I remember it clearly. The school may have been conservative, but the teacher herself was really very liberal. “How do gay people have sex?” “I’m sorry, I’m not allowed to talk about that”. “What do you mean, ‘not allowed’?” “It’s against the law – I could lose my job”.
This was the dying days of Section 28 (known in Scotland as Clause 2A, and abolished 3 years before it was in England). The law effectively stated that teachers: “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.
We were flabbergasted. Teachers would often tell us that they didn’t want to talk about something, or that we should get back to work. But we’d never been told that it would be illegal for a teacher to answer a question – especially one that was about basic sex education.
Of course, I’m not sure she was right. You could explain the biological facts of gay sex without ‘promoting homosexuality’. But that, surely, is irrelevant. Because what matters is the impact the law had. And, in effect, it stopped my teachers from telling us that it’s OK to be gay, and from teaching my gay classmates how to ensure any sex they might have was safe.
Homophobic bullying at school was rife anyway. I left school in 2003. I seem to have hit the peek time in which the word ‘gay’ was used as a synonym for ‘bad’ or ‘uncool’. I have a gay uncle, and so was more aware of how offensive this is from an earlier age than I might otherwise have been. But I can believe I fell into the trap more than once.
And, looking back, I can’t imagine what kind of impact that had on any classmates who were growing into their sexuality and discovering that they were lesbian, gay, or bisexual. To discover that something that your friends see as a synonym for ‘bad’ is a fundamental part of your identity must be terrifying. You only need to look at the website of the Albert Kennedy Trust to find the kind of impacts that can have on people’s lives. But teachers were effectively banned from intervening. They could, of course, stop the worst of bullying. But I imagine that for many the culture may well be more damaging than any specific bullying of those believed by their peers to be gay, lesbian or bisexual. And this was a culture reinforced by law.
And I was at school when the Scottish Government moved to abolish Section 28. I think most of my classmates basically supported the move. While they were soft homophobes, when push came to shove, they weren’t bigots.
But Stagecoach magnate Brian Souter disagreed. He poured a million pounds into the ‘Keep the Clause’ campaign. Effectively, the bus tycoon he was throwing the money he’d practically been given through the privatisation of public transport into telling my gay classmates that they weren’t equal. That they should be disgusted by themselves. That the kinds of relationships they wanted weren’t ‘acceptable’. He poured a million pounds into a private ‘referendum’ across Scotland, and whipped the tabloids into a frenzy. As Peter Tatchell has said, it was “The moral equivalent of the business-funded campaign to maintain racial segregation”. Once of Scotland’s richest men basically decided to dedicate himself to leading the bullying of gay teenagers.
In running this campaign, he identified himself clearly as one of Britain’s leading bigots. Just as Nick Griffin or the EDL attack Muslims, Brian Souter launched an all-out assault on the LGBT community. And while his campaign lost, it won a lot of ground. It helped cement the idea that homophobic bigotry is an acceptable position.
And the Government have today further cemented this idea. By giving one of Britain’s leading bigots a knighthood – by honouring someone who dedicates himself to victimising LGBT children – they have shown just how skin deep their support for equality is. Knighthoods have often been given to those who oppress others, or hold views I find to be offensive. But they are rarely given to those who have dedicated much of their lives to becoming one of the country’s leading bigots. Welcome to Cameron’s Britain.