Section 28 protesters 30 years on: ‘We were arrested and put in a cell up by Big Ben’

In May 1988, the reviled law that forbade ‘promoting’ homosexuality came into force. Here, some of those who made headlines fighting back – from invading the BBC News studio to abseiling into the House of Lords – explain why they had to act

Lesbians stormed the BBC to protest about it. Twenty thousand Mancunians took to the city streets to march against it. Ian McKellen came out as gay to fight it. It inspired songs by Boy George and Chumbawamba, and an apology from David Cameron. You would be hard pressed to find a recent British law more controversial and more reviled than section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988.

In the late 80s, the gay and lesbian people of the UK were loudly demanding equality, much to the chagrin of traditionalists. Section 28 was the Conservative government’s response; Margaret Thatcher’s answer to those who believed “they have an inalienable right to be gay”.

The vaguely worded law prohibited local authorities and schools from “promoting” homosexuality and prevented councils from funding much-needed lesbian and gay initiatives. At a time when gay people were struggling to cope with the Aids epidemic, it was a callous attempt to suppress an already marginalised group.

For Conservative politicians, section 28 was an easy, short-term win. It was an obvious populist gambit to solidify support among the 75% of the population who thought that homosexual activity was “always or mostly wrong”. What section 28’s supporters failed to foresee was that it would inspire one of the most rapidly successful civil rights movements in modern British history.

Paul Fairweather

In the days before social media, the Mancunian Paul Fairweather had to spread the word about a protest against section 28. On 20 February 1988, the march took place through Manchester city centre. It was one of the largest LGBT demonstrations ever held in the UK.

Paul Fairweather … ‘There was a sense that the whole community was under threat.’
Paul Fairweather … ‘There was a sense that the whole community was under threat.’ Photograph: Joel Goodman

At the time that section 28 was being discussed in parliament, I was one of Manchester city council’s gay men’s officers, working on issues such as employment, service delivery and developing community groups. I had also helped to set up the North West Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Equality, the group responsible for orchestrating the Manchester demonstration.

We had a secret office in the town hall attic where more than 100 people would meet every week. We were in a local government office, organising a demonstration against the government to try to stop legislation being presented. What we were doing was completely illegal.

No one in the group had organised such a large event before, but a core group had been very active in the gay movement since the early 1970s. The gay scene was quite small and I knew the owners of the local venues well.

We went to the gay bars and clubs – such as New Union, Rembrandt, the Thompsons Arms and Napoleon – where the owners agreed to stop the music so that we could speak about the march and section 28. We would make a night of it. When we stopped the music, there was some grumbling from people, but once they had heard us speak most were positive.

There was a sense that the whole community was under threat. There were also lots of questions about section 28’s possible impact on gay bars and clubs, as well as concerns about the attitude of the police force.

Demonstrators on a section 28 march in London in 1988.
Demonstrators on a section 28 march in London in 1988. Photograph: Rick Colls/Rex/Shutterstock

Under the then chief constable of Greater Manchester, James Anderton, the police were very hostile and were raiding gay bars and clubs. I had experienced some harassment on the street and in the gay village, but no one would report hate crimes because of the attitude of the police. We certainly felt they were becoming more aggressive, encouraged by section 28.

Police hostility didn’t put people off on the day, though. Twenty thousand turned up for the march, and it revitalised the gay movement in the city.

Booan Temple

On 23 May 1988, the evening before section 28 came into force, lesbian activists stormed the BBC News studio where Sue Lawley was midway through the Six O’Clock News. Booan Temple was one of the protesters.

The LGBT community had been getting more vociferous in the 80s. We were starting to demand more rights, not least of which was the right to live in safety.

Booan Temple (left) with Cathy Newman and Sally Francis at the Attitude Pride awards in 2017.
Booan Temple (left) with Cathy Newman and Sally Francis at the Attitude Pride awards in 2017. Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty Images

I, and many of my loved ones, had been attacked in the street. There was an atmosphere that “the other” needed to be eradicated and I think the LGBT community was seen as a threat to the institution of the family. Section 28 was part of that.

