Section 28, Forgetting Heritage, and “Will Nobody Think of the Children”

  • Post last modified:June 27, 2024
Child in dress, sitting in chair reading a book
Image: Me Reading a Book in Nursery, 2001 (Copyright Owen Hurcum)

Fuck.

I should begin by saying you are going to have to forgive the tone of this blog essay. It has been written in a full blown state of trans rage. That is because I am writing it in the middle of the UK’s 2024 General Election campaign, where the country’s latent baseline level of horrific transphobia has risen to a summit of complete and utter evil. Out of the parties that realistically look to gain any seats, only the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, and Greens have produced a manifesto that supports trans people. The Tories, Reform, and notably Labour on the other hand have promised policies that look to cause further hurt to the UK’s trans community. Together these parties are predicted to hold around 80% of the seats after 4th July [1]. Labour subsequently spent 24th June doubling down on their prior anti-trans positions to appease a billionaire author. To them this was more important than commenting on emerging reports that the NHS covered up a massive spike in trans youth suicides linked to the 2020 Bell v. Tavistock ruling, a decision that had paused the prescription of puberty blockers before it could be overturned [2]. Though this is of little surprise considering the Labour Manifesto promises, by saying it will implement the already discredited Cass Review [3], to continue the Tories most recent trans specific ban on puberty blockers introduced just prior to dissolving Parliament [4].

If this was not alarming enough, Keir Starmer, odds on favourite to form a government and become Prime Minister, has said “I’m not in favour of ideology being taught in our schools on Gender” and that Labour would consider implementing the recommendations first made by the Tories in December 2023 that seek to stop schools from discussing gender as a spectrum and force teachers to out children to parents against their will [5]. These recommendations, contained in the Department for Education’s Gender Questioning Children draft for consultation have rightly been condemned by many in the trans community for attempting to create a trans specific Section 28 style policy [6]

Section 28

For those who don’t know, or for Labour Party Leaders who have clearly forgotten, Section 28 was part of the Local Government Act (1988) brought in by the Tories to prohibit “promoting homosexuality by teaching or by publishing material” in schools and through local authorities. This policy remained on the books until 2003, though its legacy far outlasted when it was repealed. Multiple books have been written about the immeasurable impact it had on queer people educated under it – I myself have contributed to one such volume. In short, it was horrendous. Now, far from using this dark period of history and learning from it, Labour’s leader is seemingly endorsing a trans-specific return – mirroring the promises made by Farage’s fascist Reform UK, and Sunak’s far-right Tories [7].

The shape this new evil could take is not hard to guess at. Starmer, when stating he opposes gender ideology being taught in schools (a term known to be an anti-trans dog whistle), said Labour could implement recommendations made by the Department of Education in 2023 that are currently under consultation. These recommendations make for a truly harrowing read for those that care in the slightest about the wellbeing of children. 

In brief, the guidelines wish to prohibit, or at the very least greatly restrict, the ability for pupils to socially transition. It argues for outing children, against their will, to potentially non-supportive parents. It says schools should refuse to accept a pupil as being who they say they are if this goes against the parents wishes. It seeks to mandate a “watchful waiting” period where a pupil will not have their request to be addressed by a different name or new pronouns respected by the school – and that this request may later be rejected if the school deem it inappropriate for whatever reason. It asks schools to engage in what could be seen as conversion therapy by telling children they may only feel trans because of ‘peer pressure’ or social media. Indeed, the list goes on [6]

All these recommendations go against the international standard of care for trans youths and, in instances where they have been imposed, contribute to a stark rise in suicidality [8]

These are the horrors that Starmer thinks should be in schools instead of a culture of acceptance, diversity in expression, and actual care. 

History is being forgotten, abandoned even, by Labour to justify this cruel policy suggestion. Not only have Labour clearly forgotten the devastating impact that Section 28 had on gay people during (and after) it’s time on the books – Starmer has clearly also forgotten the path that led to Section 28 in the first place.

Anti-trans talking points today are the anti-gay talking points of the last half century or more. Trans people are, according to those opposed to our existence, an inherent risk to children, groomers, abusers, paedophiles, mentally ill, victims, rapists, fetishists, a threat. These are all lies we have seen thrown at a variety of queers time and time again. A quick gloss over the history books and you will clearly see this for what it is, a recycled moral panic. These talking points are being spread to manufacture consent to remove trans people from public life. News media is so confident that people don’t see this for what it is, so ignorant to the historic rise of far-right ideology, they aren’t even bothering to hide it – happily parroting anti-trans talking points across the mediascape. 

Gender Ahistoricism 

Queer heritage is a heritage of protest. LGBTQ+ rights (where we have them), have been hard won – they were never given. To be queer is to inherit a legacy of activism. To be queer is to rise out of the blood, sweat and tears of those that fought for the precarious freedoms we have. To be queer is to feel their joy, to feel our joy, and to fight for equality when we see it challenged. 

I’m not sure I want to be an activist, I’d rather not be, but when my very existence is political then every act I do is activism. This includes when I talk about heritage. This is why I must talk about heritage. The link between abuses of heritage and transphobia has been well made by several authors and an exhaustive citation list would fill dozens of pages [9]. What their arguments all land on is the deliberate (or sometimes just ignorant) erasure of genders beyond a modern western heterosexist male/female binary. An act that I term ‘Gender ahistoricism’.

