Back to the future: 1979-1989
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Working out under Section 28

Being a gay teenager in the late 1980s.


  • Author:
  • A staff writer
    National Library of Scotland

On Saturday 28 February 1988 I was standing at the top of Market Street in Manchester waiting to cross the road from one department store to another, getting increasingly annoyed with a group of people who were blocking the way.

Thousands of them. I was 14. It was vital that I could get across the road, and these people had no idea the bother they were causing. 'Gay or straight, tell the State, we don't want Clause 28'. Whatever, I had shopping to do.

The shopping I had to do was very important to me. There was a brand of men's underwear that I had never seen before with a picture of an athletic man wearing them. I had been into Lewis' intending to buy them, and hung around the till point for ages, waiting for a time when there was no one else queuing, or even likely to be queuing, and also when the less threatening shop assistant was the only one on the till. It isn't a lie to say that it felt like running the gauntlet; because that's what most things feel like when you are a gay 14-year-old, or a straight 14-year-old too, for all I know. The enormous risk of buying this box of non-basic underwear was that the entire shop would know that I was buying them because I was gay, and would announce this to everyone in menacing and threatening ways. Even on a Saturday it often felt like being at school.

I didn't know what Clause 28 was, but I didn't appreciate all of these people drawing even greater attention to me. It was a moment of incredible personal axis when I reflect on it. Anyway, long story short, I did eventually manage to cross the road, also failed to have the courage to buy the pants in Debenhams, and got the train home, oblivious to the fact that 20,000 people had just been trying to help me.

Working Out

I was earning a small income in 1988 as a milkman at the weekends, and felt economically empowered. I could go into town and look at things I might buy. One day I went into W H Smiths to browse at the books.

Nothing prepared me for seeing 'Working Out' by Charles Hix on the bottom shelf of a gable end of the sport and lifestyle section. It was displayed front cover out, which is almost entirely composed of a colour photograph of a man doing sit-ups on a beach in his briefs. I spent the rest of the day trying to pluck up the courage to pick up this book and look at it, while studying a lot of other books I wasn't interested in, waiting for 'the right moment'.

'Working Out' is shamelessly homoerotic, not something I could have articulated at the time, but can see quite plainly now. The book is filled with a particular aesthetic image which at 14 was entirely compelling but now feels like quite a restricted palette: Ivy League athletes doing exercises at least bare-chested, and frequently just in underwear, swimwear, or shorts that are actually short (the book was first published in 1983). The garments are often striped, typically cotton, but occasionally from the looks of things a polyamide blend. There are quite a lot of vests and a surprising amount of headbands, even for the '80s.

I didn't buy it that day. Not only was there the gauntlet to run, but it was quite expensive. But I thought about it a lot. This would be an investment in the future. Not a real future of course, but the immediate future, the one where I would patiently wait to turn straight, the one where I would be able to stop being attracted to men by getting to look like one of the ones that I was attracted to. This would be an excellent book to have. Not gay at all. For sale in W H Smiths. What a sensible and understandable purchase, why isn't everyone buying a copy. I bought it a few weeks later. On the way home, the reality of having a book that I knew to be motivated by something else hit me, and in a moment of illogical panic, I scraped the book across a wall, damaged some of the pages, and cracked its spine so I could say I had found it. Picking up litter was responsible. Buying a book filled with images of men in bikini briefs (like I say, first published in 1983) was not something I wanted to have to talk about.

Section 28

The Local Government Act 1988, Chapter 9, is arranged in four parts. Part 4 has, among other things, three sections about dogs, several sections about the workings of local authorities, and one section — Section 28 — about gays. It says 'A local authority shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality; or promote the teaching in any maintained school the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretend family relationship'. Quickly followed by, 'Nothing in subsection 1 above shall be taken to prohibit the doing of anything for the purpose of treating or preventing the spread of disease'. In other words, you must not talk to children about gayness, unless it is to say that it will kill them to death with AIDS.

As a piece of text, Section 28 is a darned sight easier to understand than Section 29 which simply refers to Schedule 3, which is in turn about the finer details of local government operation and is one of the most difficult things I have ever tried to read. I can't imagine 20,000 people getting together on a Saturday in Manchester on account of having read Section 29, unless it was a mass rally of the Plain English Society.

