Oral History

Intergenerational Oral History and Section 28

November 2023 was the twentieth anniversary of the repeal of Section 28 in England and Wales. A piece of homophobic legislation that prohibited local authorities and schools from ‘promoting’ homosexuality, Section 28 sought to silence LGBTQ+ voices. To mark the anniversary of its repeal, an Exeter-based project team embarked on an oral history project that paired young LGBTQ+ people with older LGBTQ+ people in the South West to record how their lives were impacted by this legislation. The resulting oral histories were at the heart of an exhibition on Section 28 and its afterlives, which launched in November 2023. In the months since, interviewers and interviewees have reflected on the experience of being involved in an intergenerational LGBTQ+ oral history project. The following conversation draws on written and recorded responses to a set of questions by two of the project’s interviewers and three interviewees: Lisette and Amy, who were born around the time of Section 28’s repeal; and Claire, Peter, and Melissa, who lived through Section 28’s introduction and repeal, and are all now in their 40s and 50s. The conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.

You’ve all been involved, as interviewers and interviewees, in this intergenerational LGBTQ+ oral history project. From your perspectives, what is the value of doing intergenerational LGBTQ+ oral history?

Claire: Society is much more accepting of gay or queer people these days, at least in the UK. It’s part of everyday life and no-one bats an eyelid – which is how it should be, of course. It’s easy to forget that it hasn’t always been like this. The ‘80s and ‘90s were hostile, psychologically violent times for us – and Section 28 enshrined that in law. Today we have all this flag-waving and celebration, this compulsory queer positivity, and maybe some of us feel glossed over, like a forgotten generation under the rainbow lip gloss. Taking part in intergenerational oral history made me feel like I’m not forgotten. The hostile environment I experienced could easily come back. It only takes another wave of populism and fear and we’re back to harmful legislation. It’s happening again with trans identities and the new guidance for schools. It’s sinister stuff. Intergenerational oral history can provide an early warning for those who come after. Oral history tends to be the stuff you don’t get in the history books. It’s disruptive. Younger LGBTQ+ people are the custodians of our stories, because if they won’t tell our stories, who will? Holding onto our continuous queer history is an act of resistance. It’s like a queer family tree for our found family.

Amy: Speaking from the perspective of a young queer person, we don’t really get to hear LGBT stories in school, or even really much at university. And that’s partly the influence of Section 28 and its long-lasting legacy. It’s also really hard for young queer people to find older queer people to connect with and talk to and learn from. Oral history focusing on LGBT stories helps correct that and lets young people hear about queer histories directly from the people who experienced it. I wasn’t out at school. I didn’t really discover or feel positively about my identity until university, so this was the first time I’d really spoken about queer history to older queer people. And one of the main messages lots of the interviewees expressed was not to be complacent, and to recognize that the fight for LGBTQ rights is ongoing. That’s a really important message now more than ever, because the government are threatening transphobic legislation, they’ve threatened to bring back Section 28 for a new era. I think hearing these stories can help people now to fight against it, and recognize the warning signs.

Peter: I think that there is a universal human desire to narrate one’s experiences. This is in part a process by which we reify our own biographies into a satisfactory and self-convincing narrative, and in part because we want to tell others what they ought to be thinking about us. In both senses, it’s a form of securing – of oneself within one’s own consciousness, and of one’s place among others. We might call that therapy(!). Gay people of my age grew up vilified, targeted, scared, vulnerable to the whims of bigots. The last thing I would want to do is tell younger LGBT+ people that ‘they don’t know how lucky they are’. For one thing, I’ve also had a great life, and I know life can be seriously tough today. But I also want to remind people how ultra-recent wider society’s embrace of queer lifeways is, and in doing so ask them to consider how fickle attitudes that changed so fast might prove to be.

Lisette: Growing up as a queer person I didn’t have many – I didn’t have any, actually – queer role models. So, to be able to do these interviews and talk to older LGBTQ+ people about our history was so important – it almost created role models. I didn’t grow up in a place that was necessarily very safe, where you could be openly queer and talk about it, especially in school. To be able to hear real life people’s stories is important, because it helps you feel less alone in your experiences if you can come together and talk about them.