Ahistoricism means something that is historically inaccurate or ignorant, gender ahistoricism therefore is when this inaccuracy pertains to assuming there is universal history of gender, one constructed out of only manly men and womanly women moulded on contemporary conservative ideals of the family. ‘Gender Bullshit’, in terms of Harry Frankfurt’s model of Bullshit [10], might also be an apt name. The heritage work I seek to produce is a challenge to this gender ahistoricism, and therefore a challenge to transphobia in general. It is thus a form of activism. 

One clear example of gender ahistoricism would be the claim that trans people, or people who do not fit neatly into our modern binary, did not exist in history. This is unmistakable gender ahistoricism because the historical record is full of examples: Martha P Johnson, The Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, Joseph Lobdell, Robles Avila, Albert Cashier, Francis Thompson, Chevalier d’Eon, Public Universal Friend, Dr James Barry, Eleanor Rykener, and so on. And these are only a subset of those that are written about in the last 800 years, how many more lived, loved, and died who we will simply never know about? And at what point did these stories become queer. Human (pre)history is full of societies that structure gender altogether differently to our imagined male/female binary, with the very essence of what constituted gender (if they even had it) fundamentally different to our own. People in these societies, living in ways unsaddled with the binaries our society constructs, whilst not ‘queer’ in their own time, may nonetheless be thought of by those that transgress contemporary gender lines today as our ancestors. They are our heritage too. Banning ‘gender ideology’ in school is not just a dog whistle call to ban trans children, but also a call to ban history itself from the classroom. 

So… What Now?

As I remarked in the introduction to this blog, you’ll have to forgive the tone and meanders. In fact, I have started writing this the same day Starmer made his remarks about potentially implementing a Section 28 style policy for trans people, the same day I re-wrote a piece of work to include the news that 16 children committed suicide because the UK government took away their access to puberty blockers [2]. The same day where this rightful anger has been turned on me by people accusing me of abusing children – simply because I am trans and think children should be allowed to know trans people exist. I am raw and reeling and I don’t quite know, in this exact moment, what else to do. 

Section 28 was defeated. That is the hope I cling onto. But it didn’t just go away, it was beaten by hardworking activists – including those in the heritage sector who used our discipline to argue against it [11]. We can, we must, beat back the rise in transphobia that could see it return. When I wore a dress in nursery (as pictured) I do not think anyone saw it as an act of gender rebellion or a sign I would come out as non-binary 20 years later. Maybe my subconscious knew something I didn’t yet, and there is no dispute that some trans people do know their true gender at that age, but for me in that moment – I was probably just playing dress up. The scary thing is if Labour do impose Starmer’s desire to ban ‘gender ideology’ in schools and I was that child again – that act of gender blurring would quite simply not be allowed. And for trans children, at what cost to their lives will that be? Now that’s a ‘gender ideology’.  

Picture Reference

Reproduced here with the permission of the Copyright holder, Owen Hurcum. 

Non-Hyperlinked References

[1] English. P. et al. (2024). Second YouGov 2024 election MRP shows Conservatives on lowest seat total in history. June 19 2024, https://yougov.co.uk/politics/articles/49809-second-yougov-2024-election-mrp-shows-conservatives-on-lowest-seat-total-in-history, [accessed 24/06/24]

[2] Lizone, M. (2024). Trans Youth Suicides Covered Up By NHS, Cass After Restrictions, Say Whistleblowers, Erin In The Morning, 22 June 2024, https://www.erininthemorning.com/p/trans-youth-suicides-covered-up-by [accessed 24/06/24]

[3] Noone, C. et al. (2024). Critically Appraising the Cass Report: Methodological Flaws and Unsupported Claims, [Online], [Pre-Print], https://osf.io/preprints/osf/uhndk. [accessed 12/06/24]

Grijseels, D. M. (2024). Biological and psychosocial evidence in the Cass Review: a critical Commentary, International Journal of Transgender Health, 1-11

[4] Labour Party Manifesto. (2024). Change, p.98

[5] The Standard. (2024). Starmer ‘not in favour’ of gender ideology being taught in schools, The Standard, 24 June 2024, https://www.standard.co.uk/news/politics/keir-starmer-labour-bridget-phillipson-students-kettering-b1166400.html, [accessed 24/06/24]

[6] Keegan, G. and Badenoch, K. (2023). Gender Questioning Children: Draft for Consultation. Department for Education

[7] Conservative Party Manifesto. (2024). The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto 2024, p.42

Reform UK Manifesto. (2024). Our Contract with You, p.11

[8] Bailey, L., Sonja, E., and McNeil, J. (2014). Suicide Risk in the UK Trans Population and the Role of Gender Transition in Decreasing Suicidal Ideation and Suicide Attempt, Mental Health Review Journal, 19(4), 209-220

[9] I have compiled a list on X (formally Twitter): https://x.com/OwenJHurcum/status/1799071376772628850

[10] Frankfurt, H. (2005). On Bullshit, Princeton University Press

[11] Notably: Dowson, T. (2000). (ed.) World Archaeology, 32(2), Special Issue ‘Queer Archaeologies’.

By Owen J Hurcum [They/Them]

Owen (They/Them) is an AHRC (WRoCAH) funded PhD researcher at the Centre whose PhD project, ‘Transgender Archaeology’, will look at the impact of archaeological research on the transgender community, how archaeology is being (ab)used in discussions around rights and equalities for transgender individuals as well as investigating identities in the past that do not fall within the modern West’s notion of cisgender men and women.