On 18th November 2023, England and Wales celebrated the twenty year anniversary of the repeal of Section 28, a clause that remains widely unknown. Section 28 was the piece of legislature, introduced in 1988 under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government, that prohibited “promoting homosexuality” within local governments. This act would enshroud Britain in a malicious silence that seemed determined to persevere.
Don’t Say Gay is the feature-length documentary that aims to educate on Section 28 and the detrimental effects it had- and still has- on individuals, and on British society as we know it. I had the opportunity to speak with creator and director Sarah Drummond, where we discussed her own experiences with Section 28, and what she hopes for the film
Jess: How did you first start making the film? It’s twenty years now since Section 28 was repealed, so there’s lots of things going on at the minute to celebrate- such as the exhibition held at the university- but how did you start on the film? Where did that come from?
Sarah: Well, the first thing is before we even start on the film, is when did I first hear about Section 28, if I can go back there first? Because Section 28 banned anyone from talking about anything to do with homosexuality- didn’t actually, but we can probably come on to that- but obviously I didn’t get taught about in school because it was happening to me at the time. Then in the decade to fifteen years after it, as a kind of social or cultural discourse in LGBTQ communities or education communities, I don’t think it was really widely discussed because we were probably just trying to fix the problem that it caused in the first place: representation and stuff. But I think now- for disclosure of age I’m thirty-seven now, I really still think I’m twenty-one, but I’m really not, still young in a sense but not in my twenties anymore- and you sort of get to a point where you start figuring your shit out, thinking about who you are, and so I think there’s been a lot of soul searching going on, and by a lot of people who are probably “millennials” in their later thirties now, early fourties, and more of that discourse around Section 28 was starting to just have little glimpses in different bits of media.
I saw a film in probably 2016 which had a vague mention of the Stop the Clause March in Manchester against Section 28. So, we’re in 2016, I watched this short film at BFI Flare and went, “what was Section 28?” to my partner, and we were wikipediaing it on the 55 bus home to Hackney. I remember this, and I just said, “someone’s got to make a film about this, we need this, this feels like such an important part of history on so many levels for queer communities and wider”, so that’s it. It’s 2016 I think, or 2017, after seeing a film at Flare, I went “someone’s gotta make a film”. Then yeah, I started making it, I started making prototypes of the film actually in Exeter, was my first shoot on an iPhone in Broadclyst High School, I went and shot my partner who went to school there, and that was when we first started making bits of the film. The first shooting was actually done in Exeter, which is… weird!
J: So, you already had a background in film?
S: No, kind of, sort of. I’m a bit of a polymath. I actually ran a design studio, for twelve years. We did all sorts of design, like websites, and products and services, but within all of that work we always did research, and because we’re trying to understand business needs and customer needs, and that required ethnographic sort of work, or anthropological work, so we made miniature films about people and stuff. So we did that, and during the course of that studio I commissioned a couple of films to be made as well. So, I don’t directly have- I’ve not gone to film school, I’ve not been taught film, but I’m an avid lover of film. I’ve done a lot of research throughout my career and spent time talking to people and filming them, but this is like my first. You know I just did my first short actually this year at festivals, and then this’ll be my first feature, so I’m a backwards, novice filmmaker, starting. It’s kind of weird- I’ve kind of done it, but I haven’t in a cinema format.
J: That’s really interesting, so you sort of have more of the background in research then, and documenting. Is that why you chose a documentary format for presenting this? I’m sure this kind of subject matter could be shown in lots of different ways, so is that what made you go for documentary? And why do you think documentary lends itself to this kind of subject?
S: This isn’t the whole reason for choosing documentary but midway through my development, Blue Jean had come out, which is a good fictional depiction of one story of a teacher going through Section 28. It’s a great directorial debut by Georgia Oakley so in some way, there is a fictional version of the history of Section 28 out already.
