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Schools can resist the trans wars We did it in the Nineties with Section 28

Section 28 wouldn't have stopped me showing this to my pupils. Credit: The Boy in a Dress / BBC iPlayer

Section 28 wouldn't have stopped me showing this to my pupils. Credit: The Boy in a Dress / BBC iPlayer


June 30, 2022   5 mins

People get very worked up about children’s books. In 1987, the Right-wing press stirred up a shameful moral panic about Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, a harmless picture book that featured a gay couple and was kept on such a high shelf of a London library that almost no one had read it. The next year, the notorious Section 28 was ushered into law on the back of the fuss. I had just qualified as a teacher and promptly went, as we did so often then, on a demo against it.

We were right to shout. It was a nasty piece of legislation, a cruel, regressive swipe against the Gay Rights movement, a law so heinous it summoned Stonewall into existence. Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Out, Out, Out. She was nearly gone, anyway. Section 28 was a hand from the grave, a grab at popularity from a government finding itself suddenly out of touch with its times.

But the scope of those zombie claws, at first, seemed scarily wide: no organisation funded by a local authority might “promote” homosexuality and schools in particular should not teach “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. What was that going to mean?

Today, the consequences are often recorded as extremely grave: the BBC teaches Section 28 as a prime cause of homophobic bullying, while Stonewall charts a dark age in schools: “Section 28 deprived generations of LGBT pupils the chance of seeing people like them in the books, plays, leaflets or films their schools could stock or show. Teachers weren’t allowed to teach about same-sex relationships; anyone who broke the law could face disciplinary action.”

Happily, that is not quite true. Certainly, there was far more homophobia in the Nineties, particularly in deprived communities. In my work I heard the word “gay” used by young people to disparage all sorts of artistic, experimental and gender non-conforming behaviour to the point that I sometimes felt my sole job was to combat it. But Section 28 was far from the only cause of that. I wasn’t restricted in what I could “stock or show”, either.

The English curriculum was much wider then and we routinely taught many texts and films representing gay people. The Colour Purple, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, The Buddha of Suburbia and My Beautiful Laundrette were new and exciting in the Nineties and had great film versions. They soon joined Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Thom Gunn and Oscar Wilde on the syllabus. It was common to start secondary school with gender-questioning texts The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler and Bill’s New Frock. The kindly anti-homophobia book Two Weeks with the Queen was popular too: I taught it in a working-class school in Scotland back in 1991.

At no point was I concerned that I or my colleagues would be disciplined or prosecuted for any of this. Section 28 , sneaked into law on the back of a local authority bill, turned out to be poorly framed. The NUT questioned in 1988 whether it actually applied to schools, and the Department of Education, remarkably, confirmed that it did not. Even if you had not heard of this pronouncement, it rapidly became clear that no one was able to say what “promoting” homosexuality was, and that no one wanted to be the test prosecutor for such a foolish notion, either. No case was ever brought to court.

Besides, we were all at it: my colleagues, my school, and my union. The whole “Blob”, as Michael Gove was later to call us — the entire irreducibly liberal education establishment — was in support of gay rights. When I taught Two Weeks with the Queen, for instance, it was not a piece of freelance activism but part of a project being run by the local authority, health service and teaching training college acting in concert. We were worried about AIDS, not Section 28.

Gove hated the Blob for being so large and so resistant to change and for always fudging everything and thinking the same woolly wet things. He was right: the Blob did think alike, and we were progressive, and soft round the edges.

Progressively and softly, the Blob killed Section 28 in schools many years before it came off the statute books: squished it to death with a million mild and thoughtful classroom interactions, with thousands of conversations about Shakespeare’s lovers, hundreds of performances of YMCA at assembly and courageous comings out, public and private. I think the Blob should be proud. Besides, wool and fudge are good for young people: they can be relied on to bring the absolutism and the knives themselves.

