Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Sue Wise (2000) '"New Right" or "Backlash"? Section 28, Moral Panic and "Promoting Homosexuality"'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 1, <>

To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary

Received: 27/5/2000      Accepted: 30/5/2000      Published: 31/5/2000


The lesbian and gay movement in the UK has been the least successful of the major 'new social movements' (NSMs) in achieving social policy and legislative change, and Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1988) remains in force as a major symbol both of Conservative opposition to such changes and also of wider and institutionalised discrimination. Around 'New Labour' proposals to repeal Section 28, a 'moral panic' has taken place, and sections of the popular press have been 'players within' the amplification processes involved. Reporting of 'what has been happening' has suggested apparently close ongoing links exist between disparate groups opposed to repeal and largely homogenous views about the moral wrongness of homosexuality as such tantamount to a 'New Right' hegemonic phenomenon. However, a closer look suggests there is actually important differences between the groupings involved and the 'close links' are actually artefacts of 'creative reporting'; and that these events are better characterised in terms of a 'backlash' to the specificities involved rather than a 'New Right' blanket response.

Backlash; Lesbian and Gay Rights; Moral Panic; New Right; Section 28

The Backcloth

Section 28 Local Government Act 1988:

  1. A local authority shall not:
    1. intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality;
    2. promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship


With hindsight, it now seems almost inevitable that the first civil rights battle of the twenty-first century in the UK would take place concerning the rights of lesbian and gay people. Of the major 'new social movements' working for civil rights from the end of the Second World War on in the UK, the lesbian and gay movement has been the least successful in terms of influencing and establishing change at the social policy and statutory levels, although extremely successful at a cultural level. The political activities of the women's liberation movement, the black/anti-racist movement, and the disability movement, over the same period have all resulted in anti-discrimination legislation being enacted (however imperfect these pieces of legislation may be, in principle and in practice), while basic civil rights do not formally exist for lesbian and gay people. And so at the turn of the millennium, the UK still had an unequal age of consent for gay men, same-sex partnerships were not recognised in law, lesbian and gay parents and their children had cause to feel insecure, anti-gay discrimination in the labour market was still supported, both tacitly and in relation to some occupations explicitly, by law, and Section 28 of the Local Government Act was still in place.

However, in spite of this 'with hindsight almost inevitable' feeling, in fact the moral panic and ensuing backlash that are occurring around attempts to repeal Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1988) have taken not only lesbian and gay campaigners off guard, but also a wide range of social commentators, from lesbian, gay and queer theorists (see Waites, 2000), to theorists and researchers of 'new social movements', to radical journalists working in print, radio and television media. What I want to do in this brief article is, first, to outline 'what has happened' as this has surfaced in the mass media; and second, to use this to offer some comments on the ideas of 'moral panic' (Cohen 1972), 'backlash' (Miller 1976; Faludi 1992), and the 'New Right', both in relation to this specific set of events and also more generally. My concern with the mass media here is not a naive one, but is rather a recognition of two things. The first and perhaps least important is that for many people 'what they know about these things' comes from the media, rather than from either direct or indirect experience or involvement, and so media reports have been the first-line of information about pro- and anti-repeal campaigns. The second is that with regard to the particular set of events I am concerned with mapping, sections of the mass media, in particular the 'popular press', have taken a leading role in promoting and indeed in actually orchestrating the campaign against the repeal of Section 28: the line between 'reporting on' and 'being a player in' has been traversed, making it important to focus on the media as precisely 'a player'. I am not claiming that what was reported was 'the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth', then; indeed, rather the reverse. My discussion concludes with some brief comments on some of the directions that future research on these matters might take.

'New Labour', Lesbian and Gay Rights and the Opposition to Policy Changes

In the months leading up to the turn of the millennium, some remarkable changes were occurring in the UK, to the extent that it seemed as though the lesbian and gay lobby group Stonewall's 'Equality 2000' campaign might actually be successful. This campaign had targeted five areas of discrimination against lesbian and gay people on which it hoped to influence change by the year 2000: it demanded equality at school, in love, at work, as parents and as partners. Successes were achieved in the removal of the ban on lesbians and gay men in the armed forces, and changes in immigration rights for same-sex partners, while the continuing defeat of attempts to reduce the legal age of consent to one of parity with that for heterosexual sexual activity were yet to reach a conclusion.