Melissa: It was a hugely valuable experience, and there’s three layers to that. As a queer person in general, Section 28 was an injustice. Laws that restrict the ability to talk about LGBT people as people dehumanise us, and legitimise violence against us. One of the worst things about growing up under Section 28 was that teachers did not really intervene in the violence that was done to me because I was thought to be gay. I think they were afraid to, because Section 28 meant they couldn’t really name it. And I didn’t want to name it, because I was trying to deal with my own brain worms about the fact I was trans and didn’t really understand it. Section 28 was an injustice done to LGBT people of my generation and it’s important that that is on record.

There’s also the specifics of the trans community. To figure yourself out as trans requires you to understand what being trans is, and the background knowledge that we had wasn’t good enough for me to recognise myself as trans. I had to actually experience trans people’s real voices and real experiences to go: ‘Oh, that’s me. I recognise myself now. I understand myself and I can accept myself and move on and actually live a happy life.’ But as late as the mid-2000s, medical institutions would expect – verge on demand – that people, when they transitioned, would exit the trans community; that as they medically transition, they would no longer be trans, they would live a ‘normal’ life and exit the community. That means that for trans people, we don’t have trans elders that are part of the community in the same way. There’s a reengagement and there’s older trans people who are about and doing great stuff. But there’s not many. And the third thing is that as a trans person in the UK in the current time, there are echoes of Section 28 that are really, really strong. We have a government that is actively encouraging schools to essentially do Section 28 for trans people. The current proposed guidelines for schools is a Section 28 for trans kids in school. It will suppress trans people being able to experiment and discover themselves. It will normalise violence against us. It was really messed up how bad the violence was growing up, and to know that that is what the government is intending to put in place now is difficult. It’s important to make those links, because the outcomes will be very similar.

A vibrant rainbow background with thick horizontal stripes in pink, red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. In bold black letters are the words 'Tales we must tell our children: homosexuality is an actively desirable condition'.
This artwork was created by a participant in one of the project’s collage workshops, using headlines taken from newspapers around the time of Section 28

You’ve all spoken about the value of intergenerational LGBTQ+ oral history, but clearly, it’s not without its difficulties. What aspects of being involved in intergenerational LGBTQ+ oral history did you find challenging?

Claire: I was apprehensive about being interviewed by someone much younger than me – I was afraid they wouldn’t see what all the fuss was about. I thought I wouldn’t be able to talk authentically as a result. But I couldn’t have been luckier with my interviewer. They gave me the space to access difficult memories and skilfully resisted any temptation to jump in. Section 28 was so effective in silencing. I found it monumentally difficult to find the words. In the end the silences had as much meaning as the words – I’m so glad they were left in the recording. I had to brace myself to listen to the extracts used in the exhibition. But after the initial shock of hearing my own voice, I’m really pleased and happy for these to be included. It was an extremely powerful experience to hear my voice back, saying these things after all this time, in public. And to know that other people will hear them. I think you can hear the pain in my voice, but I feel proud of this contribution.

Amy: There were times it was quite an emotional experience. I don’t think I was prepared for how much some of the stories were going to resonate with me and my experiences. There was one interview I did find particularly challenging, and I’m not sure if it was necessarily a specific moment, but that the person I was interviewing was clearly finding it so hard to talk about. It was like they’d never really spoken openly about it before and this was the first time they were speaking about those experiences and those feelings out loud. And it addressed a lot of topics like the shame and guilt of growing up as a gay person. The idea that this was the first time they were speaking about it made me realize almost mid-interview that this was a really important thing. For me, I’m just interviewing somebody, but for them it was such an important moment, this was the first time they were really speaking about their experiences. And I do think it changed how I saw the project.

Peter: Partly, it was challenging just remembering what it was like back then – it’s been a while! Section 28 was never the be-all of my life, but part of the wider clamour of my late teens and twenties, LGBT+ and otherwise. I did the marches, but I wasn’t an activist. I was conscious of Section 28, but it did not directly impact me – I wasn’t a teacher, for example. So, part of the challenge was how to handle being a ‘witness’ to something that had, in terms of the detail, largely faded into a general feeling of the legal and social awfulness of the time. Age and gender differences were also challenging. I remember checking myself when some things came to mind, largely around sex, which was tacit in any discussion of Section 28. My interviewer was thirty years younger, female, and unknown to me. Frankly, I did not want to discomfort her, or suffer the indignity of feeling I had provoked discomfort. She was a very good interviewer, but I had to make choices about where to take the discourse. We – gay men of my age – learned caution and circumspection as a default of self-preservation.