All this matters because the memory of Section 28 is increasingly being invoked around a new moral panic: the treatment of transgender young people in schools. There are parallels. In 1996 I thought, for example, that I would never see such run-down classrooms or desperate staff rooms again. But after the pandemic, and 12 years of conservative austerity — and the venal demands of the academy trusts — roofs are falling in again and classes are bulging at the seams. There is a huge teacher recruitment problem and an absolute crisis in Special Educational Needs. Here again is a populist government finding itself unexpectedly unpopular and willing to exploit anything and anybody to take the attention away from its own failures.

Attorney General Suella Braverman’s pronouncements on transgender students in schools genuinely echoed Section 28 in their emptiness — pandering to transgender students is as far removed from real classroom practice as “promoting” homosexuality ever was — and also in their meanness. CAMHs, the young people’s mental health service, is in a state even the Government agrees is dire. Improving it would be the only real action the government could take to mitigate this crisis — but there are no plans to do so.

Braverman’s comments, coming at the end of partygate week, were clearly designed as a distraction. As Caroline Derbyshire, chair of the Headteachers’ Roundtable commented, sounding sublimely Blob-like:The story is an attempt to whip up an anti-woke culture war, and in schools we are not really interested in this kind of silliness.”

The trouble is, though, schools are. Teenagers have always been frantically interested in war and every kind of newness and anything a headteacher might call silly — that’s their job — but now teachers are, too. Braverman’s panic was not whipped up by the Right-wing press, but by people of the Blob. The advocates of banning books were not ancient Baronesses or Telegraph hacks but children’s librarians and teachers and people who write children’s books themselves. And it wasn’t a single picture book, either: according to Twitter, on any given day, “harm” in hyperbolic quantities can be found in hundreds of volumes. The mere presence in a school of someone with an unusual view may be called “actual violence”. In 1987, only the Daily Mail would monster teachers; now they publicly wish death on each other. Then, playground bullies echoed the homophobic language of comedians and tabloids; now, they use the language of the culture war.

Section 28 was most effectively defeated by being quietly ignored behind closed classroom doors. Now the doors have been opened by social media and schools and teachers are at risk, as Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Lecturers put it “of being criticised whatever decisions they make and policies they adopt” on transgender young people.

The young people themselves are at even more extreme risk: they need quiet, privacy, calm, time, and professional help and all these things are being denied them. They also need an adult consensus around them, preferably a woolly, blobby one with plenty of fudge available. But the adults can’t come to a consensus. We can’t even allow each other the words to start the discussion. We have to say everything is a war.


Kate Clanchy is a poet, author, and teacher. Some Kids I taught and What They Taught Me is available now from Swift Press.

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David L
David L
1 year ago

What is really needed is for trans activists to go away and leave the rest of us alone.

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
1 year ago
Reply to  David L

Oh, surely not. We can’t leave people to stew in their own juices. We need to get them–all of them, all of us!–“professional help”.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago

The left is progressive ie it has to move. The point of conservatism is to conserve ie not to move.

Leftism has moved many things positively, but it has to keep ‘progressing’ so it will always eventually move past a sensible mid point.

The Blob is left wing and is now moving into the intolerance phase. As the pendulum swings way past what most people can be persuaded is sensible, the left has to move into coercion, as it always, always does.

Last edited 1 year ago by Martin Bollis
William Buckley
William Buckley
1 year ago

I think the author misses the point about the concerns many people have about how this debate is being treated in schools.

When a 7 year old girl is told (because she likes playing football and running around at playtime), that she doesn’t have to be a girl if she doesn’t want to – is that pandering? It seems to me to be more like a form of advocacy.

This actually happened to a member of my family. The little girl in question was baffled and asked her mum what the teacher meant.

The issue isn’t pandering. The issue is on the one hand the unquestioning acceptance of “woke” gender ideology, because it is the way you can show you are in step with current fashionable thinking, and on the other the unwillingness to challenge and confront, the complete foolishness of and damage caused by this ideology, because of the opprobrium, threats and attacks you receive if you do – e.g JK Rowling, Graham Linehan etc etc

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
1 year ago

It’s good to hear that the little girl had the presence of mind to inquire about what that was all about.