I actually sat on a panel with Hélène [Sifre], who is the producer of Blue Jean at The Garden Cinema last summer. A man in the audience asked about black representation in the storyline and how the film could have wider representation and Hélène spoke about their choices of casting, the script, who had written it. I thought she answered it really well, and this idea that there are 1000s of stories to tell about Section 28. Then she turned to me and back to the audience and said, ‘Don’t worry, Sarah’s doing a doc, I’m sure she’ll be able to cover more narratives in the doc”
And I thought, oh shit! I really have to do this now.
But I think that’s why I chose documentary, because I felt like if I went down a fictional route, I’d perhaps miss out some of the rich intersectionality of the history, and the complex narrative that comes with why Section 28 came into being.
Because it’s not just one person’s story, it’s not just one hero story, it is a multiplicity of thousands, tens of thousands, millions of people’s stories. I felt like documentary gives me the opportunity to include lots of different stories, and lots of richer, more complex narratives. Then I think the second reason for choosing documentary is that this is a live thing that’s going on right now, and just yesterday [19th December] the guidance on gender identity in schools just came out from the Department for Education, and people are likening some of this to the Section 28 of the past. I feel like documentary gives us kind of a- I don’t want it to be an investigative documentary necessarily, but we’ve got a partnership with a major charity to do some investigative, real-time filming of the response to some of this stuff. So, documentary felt fitting in that sense that this is a live, ongoing thing happening.
I think that’s why I chose documentary, because I felt like if I went down a fictional route, I’d perhaps miss out some of the rich intersectionality of the history, and the complex narrative that comes with why Section 28 came into being
J: Absolutely, that was going to be one of my questions- why do you think that it’s relevant to do this now? Why do you think it’s so poignant, and why do you think we need it now especially?
S: I couldn’t agree more! About my own film- I feel a bit arrogant saying that! I mean I would’ve loved this to have been finished for the twenty-year repeal date, funding just takes years to get right, but actually I feel the imperative is right now because next year we’re going to have a general election. We know, looking back in history, in 1987 when the Thatcher election was in play, the whole political narrative from the conservative party was about LGBTQ people and left wing radicalists- the “loony left” is what they named people- and we’re seeing the exact same techniques happening again. We saw a glimpse of it with the Conservative Party Conference, and we saw a glimpse in the race for- god, I can’t even remember the previous Prime Minister, that’s how many they changed- Liz Truss, that’s it. We saw it in the Sunak-Truss debates as well, and I think what we’re going to see is a repeat, but with the focus on trans people, and I wholly believe that trans people are part of the LGBTQ community and we should be supporting them- trans friends and family- it’s just really important, it’s a minority that’s being focused on. That’s why the film feels important now, because of the exact same political tools, which includes whipping up moral panics, creating non legal enforced guidance, collaboration and collusion with right-wing press to focus negatively on a minority. I feel like the film couldn’t be made at a better time, whether it comes out- it probably won’t- before the general election or in the aftermath, it feels like the perfect- unfortunate perfect- encapsulation of how right-wing governments create moral panics to win elections. Or they might not win this time, they might have gone too far, but they’ll try to.
J: Kind of following on from that, why do you think that education around Section 28 is so important?
S: There’s different audiences, right? I think for the queer community themselves, first and foremost we need to relearn how to protest and fight again. I’m not saying we don’t, but I think in a world of- I’m sounding really old now, a millennial who only had a phone when she was seventeen- but in a world of social media (and I’m a total avid technology fan), but I think we’ve gone a bit too far on clicktivism and sharing stuff without direct action. What our elders did in the 1980s is they had to come together, they had to negotiate differences to come together. You know a lot of the feminist community felt uncomfortable with, at first, collaborating with men and we had to do that as lesbians and gays, that’s what a lot of the rhetoric was around. I think this film is really important, and it’s important to educate people on Section 28, because we need to know that action is possible, and how they did that. Even though it was done in a very different day, photocopying leaflets and meetings face to face- I think an element of that is actually still really important, so we kind of need to learn to protest and learn as a younger queer community- of different generations- that these kinds of laws can come in quick and fast. It’s scary how fast Section 28 actually came into being, and how “gentle” it was.
