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July 25, 2000 01:39am
UK Lords Keep "No Promo Homo"
Source: Planet Out

(LONDON) -- Britain's House of Lords on July 24 voted 270 - 228 to retain Section 28, the never-enforced 1988 law prohibiting local authorities from "intentionally promoting homosexuality." The 42-vote margin was nearly identical to the 45-vote edge when the peers voted on the same measure in February, despite a major reorganization of the House of Lords in the interim that was expected to make it closer. Liberal Democrats joined the ruling Labour Party in supporting repeal, but some Labour peers revolted to join with Conservatives for retention, along with many independents and a larger number of bishops than anticipated.

The Government had hoped that sex education guidelines the Lords agreed to a week ago would allay fears that Section 28 repeal would flood classrooms with pornographic propaganda. In fact Section 28 has no direct impact on classrooms whatever (nor would its repeal), despite the claims of its proponents. Scotland repealed its Section 2A in June, despite an unprecedented media campaign for retention funded by transportation magnate Brian Souter.

Government, Opposition React to Vote
Repeal of Section 28 was part of the Labour Government's winning platform in 1997, but pundits agree it will probably be set aside until after next year's elections in order to preserve the rest of the Local Government Act that contained the repeal clause.

A disappointed Local Government Minister Hilary Armstrong, who shepherded the bill through the House of Commons, said after the vote that, "The Local Government Bill still contains many important provisions that will create a more efficient, transparent and accountable system of local governance [including locally elected mayors and new ethics guidelines]. We remain committed to modernizing local government so that councils put people first and operate in an open and accountable way. We also remain committed to the repeal of Section 28. We must now consider how to achieve both these aims."

Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Tony Blair told a London Labour gathering that, "It is an issue which has got to be decided. That is the long and the short of it."

Conservative Party Parliamentary leader William Hague called on Labour to drop its campaign, saying, "The House of Lords has once again shown that on this issue they are more representative of the British people than the House of Commons." With its huge Labour majority, the Commons has repeatedly -- and easily -- approved repeal.

Fresh from her victory in the Lords, Conservative Baroness Janet Young added, "Tony Blair should now abandon his obsession with promoting homosexuality and get down to what he was elected [for] three years ago -- governing for the middle majority, not dancing to the tune of the politically correct few."

The Debate
Debate in the Lords lasted about two hours and was spirited, heated and emotional. Leading the charge to block repeal was Baroness Young, who warned that, "If Section 28 is repealed, then outside of education narrowly defined as sex education [covered by the guidelines approved last week], there will be no safeguards." In other classes such as English, where parents did not have the same authority to withdraw their children as from sex education, Young said that "promotion of homosexuality" could proceed legally, as well as in youth groups and training for educators. Repeal, she claimed, would send a clear signal to local authorities to promote homosexuality.

Young proclaimed, "I will fight for the protection of children while I have breath in my body. The overwhelming majority of parents do not want this kind of teaching in schools, paid for by taxpayers and council-taxpayers. I am perfectly certain that were we to vote to keep Section 28, the House of Lords would once again be speaking for the overwhelming majority of the British people." Young cited 5,000 letters of support she'd received, as well as the more than 80% "vote" in Scotland in Souter's troubled "private poll" (whose methodology and results were widely criticized). She added that there is no evidence that Section 28 has supported homophobic harassment in schools, as repeal supporters have claimed based on surveys of teachers.

Leading the Government's call for repeal was under-secretary of state Lord Whitty, who said the new sex education guidelines provide "robust" protection for children while Section 28 was badly drafted and a bad law. He said, "It remains the responsibility of this House to respect and protect the interests of minorities against majorities. This is a human rights issue."

Whitty said, "Much of the propaganda on all sides of this is relating to schools and in fact Section 28 applies to the role of local authorities." He said the bulk of services provided by local authorities related to adults. "Some people in this House may not like it and may feel that the provision of any services to the gay and lesbian community is wrong. But we on the Government side do not accept this. We believe that those whose sexuality is different from the majority are citizens of this realm and are entitled from the public authorities of this realm to equal treatment. Local authorities provide a number of services to gay and lesbian people, health and medical advice, social and counseling services. It must be right that local authorities should be able to continue to do that, without running into the danger of being accused of promoting homosexuality under Section 28."

