50.50: Opinion

I was a child of Section 28. ‘Heartstopper’ helps heal the pain

The new British drama series shows LGBTIQ freedom as a normal part of school life. If only my own school days had been like that

Dan Glass
7 May 2022, 12.00am

Nick (Kit Connor) and Charlie (Joe Locke) in ‘Heartstopper’

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I’m so, so proud of my filmmaking friend Sam, the director’s assistant behind ‘Heartstopper’. It does exactly what powerful drama should do – it stopped me in my tracks.

‘Heartstopper’ is a new British queer drama series currently streaming on Netflix. The eight-part story follows two 14-year-old schoolboys, openly gay Charlie Spring and popular rugby star Nick Nelson, as they become friends and an unexpected relationship blossoms between them. It’s based on the webcomic and graphic novel of the same name by Alice Oseman.

Its intention – to widen the goalposts of reality, so that LGBTQIA+ freedom is immortalised in everyday life – is beautiful and vital. There I was, happily watching ‘EastEnders’, with my mental childhood gay box sealed shut, and then ‘Heartstopper’ minced along and blew it all apart.

I’d just started school in 1988 when Margaret Thatcher made the infamous speech in which she said that “children are being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay”. That speech launched Section 28, which banned the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities in the UK. It dug its sinister claws into every aspect of life; there was nowhere to learn and nowhere to turn. It wasn't repealed until 2003.

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I’ve just finished episode three. In my childhood, there were no mansion parties with winding staircases. Instead, we had garages, bike sheds, weed and speed. As soon as the party was over, the ‘living a double life’ would continue, not end with me crying on my Dad's shoulder. I didn’t want to go school and I didn’t want to go home, even if the guy I fancied turned up in the snow.

So I would slink out on the night bus to Soho, and either suck off a stranger in Heaven (the nightclub) after blagging my way into the VIP area, or wake up next to some guy called Barry in Bedfordshire at 6am, just in time to leg it to school. After hiding in the train’s toilet, STD-rich but financially poor, it wouldn't be long before I hit the jackpot and got HIV and pondered killing myself before the state knocked me off first.

I could barely spell AIDS, let alone understand what it meant. Queer self-respect was banished in school. And so I’d look for meaning in a religious God, realise that they all despised me, and settle for Mark Fowler from ‘EastEnders’ instead, the AIDS TV icon educating the nation as he got shunned out of the Queen Vic bar.

And when I did eventually make it to school, I wasn’t actually there because I was so stoned out of my head; the dysphoria was so dizzying, getting stoned was the only natural thing to do.

What was the point in going to class? The mental arithmetic of homosexual existence didn’t add up; there was no language allowed for my identity in English, so I’d be better off learning Latin; the only flame I would feel in chemistry was unrequited love for the straight boy intent on beating me up; physics was a farce because it was definitely not better being ‘out’ than ‘in’; and, as for biology, don’t ask – it wasn’t until 1990 that the World Health Organization declassified homosexuality as a disease. There were no art teachers to console me at lunchtime; Section 28 forbade it. So I would be in detention, on report, and social services would be called.

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Dan Glass today

Anyway, ‘Heartstopper’ is brilliant. When I'm not face-planting into a box of tissues, the question I want answers for is: how can we hold the grief of the past, the beauty of the present and the hopes of the future with such precision that all generations can become free?

If the love that we were denied is the love that bell hooks spoke of when she said that “love is as love does.... an act of will – namely, both an intention and an action”, then where can it take us?

If we are to zoom out into the past and across time to reach out to everyone at the sharp end of the knife, from the LGBT+ elders facing homophobic abuse in so-called ‘care homes’ to LGBTQIA+ migrants facing rejection and a “culture of disbelief”, then the lessons learnt from ‘Heartstopper’ could be even more acute – especially this year, the 50th anniversary of the first UK Gay Pride.

In saying all this, I never wanted to be that finger-wagging person, who says: “Now listen here, back in my day…” But it’s too late, so wish me luck as I cry through episode four.

Now then, the toast is burning and where did I put my slippers?

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