I think this film is really important, and it’s important to educate people on Section 28, because we need to know that action is possible
So that’s the first thing, I think we need to do that, and then I think we need to educate allies about this as well, about the impact that it can have and what they can do, how they can join the protest. Then the last thing I think for me, which is really important stories of this film, is to show the impact that it had on people like me and others, because similar laws think people are protecting children, but I actually think they’re harming them by taking away and censoring their ability to be their own identity. I want to show people that as well. Not saying that I’m going to change Ron DeSantis’ mind in Florida, but I think we can at least have some evidence and a kind of cultural moment to take a step back and go: what does it really mean to have parent’s rights over children’s rights? That’s a kind of interesting dialogue.
…similar laws think people are protecting children, but I actually think they’re harming them by taking away and censoring their ability to be their own identity.
J: What were some of your experiences under Section 28? And in what ways do you think it impacted your understanding of yourself, and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole?
S: I mean I think it’s important to say that I am one story of millions, right. And I am one person that chose to adopt a queer identity but there’ll be millions of other people out there who didn’t get the chance to explore queerness. I think that’s a really important thing to remember. I’ve had a few people who have come to me and actually said, “I still identify as heteronormative but I feel like-” I mean I think we’re probably all queer in a way- “I didn’t really get the chance to-”, not the chance, they wouldn’t say frame it like that but they say, “maybe I am, I don’t know, but I was given a dominant heteronormative set of resources, media, images, so I adopted that path”. I think it’s quite interesting way of looking at it so it’s not just queer people, it’s people who might not have donned that identity but may have explored something in their life, because they were given a dominant ideology. I think that’s really important language to hold onto: an ideology of heteronormativity.
For me, I knew I was “different” growing up, and from probably an early-ish age like eleven, twelve, I wanted to hug Philippa Forrester from Tomorrow’s World and Blue Peter a lot. It’s quite creepy! Maybe like an auntie or something- in a non-sexual way. But definitely once I got my job at this part time vegan/vegetarian food store there were definitely some people there that I fancied that were probably like, women or non-gender conforming. So yeah, so I knew it was different. And I just felt totally ashamed of that. I didn’t even have the words for it, I didn’t know there was terminology to describe it. There was nobody out at school, and being Gay- capital G- was very much a negative term, we only really thought about it as two men as well because that was the only images we may have seen: slightly dandy or camp men on television. We would call people transsexuals at the time, or transvestites, so who were presenting as women on television, but presenting as a man in their everyday life. We had only these images, so for me it just felt, like, really isolating- I hated myself. I don’t mean to be too deep, but I had a real hate for that- that was the identity that I knew was deep inside me and I literally squashed it back in a little box. And it was horrible, yeah, but I had boyfriends and I went along with being heteronormative for a really long time, and only really had my first queer experience when I was eighteen and I’d left school- and then I went back in the closet again, even though it was great. I literally went back in the closet again, and dated men until I was like twenty-three, twenty-four. So, my experience wasn’t like classic shit in the sense that I was bullied, or I was outed, or that I went to people and I didn’t get help, I was just- it was like a silence of an identity that didn’t get to be supportively represented or explored. So that’s my experience.
…it was like a silence of an identity that didn’t get to be supportively represented or explored.
Others, some really bad stuff happens, you know. I’ve interviewed not kids, adults now, but kids that got outed because they were maybe slightly more effeminate, presented slightly differently to heteronormative kids. I mean, some people were suicidal, had eating disorders. I have one story- we’re not sure if we’re going to put it in the film because it’s a bit difficult, but we think that someone’s partner at age sixteen committed suicide. I’m not saying because of Section 28, but culturally that being part of what was happening at the time. So, yeah, I would say dominantly though, I think what I’ve been hearing apart from bad things that people felt and then the behaviours they adopted that were really negative towards themselves, I think it’s a silence, and people feel like the government took something away from them that they won’t get back- is the line I’ve heard time and time again.