Tim Pot
Tim Pot
1 year ago

I hope her mum told her she could be a Tomboy and not worry. I fell in love with the Tomboy I knew, and married her and had children with her.
Even today she sighs when she watches Women’s football and says “IF only they had had that when I was young.”
She would still join in a kickaround if the offer was made,

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
1 year ago

I am just re-posting a comment I posted beneath a previous article on transgenderism concerning the indoctrination of the young by teachers.
They are not just swallowing it they are teaching it. A delightful year 9 boy told me there are eleven different genders and babies are not born either male or female but are on a spectrum. I was shocked and tried reasoning with him but he was adamant it was true because that was what his biology teacher had taught him. He attends an academically outstanding state comprehensive. When I broached the subject a few weeks later, he said there aren’t eleven different genders, there are seventy two. Truth matters to this boy and he couldn’t deal with the thought his biology teacher was wrong, he also said he doesn’t want to offend anyone so clearly, it has been drilled into him, he mustn’t offend certain groups of people, and that not to agree with members of those groups is to be offensive towards them.

Last edited 1 year ago by Aphrodite Rises
Martin Smith
Martin Smith
1 year ago

Odd that in these ‘enlightened’ times playing football and running around at playtime should be considered male activities. Isn’t that egregious gender sterotyping?

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

Quite. That’s what ‘gender’ ideology is.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

It’s grooming.

Bronwen Saunders
Bronwen Saunders
1 year ago

I’m puzzled by the title of this piece. The author’s point seems to be that while there was largely unanimity on Section 28 and hence a collective will to ignore it out of existence, transgenderism is a much more contentious issue. So while “the blob”, with Stonewall’s help, may have largely embraced it, there are still dissenters – thank goodness. The comparison is in any case a shaky one, since indulging a child’s fancy that he or she might be trans can cause irreparable physical harm, making it a danger to life and limb that Section 28 never was.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 year ago

Agreed. This seems to be a piece of, “when we intentionally overturned educational philosophy in the 90’s to promote gay narratives, we were being noble, but now the trans people have gone too far.”

I’m seeing this in lots of places, and to be frank, I’m sick of it. Do liberals not realize the same philosophy is at work in both cases? Once you desacralize sex and separate it from its obvious biological purpose, you must embrace the full panoply of sexual behaviors. After all, if sex is just about recreation, who are you to police what people do in their own bedrooms? Who are you to deny them the right be happy? Sure, the philosophy starts with no fault divorce and the end of sodomy laws, but 50 years later you end up with public parades celebrating sadomasochism and puppy play. And how dare you protest, you bigot! In fact, schools should have field trips to those parades, to protect children from sex-obsessed puritans like you!

The author wants us to share her lament for how proper pedagogical philosophy has been corrupted, but the corruption happened on her watch and she refuses to take responsibility for it.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brian Villanueva
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago

The author provides a rather self-congratulatory lefty narrative of the Blob and Section 28.
I was a child in the 1940s and 50s in a firmly anti-socialist household, but my parents had homosexual friends as a matter of course and I don’t remember any particular antagonism against homosexuals in the circles I frequented in later years.
Of course, the sort of thugs who would be happy to beat someone up for supporting the wrong football team were happy to target homosexuals among others as well, and jokes that today would be regarded as distasteful circulated, but the idea that society outside the lefty blob was violently homophobic is from my perspective a complete caricature.
Children in school in the early years of this century called each other gay as an insult but to them the word simply meant stupid.
Section 28 merely sought to address the fear some felt that homosexuality might be actively promoted as a desirable lifestyle and seductions of minors might be effected thereby. As she mentions no prosecutions took place because on the whole teachers and others didn’t actively promote homosexuality as desirable as opposed to something that some people were and should not be persecuted for being. Of course the left want to promote their stance as some sort of triumph over the forces of Tory darkness.
If the Blob wants to express the message that those who want to act as someone from a different sex to the one they were born in should not be teased and made to feel uncomfortable I doubt many would object. What the author fails to address is whether she is in favour of schools actively encouraging young children to take body altering drugs and to conceal health issues from parents. This is a completely different issue from the issue of whom someone is sexually attracted to and potentially has life altering effects that loving someone of your own sex never had.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jeremy Bray
Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
1 year ago

In 1987, the Right-wing press stirred up a shameful moral panic about Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, a harmless picture book that featured a gay couple…

The harmless picture book about two homosexual males tasked with teaching a young girl everything she needs to know about being a woman. There could be no reasonable objection to such a book, right?