I've learned about Section 28 now of course and am aware of some genuinely shameful language around its development, but my main feeling upon reading the text is that no-one worked harder at suppressing homosexuality back then (and, I suspect, still) than gay children themselves. Section 28 is relatively tame compared to the levels of self-loathing and self-editing (I think this is the best term for it) that many gay children put themselves through once they have been taught how to despise themselves through 'playground banter', and casual comments in newspapers, on the telly, and in social and family settings. The extent to which this particular piece of legislation made that worse is, I think, difficult to say given the long history of legal and social hostility towards gay people generally prior to Section 28, but I don't suppose that it helped matters. To be honest, back in 1988 I was too busy swooning over Philip Schofield and his relationship with Gordon the Gopher to have paid that much attention to the Government's efforts to save me from myself.

'Jenny lives with Eric and Martin'

A key trigger for Section 28 was the now legendary 'Jenny lives with Eric and Martin', a 1981 children's book written by Danish author Susanne Bosche. It was published in an English version by Gay Men's Press in 1983. It tells the story in a series of black and white photos of domestic tasks and accompanying short blocks of text, of a five-year old girl who lives with her dad, Martin, and his boyfriend, Eric. I never saw this book at school, like almost every other person in the UK. But in 1986 (and part of a more general outpouring of media stories about 'loony left' councils and 'political correctness gone mad') a story broke that Britain's schools were making this book widely available. It was based, as far as I understand it, on the availability of the book in a teachers' resource library in Inner London. The news coverage lit the blue touch paper and that was that.

There is no doubt that for its time it was a ground-breaking book. But is the act of portraying alternative lifestyles and communities a promotion of those lifestyles, or just an acknowledgment of them? For me, the main thing the book promotes is Denmark — it looks great. And checked shirts (see page 39). Granted, it is a book sympathetic to its main characters (like most children's story books), but I don't think this book has the power to turn straight children gay any more than literally all of the heteronormative books that I was exposed to in school had to turn me straight. Children on the whole are fairly good, I think, at working with stories and seeing themselves in literature.

But if you are from a minority it can be quite difficult to see yourself in literature or mainstream culture generally, and seeing your own reflection is crucial in matters of self-validation and self-confidence. There have been improvements since the 1980s, but back then 'Jenny lives with Eric and Martin' was trailblazing which perhaps accounts for the moral panic that it triggered: 'The Gays are coming to get us!' Hardly — the worst that might happen as far as I can tell from the book is that two men in denim might turn up on bicycles and convert your side border into a vegetable plot.

'Up to you, Porky'

I didn't much care for story books when I was a child, and couldn't relate to children who took an obvious pleasure in reading. I preferred newspapers and factual books. 'I love books because you can escape into an alternative world' they would say. I was trying to navigate my way out of an alternative world and into the real one. What it meant was that I spent a lot of time observing actual things. I loved nothing more than talking to my parents, to the neighbours over the fence, to the old ladies that I delivered milk to; adult conversation about the trivialities of daily life. With the genuine difficulties of being a hidden gay child partially being dealt with courtesy of Charles Hix, I was able to conduct a fairly ordinary life, rich with actual storytelling and with the celebration of the domestic and the mundane at the core.

Although my parents perhaps did not know that I might have needed a helpful book in 1988 — entirely because of my own design and very hard work, I should add — they nonetheless struck gold. For my birthday that year they bought me 'Up To You, Porky: The Victoria Wood Sketchbook'. I didn't know that this collection of scripts was available, so it was a genuine surprise. For a couple of years prior to that I had been absorbing as much Victoria Wood as possible via the television. To be able to read her words at leisure, and understand the craft behind extraordinary characters such as Kitty was more than entertaining: it was personally vital. Many teenagers in Manchester (and beyond) were soothing their angst with Morrissey, but there was simply too much Elkie Brooks, Carly Simon, and disco to be listening to in order for me to have got anything helpful out of The Smiths. If I'm honest, I didn't recognise myself in the Manchester music scene at all.

But I did recognise myself on page 112 of 'Up To You, Porky': 'If I was Prime Minister, and thank goodness I'm not, because I've been the length and breadth of Downing Street and never spotted a decent wool shop. But if I were …'. And on page 34: 'Beattie: We stayed up for News At Ten. Three bangles and a polo-neck, thank you. Connie: No, her ears are in the wrong place for a polo-neck. Beattie: You need to be Princess Di, really.' And this from Margery and Joan, page 121: 'Hello Joan. Well, I've been having a very hectic time. On Monday, my husband and I tiled our bathroom — more on that later — and on Tuesday we filed for divorce'.