As you get to an adult and you start being able to afford therapy, you have a job, you’re like, oh yeah, okay, wow, Disney only had heteronormative stuff. We were showing it, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘The Great Gatsby’, all these books that we were given. I think it was extraordinarily damaging to the queer community. And I think it has left us bereft, in this age range, of people who feel comfortable in their own skin. I’m making quite a sweeping statement, but that’s how I would probably describe the research that I’ve done. Yeah. Sorry, that’s really dark!
J: No, no, absolutely fine. So you’ve touched on it already, but obviously the act itself kind of applied to schools and that kind of thing, but to what extent do you think it impacted everyday life for everyone? Not just young queer people in schools or queer teachers, but in what ways do you feel it impacted everything?
S: Yeah, I mean, this is it. It had a wider remit than schools and a wider impact on people in general. So the act itself was actually focused on local governments as part of the Local Government Act and Section 28- or Section 2A in Scotland- basically banned local authorities from promoting homosexuality and, you know, basically went on about families as the preferred unit of how we should be living. When we think about local authorities, they had control over schools, so schools were affected in that sense that I think teachers felt very scared to support young people, to call stuff out. Not all of them- I’ve interviewed some that were very vocal and kept going, mostly in left-leaning Labour local authorities, but I’ve interviewed a lot of teachers or teaching support assistants who are really damaged as well from not being able to A) be themselves, and B) support young people. I’ve had teachers in tears on my interviews to me who just deeply regret not being able to do that, so I think it’s been damaging for them in the long term. Catherine Lee has written a book about Section 28, I forgot the name of it, but it’s really good. Hopefully she’s going to be in the film, and that’s who Blue Jean is based on. It just talks about that difficulty, so I would really love Catherine to be in it because she’s so articulate about the impact that it had.
I’ve interviewed a lot of teachers or teaching support assistants who are really damaged as well from not being able to A) be themselves, and B) support young people.
So that was teachers. But then more widely in local authorities, I guess the flags were raised by something called the The Arts Lobby, which had Richard Sandals in it- who was from Gay Sweatshop, which is a theatre group- Sir Ian McKellen, Michael Cashman, all the kind of theatre darling people of the 1980s who were queer, gay, and allies, basically raised the flag to government and in the media that they were concerned that playwrights would be banned who were maybe gay or queer or had queer content in it, shows would be stopped, and I found evidence in the archives of LSE and Bishopsgate and other places that there were plays cancelled, funding was taken away for those. So that was the arts side and stuff. Then there were libraries. So, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in the archives, like reports done by librarians who were trying to figure out were books being censored- and quite literally in some places, books were taken off the shelf. Not everywhere, but they were taken out of the curriculum and out of the libraries. And then the final one that’s less talked about- I get probably as angry as I do about queer children, about this- is youth groups and supportive community groups for queer adults as well. Section 28, although unenforceable, created such a fear that local authorities started cancelling funding to these groups and stopping them from using their facilities to meet. Not everywhere, but in some places. When we had an AIDS Crisis still in full play across the 90s and we were still learning about that, to do that- where people were being given safe spaces to meet, to discuss those kind of things, to learn about safe sex- I think is abominable. Even though Section 28 said you could still give health advice, it did actually stop groups from meeting. I think that’s shocking, actually, given we had a public health crisis- and heteronormative people as well, let’s be honest with AIDS, but dominantly in the LGBTQ community. Local authorities, councils, local government, they have one thing that they’re scared of and it’s being sued or going to court, and so they spend a lot of their money and time on making sure that they are delivering for their citizens and not getting sued. So when you bring in a piece of legislation that puts that risk in place, they’re not going to do stuff that’s going to put them at risk if they don’t feel very, very secure in their left-wing position. So it was, oh my god, it was so damaging, so damaging, you know. I mean, public perception as well, even though it did change over time, this sends out a precedence that LGBTQ people are less, that we are lesser people in society. I think Section 28 being the only regressive piece of legislation for LGBTQ people in fifty, sixty years, I can’t remember how long it was, a hundred years maybe actually- the only regressive piece. It’s just so damaging. So yeah, so many impacts, so many impacts.
