamentary obstacle last night when the House of Lords passed a bill removing the clause, and rejected an opposition amendment to replace it with strict controls on sex education.

Section 28 was introduced by the Conservative government in 1988. Although a successful prosecution has never been brought using the Clause, it prohibited local authorities from “promoting homosexuality” as a “pretended family relationship.” The Clause specifically excluded HIV prevention work from its scope, but there was always concern amongst HIV prevention agencies and health professionals that it stigmatised gay people and acted as a barrier to useful and frank discussions of issues concerning sexuality in schools.

The legislation introducing Section 28 was opposed at the time by the Labour Party and some other opposition parties, HIV prevention groups, medical professionals and unions, however the tabloid press stirred up popular fear about HIV, labeling it the “gay plague,” and Section 28 passed into law with the support of a large Conservative majority in Parliament.

Following Labour’s return to power in the 1997 general election an attempt was made to repeal Section 28 in the 2000 parliamentary session. Despite being backed by an overwhelming majority of MPs, the removal of the Clause was repeatedly blocked by the Lords. Repeal had the backing of the UK’s largest HIV charity the Terrence Higgins Trust, which ran a campaign highlighting the negative impact of homophobia on the health of gay men to coincide with Parliamentary debates on the Clause’s repeal. The British Medical Association and teaching unions also backed repeal.

In contrast to the bitter press campaigns and vocal opposition which marked the last attempt to remove Section 28, the current legislation has passed with little media attention, even though opponents of repeal in the Lords had pledged to stop its removal from the statute book.

Nevertheless, after a heated debate peers approved the Government’s local government bill which repeals Section 28 and rejected by 180 votes to 130 an amendment moved by Tory peer Baroness Blatch to introduce parental control over sex education in schools. The Baroness’s amendment would have effectively extended to scope of Section 28 to cover information produced by health authorities, including resources on HIV prevention.

Baroness Thatcher, who was Prime Minister when Section 28 was first introduced made a rare appearance in the Lords to support the unsuccessful Blatch amendment.

Coinciding with the effective end of Section 28 was a call by the UK’s Independent Advisory Group on Teenage Pregnancy to start providing sex education at an earlier age in schools. Last month, in a report on the UK’s worsening sexual health, an all-party committee of MPs highlighted serious weakness in the quality and quantity of sex education provided in schools.

Since the Labour government came to power in 1997 many laws which discriminated against gay people have been repealed or amended. In 2000 the little used Parliament Act was invoked after the Lords twice blocked the equalisation of the age of consent for gay men. A bill is currently before Parliament that will repeal the gross indecency and buggery laws that currently discriminate against gay men and criminalise consensual sex between gay adults that would be legal for heterosexuals. Gay people can now serve in the armed forces, and employment protection has also been introduced for most workers. Last week, the Government published plans to provide legal partnership rights for gay people.