ON the 20th anniversary of the repeal of a divisive piece of homophobic legislation, the experiences of those impacted by it are to be showcased in a new exhibition.

“Section 28 and its Afterlives” will draw on oral histories with a dozen LGBTQ+ people from the South West to explore the profoundly damaging and long-lasting impacts of the legislation – and to highlight how it inspired bold, defiant acts of protest and pride

Told through a series of themed panels, to be exhibited both at the University of Exeter and the Positive Light Projects in November, these visual and audio stories will be supplemented by archival exhibits and creative responses to historic materials.

The exhibition will also reflect on the parallels with contemporary challenges to LGBTQ+ rights in this country and beyond.

The work has been conducted by historians in the University’s Department of Archaeology and History and will continue for another year following the securing of National Lottery Heritage Fund money.

The project team is looking for more LGBTQ+ people in the South West to tell their stories about life under Section 28, and encourage anyone interested to get in touch. 

“Our interviews with people who lived through this period reveal how Section 28 blighted LGBTQ+ people’s experiences of school, as students, teachers, and parents,” says project co-lead Dr Hannah Young, Lecturer in History.

She continued: “It sustained a wider atmosphere of silencing and shame, deeply felt at home, work, and the wider public sphere. One participant in the project described how it felt ‘like being erased while you’re still alive’ and how they still feel the impact of this very keenly 20 years on. This project has revealed how much that LGBTQ+ people want their voice to be heard.”

Section 28 of the Local Government Act was introduced by the Conservative government in 1988.

It prohibited local authorities from "intentionally promoting homosexuality or publishing material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promoting the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship".

It was repealed in Scotland in 2000, and in England and Wales in 2003.

The project began with an appeal to the public in the South West to share their stories. Students at the University then conducted interviews with 12 LGBTQ+ people, and these have been edited into digital recordings that can be accessed via QR codes across the dozen panels making up the exhibition.

The exhibition will also feature contemporary artwork produced by the local LGBTQ+ community today. 

Among those who shared their experiences include a former teacher, who said that her inability to offer support to LGBTQ+ students left her feeling like she was complicit in upholding a homophobic system.

She eventually left teaching, partly because of this.

Another, a gay man, reflected on the significance of repeal in November 2003, saying that although “in direct practical terms, the repeal was not so consequential … symbolically it mattered enormously to think that …for the first time in my conscious life any relationship that I might have with another man would not be thought of as a ‘pretend’ relationship”. 

Dr Chris Sandal-Wilson, Lecturer in Medical History, said: “There’s a perception that the South West doesn’t have an LGBTQ+ history and that’s just not true.

“Many LGBTQ+ people did find the South West an isolating place, but others found community and created safe and supportive queer spaces here. We hope our exhibition and the ongoing oral history project will help capture the richness and diversity of LGBTQ+ experiences in the South West.”

“Section 28 and its Afterlives” will open in the Forum on Streatham campus today, Monday, November 13, with a special panel discussion at 6pm involving academics, activists and representatives from local LGBTQ+ organisations, including the Intercom Trust.

It then moves to Positive Light Projects on Sidwell Street on November 17 for a further week.

"Remembering the past and recognising its injustices is crucial to ensure it is not repeated,” says Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw, who has supported the project. “That is why this project is so important. These oral testimonies are crucial in voicing the injustice and discrimination of Section 28. We cannot allow it to happen again."

If any members of the LGBTQ+ community would like to be interviewed as part of the ongoing project, they can email: [email protected] .