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LGBT History Month 2020: I witnessed history in the making

Rainbow colours painted on a road.
| Photograph: Unsplash
Written by
Robert Adungo
Published date
27 February 2020
David Isaac
David Isaac

February is LGBT History Month. The occasion takes place across the UK every year to celebrate and commemorate the history of gay rights. Throughout the month, we’ve been highlighting all things LGBTQ+, including reflections from colleagues - and today, David Isaac shares his story…

Witnessing a historic moment

I remember well the evening Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was abolished in England and Wales. It was 2003 and I was in the public gallery of the House of Lords. That evening the peers – who had originally opposed the repeal of the law despite the fact the democratically elected chamber of the House of Commons had passed it – finally voted to abolish it.

I was there as Chair of Stonewall, the LGB lobby group which was set up to campaign for legal equality following the introduction of this specific legislation. A group of brave LGB people had come together because Section 28 sought to make it impossible for local authorities to support LGB initiatives; to do so would be “promoting homosexuality”.

The legislation stated: ‘A local authority shall not— (a) intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality; (b) promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.

Making a successful stand

The blatant discrimination and targeting of the gay community represented by the legislation was a catalyst for the creation of Stonewall; the treatment of the gay community as second class citizens was no longer going to be acceptable. Stonewall was therefore created to bring LGB discrimination to an end – and was hugely successful.

Early successes included the ending of discrimination of gays in the military; equal employment rights; a reduction in the age of consent, and the right for LGB people to adopt. But notwithstanding all this progress, Section 28 still remained on the statute book. It was an iconic piece of legislation which definitely needed to go – and Stonewall was determined to continue to lobby for its abolition.

There was no doubt that public opinion about discrimination against the gay community was changing and that a growing number of people were supportive of legal equality for LGB people. On that basis, Section 28 needed to go.

Respect and equality wins

I sat in the gallery of the Lords that evening with great pride. It was good to look down at Margaret Thatcher, the architect of Section 28, and see that the nation’s desire for respect and equal treatment had at long last won the day. The very thing intended to discriminate against us had actually been a call to arms. A call that would ultimately result in full legal equality.

It was a huge privilege to be Chair of Stonewall for nearly a decade and to oversee the charity during the period when Section 28 was abolished. Following the legislation’s demise, we became emboldened and went on to make greater demands - especially in delivering civil partnerships and gay marriage.

What have we learned?

Ironically, it was the introduction of Section 28 which led to the delivery of full legal equality for LGB people. We learnt important lessons in our fight to abolish it:

  • See opportunity even in extreme adversity: Even in our darkest hours when the LGB community was targeted by discriminatory legislation, we never lost sight of what we were aiming for. Stonewall took a long term view, learning from setbacks and finding ways around hurdles.
  • Always build cross-party support: Stonewall always sought to work with parliamentarians from all parties. Often, we didn’t find support where we expected to find it!
  • Work with all communities to gather support: Large groups of people across society, especially from other minority groups, became important allies.
  • Always be bold in making the case for equality: Stonewall presented its case as a human rights issue, as well as a matter of discrimination. No group should be treated as second-class citizens and that approach worked.

Lastly, let’s not forget that positive change can sometimes result from even the most pernicious and unfair piece of legislation. That’s why I smile when I remember that evening in the House of Lords, nearly twenty years ago.

David Isaac is Chair of UAL’s Court of Governors.