The thing I find so weird about middle-aged Leftist school teacher types is how delusional they are about their own opinions. She really thinks that if an opinion has near-unanimity in her totally non-representative secondary school faculty lounge mono-culture, that it is effectively a self-evident truth. People like Kate really think that way. It is my opinion that Kate is, to some degree, suffering from delusions.

Gunner Myrtle
Gunner Myrtle
1 year ago
Reply to  Mikey Mike

The politically correct don’t realize they are politically correct. They are just stating self evident truths.

R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago

“harmless”
The rest of this essay suggests otherwise.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 year ago
Reply to  R Wright

Based on the last 50 years, it’s hard to say this philosophy has been harmless.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago

The picture facinates me, is it some sort of stunt, a charity match maybe? No-one wears a frilly dress whilst playing football, and the choice of dresses leaves me wondering about the taste of these boys(?)

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
1 year ago

I think it’s Manchester United’s new strip.

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
1 year ago

Excellent observation, Linda. It’s as if someone has led these hastily transitioning trans youths to believe that any dress will do. Like, dude (I hope that’s an appropriate, non-gender-specific pronoun), you don’t have to wear the first dress you find. It’s a soccer game (forgive me, that ain’t football). How about something just below the knee, 100% cotton, maybe a soft floral pattern? If that boy was my daughter, I’d never let him leave the house in that thing.

Tim Pot
Tim Pot
1 year ago
Reply to  Mikey Mike

I think Ricky Gervais accurately summed up why a man might self-identify as female.

Tim Pot
Tim Pot
1 year ago

It is from the film of the book by David Walliams – The Boy in the Dress.

Iain Sanderson
Iain Sanderson
1 year ago

“A l’exemple de Saturn’s, la rĂ©volution dĂ©vore ses enfants.” Jacques Mallet du Pan

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
1 year ago

The difference is that homosexuality exists and always has. ‘Gender’ does not. Supporting children who might be gay or lesbian by teaching texts about people like them did not encourage them to have their bodies mutilated. ‘Gender’ ideology does. The existence of homosexuality does not undermine everything that is taught in Biology about sexual dimorphism in mammals and reproduction. ‘Gender’ ideology does. Acknowledging the existence of homosexuality does not indirectly make vast profits for the ‘gender affirmation’ industry. Teaching ‘gender’ ideology does.
There is no such thing as a ‘trans’ child. There are children who are happy to conform to the usual stereotyped dress or behaviour for their sex and others who are not. Both are equally valid and bullying of either is not acceptable. Everyone should use the lavatories and changing rooms for their sex and feel safe doing so. Nothing else, in schools, is required.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
1 year ago

Sex sex sex sex. Can’t we just concentrate on numeracy and literacy?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago

I remember being ‘taught’ homosexuality back in 1988 when I was twelve years old. I found it deeply unnatural and unwholesome and never understood why we were being shown photos of two men/women holding hands etc. The whole thing felt like a made-up adult contrivance (teenagers have a heightened sixth sense for this kind of thing).
It is a modern myth that children are just waiting for enlightened adults to teach them this stuff. None of us wanted this.
I have witnessed this movement shift the goal-posts from ‘tolerance’ to ‘acceptance’ to ‘endorsement’ and now ‘enforcement’.