Lisette: Another thing I found challenging was to be told so many traumatic things. You can read as many books and watch as many documentaries as you want, but to actually have someone sit in front of you and tell you their experiences and tell you that this horrible thing happened to them, it’s just… It’s also quite hard to take in that so many of these people’s experiences were at the time swept under the rug. Even when Section 28 was repealed, a lot of people were saying they didn’t really feel there was much of a change. That’s another thing I found challenging. You expect a relief at the end of it. And then for there to not be much of a change for the people who went through it, it feels quite shit. At the end of it all, there’s not just one big positive of, like, everyone thinks everyone should have rights, and LGBTQ+ lives matter. People are still debating human lives and human rights.

Melissa: What was challenging? One word: trauma.

A background of newspaper clippings with a bright rainbow running through the centre at a wavy angle. In bold black letters across the centre of the rainbow are the words 'everyone should read more Gay books'.
This artwork was created by a participant in one of the project’s collage workshops, using headlines taken from newspapers around the time of Section 28

What difference, if any, did taking part in this intergenerational LGBTQ+ oral history project make to you personally?

Claire: It was a profound experience – the power of hearing my own voice back, the first use of the word ‘grief’ in a discussion. That was an epiphany – suddenly a lot of psychological stuff fell into place. Because it is grief – grief for the childhood and youth we couldn’t live, grief for the memories we can’t now access because we buried them. It’s like you know you have loss but you’ve also lost that loss, in some sort of Orwellian doublethink.

Amy: It made me really proud on a personal level to be an LGBTQ+ person and to hear about these histories. There are obviously amazing stories about resistance; one of the interviewees I spoke to had helped organise campaigns and that was really inspirational. But it was also amazing to hear about people who hadn’t necessarily been part of huge movements or led organizations but had just lived and been happy, despite everything, and who had really nice lives now and had families and were openly queer and happy – that’s just so lovely to see. It was the first time I’ve ever really done anything that felt like it was making a difference to LGBT people and so I’m proud that that’s something I’ve been able to do. It has also really helped with discovering and feeling positive about my identity. I hope that for the people who went to the exhibition, it had that effect too.

Peter: I found talking about Section 28 and gay life was a way for me to develop fragmentary thoughts into a more considered reflection of my past. For me, the experiences of past homophobia live on in every aspect of how I relate to others and myself. Even though, for many years, I congratulated myself on how I have thrived and been unaffected by that homophobia, the fact is I have struggled with self-doubt, self-criticism, perfectionism, social caution, and hypervigilance, particularly in the workplace. I know these feelings are not exclusive to people who have endured homophobia – but the homophobia cannot have helped, to say the least. Why am I saying this? Perhaps, participating helped me to recognise, articulate, and entertain the possibility of a connection between what I experienced and who I am, and to go somewhere with it.

Lisette: I was definitely able to educate myself more on LGBTQ+ history. The first time I heard about Section 28 was through an Instagram post from Gay Times – so I’ve always been kind of aware of it but didn’t really fully understand what it was. Doing these interviews was a new form of education. You’re never going to fully understand what previous generations have been through unless you’ve spoken to them directly about their experiences as queer people. I’d like to hope that the interviewees know that their stories have made an impact. To be able to hear the experiences of LGBTQ+ people who are older than me – it impacted me, it impacted everyone at the exhibition and everyone who’s able to access the interviews. So I really hope that they know how important their stories are, and how much of a difference they’ve made.

Melissa: I’m proud to have been part of it. It’s important these experiences are made part of the historical record, so there can be a clear discussion of the impact of these kinds of things for the future, and for queer people to see that they’re not alone and that their experiences are part of a bigger picture. I’m proud to be contributing a little part of that. Personally, talking it through is good. I was also seeing a therapist and counsellor – because I was doing that anyway – so in conjunction with therapy, talking it through helps address and process the trauma.

A plain brown background with a large pink triangle facing point side down in the centre. In bold black letters are the words 'homosexuality encourage anybody to practise it'.
This artwork was created by a participant in one of the project’s collage workshops, using headlines taken from newspapers around the time of Section 28

The Section 28 and its afterlives project is co-led by Helen Birkett, Chris Sandal-Wilson, and Hannah Young at the University of Exeter. The project team are continuing to conduct oral histories with LGBTQ+ people in the South West across 2024 with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. You can find out more about the project, including how to share your own stories of Section 28, here.

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