Original article from Kent Live
Pride month is here, and with it comes a reminder of the progress Kent has made in the last few decades.
With more Pride events each summer and an increasing recognition of queer people in our communities it seems that things are slowly but surely getting better for at least some parts of the LGBTQ+ community.
It wasn't always this way though.
The history of homophobia and anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes in Kent is not distant – but is a staggeringly recent part of our past.
Less than 20 years ago, Kent County Council became the only place in the entirety of the mainland UK to uphold the explicitly homophobic Section 28 law.
The law made it illegal to teach children that being gay was an acceptable or normal sexuality in schools.
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First introduced under Margaret Thatcher in 1988, the law was part of broader homophobic reforms during the AIDS pandemic, and specified that local authorities: "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality."
For context, one Conservative MP at the time – though not one from Kent – spoke in support of the bill, stating: "I do not agree with homosexuality. I think that Clause 28 will help outlaw it and the rest will be done by AIDS, with a substantial number of homosexuals dying of AIDS.
"I think that's probably the best way."
Given the grizzly context under which Section 28 was created – during a pandemic that killed thousands of predominantly gay men – our county council's upholding of the bill after it was repealed by Tony Blair's Labour in 2003 is all the more staggering.
Section 28, Kent and LGBTQ+ protests
Paul Prentice, a gay man and the chair of the Canterbury Labour Party, recalled protesting the bill in his early 20s.
He told KentLive: "I started school in 1988 – when Section 28 had been introduced.
"The whole idea that teachers would talk about gay relationships, lesbian relationships or sexual relationships as 'normal' was completely unknown.
"I don't ever remember the idea of being gay – the idea that it was okay to be gay – ever being mentioned at school.
"We got ourselves together very quickly to protest outside County Hall in Maidstone because we were just horrified that that Kent County Council saw it fit to do this because we'd made so much progress, and they wanted to roll it back.
"The leadership of the council at the time clearly didn't see LGBT people as equals.
"I think it was just horrifying to everyone – we had to fight it."
The protests happened during a pivotal moment in the UK's history – Section 28 had just been repealed nationwide, and in the years following, major changes like the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 and the Gender Recognition Act 2004 were brought in.
The first ensured that gay and lesbian relationships had to be formally recognised by the state – though still short of full marriage.
The latter gave transgender people a first, if imperfect, step towards recognition under the law.
Meanwhile, Kent seemed to be clinging to the past amid these forward leaps
The protests in the county did force an alteration to the law however.
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The old wording was changed, though the replacement was hardly more inclusive: "We will ensure that sex education values family and marriage as the foundation of a civilised society, and a firm basis for the nurturing of children."
Words like 'family' and 'marriage' – which were not available for gay couples at the time – unfortunately masked the fact that the homophobic attitude remained largely in place, in spite of the explicit focus on homosexuality being removed.
This wording was set until 2010, when the Equality Act finally prohibited discriminatory laws like Section 28.
Pride in the present
Paul – a student at the University of Kent at the time of the protests – moved away in 2005.
He was not present for this odd period where Kent was the UK's outlier, but moved back in 2019.
Now, nine years on from the final removal of Kent's homophobic education law, he said that progress had finally been made.
"I got a little house here two years ago with my boyfriend, and Pride Canterbury was absolutely thriving," he said.
"It's just a much more inclusive city than I ever remember… having like 20,000 people at a Pride event in 2019 was huge."
Part of the recent success of Kent Pride events is down to the efforts of individuals like Kent Pride's chief executive Edd Withers, who has helped provide an online space for Kent's LGBTQ+ community during the pandemic.
He told KentLive: "You know there was a time when people thought of Pride as a UK event, they thought of Brighton, they thought of London.
"But now when people think of Pride, they've probably got an event that happens in their own town, or in the town next to them.
"That's really powerful that change because the whole kind of point of Pride is to show people that LGBTQ are part of the community, and it's very special."
'There is no LGBT without the T'
Both Paul and Edd, now central parts of the LGBTQ+ community in Kent, drew connections from past struggles when discussing the obstacles facing queer people today.
On the current focus on transgender issues, Edd said: "I think that the LGBT community has started to understand a greater need for intersectionality [how different struggles overlap and experiences differ] between the different parts of the LGBTQ community.
"So, for instance between the trans community and the gay community, and I think the community now understands the importance of supporting each other and elevating other causes.
"I think that's going to be really important because in communities like ours, we are only as strong as our weakest links."
Paul, looking back at the AIDS pandemic of the '80s that led to Section 28, echoed this.
He said the solidarity between lesbians and gay men at the time should be a lesson in modern struggles, where transgender people are facing a wave of political targeting.
He added: "[During the AIDS crisis] lesbians and bisexuals stood with gay men, and bisexual men, in all sorts of ways.
"They looked after gay men as they were hospitalised and were losing huge chunks of their community.
"There's a certain generation of gay men who just don't exist, because the AIDS pandemic – it took so many people from us."
Though today's debates, law changes and vicious arguments are different, the idea that solidarity can help the most marginalised within a group was clear.
"I think it's clear that LGBT people need to stand together, and when I say that I mean that there is no LGBT without the T."