If you are a fan of Victoria Wood you will understand all of this, and will not need me to point out how important the comma is after 'Di' and before 'really'. It's never a good idea to deconstruct comedy, but in my opinion what makes the final extract perfect is 'more on that later'. I read and re-read 'Up To You, Porky' in a way that I had never read a book before. Not fact, nor fiction, it was something else, and did more to shape me than any other publication from that decade, and still does. When the follow-up sketch book 'Barmy' came out shortly after (complete with all of the 'Acorn Antiques' scripts) I bought it immediately and devoured it. I was reading, for the first time, for pleasure.

I adored Wood's writing and performances, and instinctively understood her use of language, topics of focus, and exquisitely carved characters. She presented a mixed cast of ordinary folk, kind souls, anti-heroes, and motivational Lycra-clad people with perms, who I cared about and recognised. She underpinned her laugh-out-loud writing with a range of literary techniques that make for excellent reading on the page, and are astonishing and memorable to witness when performed.

The books we read

I don't remember seeing 'Up To You Porky' in our school library, but I doubt Section 28 would have prevented it from being on the shelves because it wasn't a 'gay publication', nor would it have been considered to promote homosexuality as a pretend family relationship. I say that, but the third Kitty sketch is as follows: 'The first day I met her she said, "I'm a radical feminist lesbian"; I thought, what would the Queen Mum do? So I just smiled and said, "We shall have fog by tea-time"'. And then there's : 'I must go, I'm having tea with the boys in flat five. They're a lovely couple of young men, and what they don't know about Mikhail Barishnikov is nobody's business'.

'Working Out' would not have fallen foul of the legislation either. It is a book about calisthenics and, amusingly, resistance training — a book 'for men who want to look and feel sensational'. A 'New York Times' bestseller, its author Charles Hix wrote articles for 'Playboy', 'Penthouse', 'Town and Country', and 'Gentlemen's Quarterly'. 'Working Out' has strong establishment credentials. The models look like they might be fitting in their dumbbell work on the way to, or back from, a day filled with asset-stripping a corporate multinational. A lot of the scenes look to be taking place near the sea (one man has a shave in a rock pool), and the impression I get now is that membership of a sailing club is at least as important for these models as membership of a gym. In 2008, Charles Hix married his partner of 46 years, Robert Dahlin ('New York Times', 30 October 2008).

I think, on balance, it would have been helpful to me if classes at school could have included gayness, but it may well have just made me squirm in horror if it had been handled clumsily. What certainly wasn't helpful was anything that made the bullying of gay children seem more acceptable. And what was fascinating was the extent to which conversations about children and gayness were happening without talking to gay children, because, I suppose, people must have imagined that gays only arrive on Earth as fully formed adults in their thousands outside department stores. Whereas at that age, like my straight counterparts, what I was often hoping for was that one day I might be special to someone who was special to me. Like Martin and Eric.

Irrespective of the disgracefulness, legitimacy, or otherwise of Section 28 it was mostly, in my opinion, rather pointless. The books that were helpful to me in validating my identity and in coping with an ultimately unnecessary self-imposed quarantine would never have been banned by the legislation anyway, even in the event of them finding their way into our school library. Furthermore, being gay in the '80s wasn't only about sex and dying from sex as politicians would like to have promoted, but about laughing and loving and creating and caring and talking to people in the streets, gay or straight. I know this is so because I saw them all at it while I was waiting to cross the road.

I bought a copy of 'Jenny lives with Eric and Martin' when I was in my 20s, and enjoyed it retrospectively. Useful though 'Working Out' was, what made 1988 bearable was actually Victoria Wood. Physical image was important, but voice was profound, and the world Victoria Wood portrayed in 'Up To You, Porky' was the world I most recognised, and indeed belonged to. Whereas 'Working Out' was about developing an outer identity, 'Up To You, Porky' was about validating the inner identity I already had. A world of supermarkets, self-deprecation, and minor achievements and hindrances. A work of neither fact nor fiction, but rather an account of how life in the north of England in the '80s actually felt, for me, for lots of people. I worked it out. Thanks Victoria.

See also:

Further reading

  • 'Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia' (Northampton: Mad Love, 1988) [National Library of Scotland shelfmark: HP3.88.1908].
  • 'Barmy' by Victoria Wood (London: Methuen, 1987) [Shelfmark: H3.87.4575].
  • 'Jenny lives with Eric and Martin' by Susanne Bosche (London: Gay Men's Press, 1983) [shelfmark: WP3.84.135].
  • 'Looking Good' by Charles Hix (London: Angus and Robertson, 1979) [Shelfmark: SP4.81.204].
  • 'Up To You, Porky' by Victoria Wood (London: Methuen, 1985) [Shelfmark: HP2.86.4009].
  • 'Working Out' by Charles Hix (London: Arlington, 1983) [Shelfmark: S8.84.81].


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