I was engaged with a lesbian feminist network, but the campaign against section 28 was not an organised campaign in the traditional sense. Many women and mothers felt duty-bound to protect themselves, their families and their friends. They chained themselves to the railings at Buckingham Palace like the suffragettes did, and there were massive marches in Manchester and in London. Lots of women came up with loads of very innovative protests, but none of it got reported. We couldn’t get our arguments out there. So a small group of us decided to go into the Six O’Clock News studio. By getting on the news, we would be the news.

Once in the BBC building, we waited until the “live” light came on and ran into the studio wearing T-shirts saying “Stop the Clause”. One woman handcuffed herself to a camera, and one to the news desk, where Nicholas Witchell held her down very aggressively. He has since apologised for his heavy-handed behaviour. I was rugby-tackled to the ground and dragged away.

Sue Lawley reacts to the studio invasion.
Sue Lawley reacts to the studio invasion. Photograph: Rex Features

We were held in an office until we were arrested and taken to Shepherd’s Bush police station. I believe the BBC and others had a meeting and decided not to press charges, so we were released without charge and made our way to the Houses of Parliament to join the protesters there, as section 28 passed in to law at midnight.

Michael Cashman

Now a Labour politician, in 1988 Michael Cashman was in his second year on EastEnders, where he played Colin, one of the first gay characters in a national soap. He later helped to form the LGBT rights organisation Stonewall.

I clearly remember reading about section 28 in January 1988 in the weekly paper Capital Gay. I was dumbfounded. It had the date of the London march against it and I knew that, as a gay man playing another on television, I had to be there or I could never look at myself in the mirror again.

I attended on my own. I didn’t consult anyone, and didn’t even tell my late husband. I just knew I had to keep it to myself and get there. June Brown, who played Dot Cotton, helped me get the time off rehearsals. When I told her I was going, she said: “OK, Mike, but don’t get arrested, dear.”

Michael Cashman … ‘Some people were facing the most appalling deaths, and this was designed to kick us firmly underground.’
Michael Cashman … ‘Some people were facing the most appalling deaths, and this was designed to kick us firmly underground.’ Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty Images

When I got to the march, people pushed me towards the front, then an actor grabbed me and said: “No, you’ve got to be with the arts lobby.” But then a member of the arts lobby sent me back to the front again. Suddenly, there I was at the front of the march, clutching a banner.

As soon as I grabbed the banner, a bevy of television cameras focused in on me and someone was interviewing me. That was the start of helping to lead the campaign against section 28. I linked up with Ian McKellen there, and, along with many others, became a spokesman for the campaign. We went on that amazing march in Manchester, where Ian and I addressed the crowds.

I also lobbied within the Labour party to make sure it opposed section 28 because initially, when the bill was introduced, there was some confusion as to what it meant.

What was so incredible was the political opportunism. Section 28 had been brought in on the back of the stigmatisation and discrimination suffered by gay men; in particular those dealing with Aids and HIV. Some people were facing the most appalling deaths, and this was designed to kick us firmly underground.

Looking back, if we had won the battle of section 28, Stonewall would probably never have been founded. I don’t think we would have progressed to equality as far as we have now. The fact that we lost meant we had to make sure another section 28 didn’t happen again. Maybe if we had won, we would have all sat back, glowed, then lived in inequality for decades after.

Sally Francis

In one of the most memorable protests against section 28, a group of lesbian activists abseiled into the House of Lords after peers voted in favour of the bill. Sally Francis helped orchestrate the action.

We had done lots of actions, lots of blockades and breaking into places. But this was different. The day before, one of my friends was in the chamber of the House of Lords wondering what we could do there. She had the idea of swinging from the microphones hanging from the ceiling. We thought they were probably not strong enough.

In the end, we bought a washing line in Clapham market and knotted it up on the bus on the way up – it was pretty low-tech stuff. I smuggled the rope in under my donkey jacket and didn’t set off any alarms.

Sally Francis, far right, after the House of Lords protest.
Sally Francis, far right, after the House of Lords protest. Photograph: PA

Ten of us set off for the action, but only six of us got into the Lords, four as guests of one of the peers. Those of us in the public seats would try to block the security from getting to the other women on the balcony.

We waited till the vote went for the clause. If they had voted against it, we weren’t going to do it. But they voted for it. When the vote finished, we were all looking at each other; the other group was going: “Oh, God, we can’t do it,” and we were going: “Don’t fucking do it.” Then, all of a sudden, two of them went over.

