‘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.”

These were the hateful and repressive words enacted into law through Section 28 of the Local Government Act of 1988 in Scotland, England and Wales. Against a backdrop of rising hostility towards gay people in the tabloid press and in Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government – a reactionary response both to the Aids crisis and to the increasing visibility of lesbian, gay and bisexual people after years of gradual progress – Section 28 marked a harsh step backwards.

It took over a decade of campaigning and a huge amount of political will to overturn the law in Scotland in one of the first pieces of legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2000, and a further three years for the UK Parliament to follow suit.

Twenty years on and the theme of this year’s LGBT History Month in Scotland is one of reflection on the campaigns for and against the repeal and the tireless activism and political courage that allowed progress and inclusion to win the day.

Organised by LGBT Youth Scotland – a charity first established as the Stonewall Youth Project just one year after Section 28 came into effect – the month-long series of events asks people to consider: “What have we learned?”

There are days when the answer to that question feels like a resounding “not very much”; days when it is easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of all the work that still has to be done. Days when impatience and frustration loom large, confronted by the realisation that, still, after all this time, we can’t say we have created a society where hateful attitudes towards LGBT people are a thing of the past.

These are all, I think, natural responses to a world where the waves of progress across all facets of inequality threaten to turn back on us and swallow us whole.

But to concentrate only on how far we have to go would be to do a disservice to the people who fought tooth and nail to get us to this point, and to the potential for transformative change that their successes demonstrate.

None of the rights that LGBT people enjoy today have been handed over without intense public debate, media scrutiny and backlash from the religious right – and the repeal of Section 28 is among the most acute examples of this.

As the first in a series of legal and policy changes which formally equalised LGB people’s rights in Scotland over the last two decades (as well as those which made significant strides forward in trans people’s rights) the debate over the repeal was a cultural battle which laid the foundations for every piece of progress that followed.

Bankrolled by Stagecoach owner and – at that time – major SNP donor Brian Souter, the Keep the Clause campaign spent millions on advertising the “dangers” of allowing young minds to be corrupted with knowledge of homosexuality.

Souter even went so far as to fund a postal “referendum” on the subject which saw over one million Scots vote against the repeal. That’s a lot of money to invest in maintaining state censorship of the education system just to make sure children wouldn’t get the wild idea that being themselves might be acceptable. It seems almost unthinkable now that so many people in Scotland were willing to support this.

Quite apart from the financial cost to anti-gay billionaires, the struggle to bring about the repeal came at a great cost to the wellbeing of LGBT people who were relentlessly vilified and forced to endure rising homophobia as a national spotlight was placed on their existence.

In 1987, Margaret Thatcher told the Conservative Party conference: “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.” The question of whether or not a person did, in fact, have a right to be gay was at the heart of the Section 28 debate.

To create a better future for children and young people – one where debates like this would become historical curiosities and where every child would grow up knowing they would be accepted regardless of their sexual orientation – activists put themselves in the firing line. They did this knowing that changing the law would be the first step on a long journey and that the divisions it brought to the fore would not be put to rest the day the repeal was passed.

They did this knowing that there was no other choice.

Within the Scottish Parliament, then led by a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition, the decision to do the right thing despite vociferous public and media opposition was not an easy one either. Nevertheless, on June 21, 2000, Section 28 was successfully repealed by MSPs with a 99 to 17 majority as only the Conservatives continued to oppose the move.

At the time, local government and communities minister Wendy Alexander said the “referendum”, whose results were published just weeks before the parliamentary vote, would not influence the decision, adding: “We don’t think basic human rights should be up for auction.”

THE advances in LGBT equality which have taken place in Scotland since that day have been greater than those of the fifty years leading up to it.

In many ways, the worst fears of those behind the Keep the Clause campaign were realised. The floodgates were, in fact, opened on LGBT rights, acceptance and inclusion. And yet, somehow, the kids were alright.

Civilisation did not crumble. Straight people did not stop getting married (or divorced). And nobody was “turned” gay – even if the hope of not being treated horribly for coming out helped some people to do so.

From being the country that took 13 years to decriminalise homosexuality after England and Wales, Scotland became one of the first in the world to introduce a statutory requirement for schools to include LGBT-related themes in the curriculum at the end of 2018. The fact that such a requirement was necessary is, in itself, a reflection of the long-lasting hangover from Section 28.

Despite the fact that teachers have been legally permitted to talk about same-sex relationships in schools since 2001, research by Stonewall Scotland in 2017 found that two in five LGBT young people said they had never been taught anything about LGBT issues, and just one in five said they had been taught about safe sex in same-sex relationships. Meanwhile, LGBT Youth Scotland research in 2018 found that 92% of LGBT young people had been bullied in education.

This is the human cost of the political games which a right-wing government in the 1980s chose to play with the hot-button issue of homophobia. Through its actions, homophobia in schools was not only normalised, it was mandated.

It is no surprise then that overcoming that legacy has been as, if not more, difficult than repealing the legislation. Now, two decades on, Scotland has committed to redressing the imbalance and making sure that LGBT people are finally written back into history – and into the present and future.

At the launch event for LGBT History Month in the Scottish Parliament earlier this month, attendees posed with a placard reading: “Activism never stops.”

This is a notion as energising as it is daunting. The road to a better, fairer society for all of us may be never-ending, but all that means is that we can, and should, never stop trying to improve our world for the next generation.

In that task, we stand on the shoulders of giants and have many lessons to learn.