How one children's centre took on Thatcher over gay rights

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In the late Eighties, Sheffield Children’s Centre took the Thatcher Government to court over Section 28, which banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools. Chrissy Meleady, who led the fight, tells the story 30 years on

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Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most divisive laws ever enacted in the UK.

Famously known as ‘section 28’, this piece of legislation asserted that a local authority ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality’ or ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.’

This discriminatory amendment was enacted on 24th May 1988 by Margaret Thatcher’s Government and resulted in a backlash against many groups and organisations, causing their demise or self-censorship, owing to fears that they could be in breach of this law. In many areas McCarthyism forms of hysteria became the order of the day.

Then head of the first Children’s Centre in Europe, I recall our provision being visited by Government officials. Because we’d received a Government grant, via our local authority here in Sheffield, the Government claimed we came under some local authority control. Our high-profile commitment to celebrating all family constellations with pride was deemed to be unadvisable, we were to stop, or face prosecution by the Government. I was told homosexual people were not a societal norm and we should stop referring to them as such. I was told promoting homosexuality could ‘twist little minds’ into thinking homosexuality is acceptable and could result in turning the children in our care into homosexuals in years to come. ‘Real’ families comprise of a man and a woman, preferably married; and children need to have the norm of what a real family is promoted to them. They could not understand why I was putting myself on the line ‘as I was not homosexual myself’. 

As head of the centre, I gave them short shrift.  I told them to vacate the premises and bring their prosecution on. Our not-for-profit child and family service then served a pre-action protocol letter on the Government arguing that section 28 was illegal as it violated the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 14 prohibits discrimination based on ‘sex, race etc and other status’, which allows the court to extend protection to grounds not specifically stated and has been used to apply to sexual orientation. We threw ourselves into pursuing this, along with making our celebration of diverse families - including same-sex ones - an even bigger profile in our delivery than ever before.

All of this happened with the full support and backing of the children’s centre board and the heterosexual and same sex families and communities who visited us. They too were appalled at the blatant discrimination and victimisation of same sex families and members of the LGB community, and at the bullying tactics of the Government.

Sheffield Children’s Centre, which had stood in solidarity with anti-racist, disability equality, gender equality, and other social justice causes prior to this too, were the first group in the UK to take the Thatcher Government on for their discriminatory imposition of Clause 28. Our bid for a Judicial Review was thwarted because the Government dragged things out, promising to respond and then making excuses, until they exhausted the timescale for the review to proceed, leaving us without the documentation we needed. We were obliged to campaign and lobby and make representation against Clause 28 through other means, through local people writing to the Government and to MPs, petitions, demonstrations etc.

This law prevailed until 2000 in Scotland and until 18th November 2003 in the rest of the United Kingdom. It ceased only with the very belated introduction of Section 122 of the Local Government Act 2003.

While we have seen strides in LGBT+ equalities and rights since then, it is the case that sexual orientation and transphobic discrimination sadly prevails in a wide range of areas.  While hard fought for gains are being embedded in England, Scotland and Wales, we have still archaic homophobic laws and practices in Northern Ireland, with the DUP invoking at will the ‘petition of concern’ power to strike down any law that does not win majority support of both unionist and nationalist politicians, inclusive of laws pertaining to LGBT+ equalities and rights.

Over the last few weeks, I have been obliged in my Equalities and Human Rights role to advocate for several children being bullied in schools for being ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ or assumed to have these sexual orientations even though they do not. These homophobic terms being bandied about as weapons. The descriptor ‘gay’ being used too during sports activities and playtimes, even at times in early years settings, as means of making fun of others. Schools and early years settings often say that they take this form of discrimination very seriously, pointing to the Stonewall notices they have on the walls. Visual aids are one important tool, to eliminate discrimination and to promote good relations and equal opportunities between different groups takes more than a few posters.

Thirty years is a long time. Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait many more years until discrimination in all its forms, in every area of the UK, is given the short shrift it truly deserves.

 

 

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