The security panicked. The women who had gone over the balcony with the washing line were thrown out of the House of Lords. The rest of us were arrested and put in a cell up by Big Ben. They didn’t know what to do with us.

After about six hours, we were released and met up with the women who had been thrown out. They had spoken to the press, but the press didn’t believe they had done it because they didn’t understand why they hadn’t been arrested.

When we were all reunited, we went to the pub by the bridge on Whitehall – a real press haunt. There were a lot of journalists there and I remember us telling them: “If you all buy us a drink, we’ll tell you what happened and what we did.” I remember it feeling really special.

Michael Dance

Schools were one of section 28’s main targets, with the bill prohibiting the promotion or “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. When it was introduced in 1987, Michael Dance was training to be an English teacher.

While I didn’t hide my sexuality from my colleagues, being open with the students was more problematic. I was careful at first because I did not trust the management of my secondary school to support me. I also felt potentially vulnerable to attack by parents.

It didn’t help that where I taught there were few visible out teachers and section 28 made it much more unlikely that would change. The effect was isolating. What was brilliant, though, was that my school turned out to be 100% supportive and that I had the support of straight teachers and the Haringey branch of the National Union of Teachers, which always stood up for gay teachers nationally.

Michael Dance … ‘History has vindicated those who fought against this legislation.’
Michael Dance … ‘History has vindicated those who fought against this legislation.’ Photograph: PR

After section 28 came in, there was certainly a difference in school environments. A lot of teachers did not want to deal with the subject out of fear. Bigoted teachers were emboldened. A lot of schools pretended that homosexuality did not exist and it allowed a lot of misinformation, prejudice and abuse to go unchallenged. And, of course, it had a terrible effect on young people: students suffered homophobic abuse in silence and teachers and schools did nothing about it.

While section 28 made me more cautious, however, it didn’t stop me from taking up issues to do with sexual liberation or equality. If students were homophobic, I always challenged them.

I remember a lot of students sitting around my desk talking about how sick and tired they were that no one talked about teenage sexuality and that there was no openness about sexuality in the curriculum. I started to encourage this discussion, about texts, in English lessons, and the students enjoyed it. I remember one student doing a presentation on the difference between HIV and Aids to dispel the myths about the idea it was a “gay plague”, which caused major interest among the students.

I fought against section 28 all the way, undermining it everywhere I could in my teaching and personal life. When it was abolished, it allowed me to do all the things I had wanted to do when I was younger, such as developing LGBT support groups in schools. History has vindicated those who fought against this legislation that enshrined bigotry and prejudice.

Lisa Power

Founded in 1987, the weekly Pink Paper helped to mobilise lesbian and gay readers against section 28. Lisa Power was one of its co-editors, as well as an activist with the Organisation for Lesbian and Gay Action.

A lot of lesbians and gay men in the 80s weren’t political; they just went out to bars and clubs. The politicised group was much smaller. But one of the things section 28 did was bring what we called the scene queens together with the political.

I still find it interesting when people talk about section 28 as if we won because they remember the abseiling and protests. Those didn’t make a blind bit of difference to the passage through parliament: we lost the battle on section 28. But this did make people think much more strategically about how we should go about getting lesbian and gay rights to win the war. What we had at the time was a gay movement that was very good at fighting among itself and very good at debating political points – but with no history of making allies with the wider world and no effective lobbying mechanism.

Lisa Power … ‘Section 28 brought what we called the scene queens together with the political.’
Lisa Power … ‘Section 28 brought what we called the scene queens together with the political.’ Photograph: Gareth Phillips/The Guardian

After section 28 happened, some of us quietly went away and began working on what would become Stonewall. Some people in the gay movement were angry that we had started something that acted like a straight lobby group, but we were convinced it needed doing. And I think it’s the strongest example in the entire world of a successful LGBT lobbying group changing a country’s mind about some of its citizens.

Section 28 was repealed in Scotland in 2000 and in the rest of the UK three years later. In 2009, the then Tory leader, David Cameron, who had previously backed the law, apologised for its introduction and described it as a “mistake” that was “offensive to gay people”.


Interviews by Chris Godfrey

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