We live in an age of bitter new culture wars; a time of furious voters demanding the return of old certainties of which they feel they have been robbed, and facing equally fierce resistance from those who associate those old certainties only with bigotry, oppression and pain. It’s therefore thoroughly encouraging, in this LGBTQ+ history month, to encounter a book like Paul Baker’s Outrageous!, subtitled The Story of Section 28 and Britain’s Battle for LGBT Education; not least because it reminds us that the weaponising of sexual and cultural issues is far from new, in UK and Scottish politics.
Across 300 pages of sprightly and entertaining history and memoir – always highly informative, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, yet unfailingly conscious of the seriousness of the issues at stake – Baker leads us through the story of the notorious Clause 28 of Margaret Thatcher’s Education Reform Act 1988, which forbade local authorities from “promoting homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”, tracing the clause from its beginnings in a hysterical moral panic about sex education orchestrated by some elements of the press in the febrile atmosphere of the 1980s AIDS crisis, to its quiet end in the House of Commons in 2003.
Baker is also fully aware of the Scottish dimensions of the story. The equivalent Scottish legislation was known as Section 2A; and Baker leads us deftly through every aspect of the tale, focusing on the gallery of reactionary politicians – particularly in the House of Lords – who argued most strongly for the legislation, on strange episodes like Scottish millionaire Brian Souter’s personal campaign to “Keep The Clause ”, and also on the powerful, witty and inventive anti-clause movement that helped unite the gay community at one of the darkest moments in its history, delivering not only some remarkable and sustained establishment campaigning led by figures like Ian McKellen and Michael Cashman, but also unforgettable moments of direct action, including the famous 1988 invasion of the BBC Six O’Clock News studio, during the evening bulletin.
From the vantage-point of 2022, Baker can look back over four decades of tremendous positive change in the status of gay people in Britain; and his book by him comes as a powerful reminder of the pivotal role of Clause 28 in forming the politics of a gay generation who, together with their allies, went on to achieve levels of freedom and equality of which their forefathers and foremothers could barely have dreamed. Yet it also carries a warning that such gains are never set in stone; and that particularly in times of economic stress, the old demons of bigotry and exclusion can easily rouse themselves again, unless they are stoutly resisted by those who know that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance – in the 1980s, today, and always.
Outrageous! by Paul Baker, Reaktion Books £15.99
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.