J: Yeah, definitely. About the filmmaking process: I understand that would probably- at least it would be for me if I was doing it- it would probably be quite difficult or emotional, especially interviewing so many subjects, as I saw in the teaser trailer that it’s mostly structured around interviews, and I know you mentioned you wanted to do some investigative work as well, which is really great. If you can, what have been some of the best bits of the filmmaking process so far? Do you feel like there’s- just by talking about it- any sense of freedom, even in yourself, or have you felt it in other members of cast or crew?
S: Yeah, it’s been really good as well, even though the topic is hard, like you said, I think personally, for me, I feel like I’ve been able to have- I mean I’ve interviewed just on Zoom in preparation, like way over a hundred people, and it’s been therapeutic in a sense. I’m not saying that I’ve used people for my own therapy, but it’s been really therapeutic, I think, as a mutual relationship discussing it. It’s not necessarily an interview like when I ran my company and we had to be very careful- we used to sign up to the British Sociological Association, like principals, right? Like, it’s not about you, it’s about them, leave them in the same place as you did, you know. This is kind of a slightly different research, I have a duty of care for everyone I talk to, and I put stuff in place to make sure they’re alright afterwards. But it’s been allowed to have conversation, rather than an interview. I think that’s been helpful, because I’ve realised stuff personally about myself. Until I interviewed Femi Otitoju- who appears briefly in the trailer, she was part of the Lesbian and Gay Unit in Haringey- Femi really helped me understand that the unit was not set up to push lesbian and gay ideology (which she wanted to do! She’s like, let’s push that ideology, let’s show people it, let’s make positive images), but was to challenge heteronormative dominance. Learning that from her, for me personally was like, fuck, oh my god. So, it’s been eye opening in that sense, on a personal level, and then I think I’ve shared that with so many other people that I’ve interviewed so we’ve all been like, fuck, so that’s been kind of cool.
…it’s been really therapeutic, I think, as a mutual relationship discussing it.
And then, there’s been a lot of tears on set- like, so many, on so many levels. One of it’s just been listening to people that are just ordinary folks who we’re sort of putting on a pedestal and idealising as fighting for our rights and meeting some of them and their stories and the challenges they had. Yeah, that’s been beautiful, that connection. But one of my favourite, favourite, favourite things we’ve done was actually with the Haringey Lesbian and Gay Unit is we had them all back to back, just because of budget and time- like we did like five or six interviews in a day- and so they all knew who was coming that day and it happened that those ones were all friends. Some of them hadn’t seen each other since 1989. We had a B cam ready and India Latham, who’s a great filmmaker, was always ready to be like, “that’s really cool!”, and then the sound guy was like, “quick, go, make sure you’ve got a boom mic”. And we just caught them meeting for the first time, that was beautiful. One of them- who was the boss of everybody at the unit- was holding this woman’s arms who’s saying, “I feel like Section 28 was all my fault and I felt like I’ve carried this for so long”, and he was holding her like, “we did the best we could, we did the best we could”, and she was crying. I was like [she motions herself crying], and we got it on camera. It was great.
That connection for everyone, and giving those people who are the less heard voices of the protesting past a chance to speak, I think is really important.
At time of writing, Don’t Say Gay is still in production. See their website for more information, including a teaser trailer, how to get involved, and an opportunity to donate towards the making of the film. You can also find them on social media as @section28film.
Find out more about Catherine Lee and her book ‘Pretended’ here.
See the Section 28 project behind the exhibition shown at the University here.