Peter Mateja
Peter Mateja
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Another blip of a data point that conservatives have an incredibly overactive amygdala, specifically evoking an exaggerated sense of fear and disgust about things that don’t fit their worldview. Your 12 year old self had already had 12 years of an environment telling you “the way things should be”, combined with what is clearly a conservative mindset, evoking a heightened sense of disgust at the thought of same sex hand holding.
You are also demonstrating another very human fallacy… that “just because I feel this way, that everyone must also feel this way”. This isn’t a conservative vs liberal thing, as we certainly see this same kind of intractability playing out on both sides.
Your strong negative emotional reaction at photos of same sex couples holding hands, is specifically why there’s a gay rights movement… that same feeling, magnified across a population, lead to things like homophobia and violence against gays.

Tim Pot
Tim Pot
1 year ago

My aged Uncle was labelled a homophobic bigot when he objected to Gay Marriage. He didn’t object to civil partnerships, though he did wonder why there were objections to siblings taking advantage of them as to him they were simply a means of ensuring legal rights to assets etc and so not in danger of undermining society.
Regarding Gay Marriage his objection went something like this:-
‘Homosexuality is a sexual preference. Once you start accepting that sexual preference as the equal of the normal heterosexual one that is intended for procreation, and treat it as such, then the next preference slightly more unusual that comes along will eventually have to be accepted too. Until one day you find yourself accepting sexual preferences that are unacceptable.”
The timing of this is also an interesting coincidence, as I received the following from a Mr Laurence Fox of The Reclaim Party, and wasn’t sure I believed it.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XA07ta2tJpQ
Perhaps the only problem with Jimmy Savile was he was ahead of his time?

Last edited 1 year ago by Tim Pot
Peter Mateja
Peter Mateja
1 year ago
Reply to  Tim Pot

Ahhh yes, the slippery slope fallacy. If we let the gays get married, of course we’ll eventually end up with people trying to marry tables.
The biggest problems with the procreation argument are that:
A) We still let infertile couples marry… there is no fertility bar to pass. Indeed, while people do regularly get genetic testing informing them that their offspring may be a heightened risk for some horrible genetic outcome, we do not prevent them from getting marries, nor even prevent them from trying to have children that could further pass horrible genetic issues to the next generation.
B) Birth rates structurally plummet in all of the developed world, even in places like Japan that still have laws against gay marriage, along with strong social stigmas against it.

John Sanchez
John Sanchez
1 year ago

I’m glad that people are now starting to talk about the realities of Section 28.
I was at school during Section 28, yet was still taught about homosexuality et al in PSE lessons. TBH you wouldn’t have even known the legislation existed!
Yet now there is a narrative (particularly from those born after the abolition of Section 28) who state how awful school was due to the long lasting effects of the legislation!

Nicholas Taylor
Nicholas Taylor
1 year ago

Remember the Cultural Revolution.

Last edited 1 year ago by Nicholas Taylor
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

So is this piece effectively explaining that the fears of those in the eighties about grooming kids who haven’t figured out what they are were justified?
Since this libertarianism in children’s education has now resulted in 79% of teachers reporting that they have at least one transgender kid in their classroom. 79%.

Ken Charman
Ken Charman
1 year ago

The liberal left needs to wake up to the reality that, for all their decades of activism, the vast majority of voters are, are firm and permanent social conservatives. They are not trailing along behind being dragged into new progressive values. If they seem more compliant and quiet, that is largely self preservation in the face of aggression and censorship from progressive values, that somehow hijacked “equality” law and made it a weapon. If change is to come and our democracy is to be repaired the liberal left need to stop activating and retreat back to the centre.

Jon Little
Jon Little
1 year ago

“Venal academy trusts
”
I stopped reading at that point.

Will D. Mann
Will D. Mann
1 year ago

The supposed dangers of trans extremism and “cancel culture” have been much exaggerated. A few celebrities have made pedantic distinctions on what defines being a man or a woman, a few extreme voices have shrieked objections, most people have paid no attention

Peter Mateja
Peter Mateja
1 year ago
Reply to  Will D. Mann

As I’ve come more and more to see, UnHerd is itself just a wrap for a mostly conservative audience. While some of the articles here are token progressive in nature, the comment section for those is often a dogpile of social conservatives lambasting the author and the left. I do enjoy poking the dogpiles here now and again, but I definitely feel like a minority on these forums.