Continuing to clarify the distinction, Whitty said, "The guidance in the Learning and Skills Bill has clarified the position in relation to children. What is now at issue is primarily about the human rights of adult citizens. Of course I understand concern about the sex education of our children, but we resolved that last week. What is before us now in Lady Young's amendment is an attempt to deny human rights and equality to a group of our citizens. That is the issue before you today. This House has always seen itself and has constitutionally had a special responsibility to protect the rights of minorities. If we retain Section 28, this House is doing precisely the opposite."

Once again, lone openly gay peer Lord Waheed Alli (Labour) spoke out strongly for repeal, his theme being that, "The legal need for Section 28 is no longer. It is a redundant piece of legislation." He said the new sex education guidelines had "paved the way for the repeal of Section 28" by removing "many of the hurdles, some legitimate, that had been in its path." He had supported those guidelines, and said, "I believe that marriage and family life are a cornerstone of our society. But in saying that, I do not intend to denigrate other people's relationships or my own. Society is about living with other people, based on a common bond, and not negatively exploiting our differences."

In Alli's view, the fact that the law has never been enforced demonstrates that it can be done without, "But it must have a symbolic power for those who believe that homosexuality is wrong. ... I believe that the rights and dignities of individuals should be protected." He said, "No one suggests that knowledge of racism makes you black. No one suggests that knowledge of anti-Semitism makes you Jewish. How can knowledge of homosexuality make you homosexual? You cannot convert straight people into gay people."

Alli concluded, "Let's now put away the dogma. Our objectives have been achieved. Let us extend to others the tolerance and understanding that we try to give each other in this House. Let's now agree that the time for Section 28 is past. Let's remove it from our statute book as a piece of gesture politics."

But to Bishop of Winchester Michael Scott-Joynt, Section 28 is a "stabilizing benchmark" for education that it would be "most unwise" to repeal. He maintained that retention of the law would "promote greater good, more consistent welfare and health of society, now and for many years to come," adding that, "If we are concerned for the welfare and stability and health, in this sense, of society -- health which is substantially critically dependent on our continuing to honor the state of marriage in public policy, then I judge that we shall be most unwise to agree to the removal of this clause."

Liberal Democrat Earl Russell praised Lord Whitty's speech and Prime Minister Blair's commitment, and predicted that public opinion would shift because of young people's more tolerant attitudes towards gays and lesbians. He said, "The purpose of Government by the majority is to secure consent. As soon as you set out to label a group of people inferior, you destroy the reasons why they should consent. I think that is unwise."

Tatchell Speaks
Naturally Britain's highest-profile gay activist, OutRage! spokesperson Peter Tatchell, was all over the media all day. His comment after the vote was, "We urge the government to stand firm against bigotry and discrimination by reintroducing repeal of Section 28 in the autumn." He was also angered by the widespread rumors that the Government was ready to shelve repeal, saying, "If this were an issue of black or women's equality, the Government would never surrender so easily." He didn't hesitate to point out that if the Government had introduced repeal in the Commons instead of in a Lords bill, it could invoke the Parliament Act to override the Lords.

But earlier in the day, he noted that, "The repeal of Section 28 will not remedy the neglect of gay issues in schools, and the lack of support for gay pupils. Many schools still regard homosexuality as a controversial issue and fear parental objections. Even if Section 28 is repealed, most teachers will avoid gay issues and fail to affirm the sexual and emotional feelings of pupils who are gay. The Bill repealing Section 28 should be amended to place a legal obligation on all secondary schools to provide factual information about homosexuality and gay safer sex. Positive, affirmative teaching on gay issues is vital to combat homophobic prejudice and bullying, and to help gay pupils come to terms with their sexuality. To ensure impartial, effective teaching on gay issues, teachers need to receive specialist training on how to discuss homosexuality and gay safer sex in the classroom."

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