However, towards the end of 1999 a number of events took place and were drawn together in quick succession, and these occurred so quickly and were potentially so radical in their implications, that not only did they seem to catch the lesbian and gay campaigning groups off-guard, but also they witnessed a major moral panic of a 'these changes go too far' kind among not only opposition campaigning groups (which might be expected) but also more generally. As I shall suggest, this latter aspect of the moral panic was orchestrated and presented in sections of the popular press, not least by explicitly bringing together 'under one banner' as it were major UK religious organisations and their leaders to present an apparently united front of not only opposition to the proposed changes but also to presumed attacks on a 'normal' way of life.

'Backlashes' occur when taken-for-granted privileges are being questioned and are or might be removed. 'Moral panics' can of course occur in their own right, but in the case of the campaigns against repeal of Section 28, a moral panic became the means or method of underpinning and organising 'backlash'. The particular privilege at stake here concerns 'the family' and the right of only heterosexual people to call themselves 'family', together with the special social as well as legal status of heterosexual marriage. Not surprisingly, the pro-family, family values lobby and militant religious groups 'attached' to all the major religious groups in the UK have been involved in the campaign against repeal of Section 28. However, what has been more surprising is that the arguments used have been of, quite literally, biblical proportions - unprecedented alliances have apparently (and I stress 'apparently' here) been formed between different religious groups and organisations, right-wing newspapers, the Conservative Party and wealthy businessmen, in emphasising the rightness of the 'traditional' moral order in a manner usually associated with the activities and pronouncements of the 'moral majority' and power of the church in the USA. Before going on to discuss this apparent alliance, which for reasons I will explain later I prefer to think of in terms of 'backlash' rather than the 'New Right', I sketch out the events that contributed to the 'backlash' campaign.

The UK's 'New Labour' had made various policy promises to the lesbian and gay community, both in public and in private, and after winning office in 1997 the Labour government began to deliver on these. Consequently lesbian and gay people and also campaigning groups had good reason to be optimistic about the New Labour government and its programme of policy making and legislation. During the many years of Labour being in opposition to a succession of Conservative governments (including that which passed the 1988 Local Government Act), many of its policies on equality and social inclusion were developed from work which took place in Labour local government strongholds. Many of these local government Labour groupings contained activists from the early lesbian and gay liberation movement of the 1970s who had moved into the 'mainstream' of politics in the 1980s and become active in local government, trades unions and the Labour Party. By the time of the Labour victory of 1997, lesbians and gay men (and particularly the latter) had been crucially involved in the reformulation of 'New Labour', not only in getting lesbian and gay rights onto the agenda, but also in raising a more general sexual political awareness among heterosexual New Labourites. In the May 1997 General Election, 'New Labour' fielded a number of lesbian and gay candidates, and returned some openly lesbian and gay MPs (including Chris Smith, Steven Twigg, Ben Bradshaw, Angela Eagle). Moreover, its cabinet included several 'out', or soon to be 'outed', ministers. Indeed, Stephen Twigg wrote the preface to Equality 2000 magazine, in which he set out New Labour's commitment to changing the age of consent in an article that was sub-titled 'A personal message to young gay men from the young gay MP, Stephen Twigg' (Equality 2000 1998).

Looking back now on New Labour's record on lesbian and gay rights, a cynical eye might conclude that everything it has changed or attempted to change so far has been with the certain knowledge that the European Union (EU) would impose such change if not done volitionally by the national government. For instance, lesbian and gay rights changes concerning the lifting of the ban on lesbian and gay personnel in the armed forces, and the change in the status of same- sex partners in immigration law certainly come into this category. Similarly, the commitment to reduce the age of consent for gay men was made in the certain knowledge that the European Court of Human Rights had a test case pending, while Section 28 of the Local Government Act will probably contravene the Human Rights Act when this comes into force later in 2000. However, whatever its motives, 'New Labour' has certainly been tenacious in its quest for reform, and although it has been defeated twice in the House of Lords over the reduction of the age of consent, it now plans to use the Parliament Act to ensure that its policy becomes law during this parliamentary session (see Epstein et al 2000 for an interesting discussion of the second age of consent debate in the House of Commons and their analysis of 'Blairism as a site of sexual politics').

The opposition to the Labour government's policy intentions on lesbian and gay rights became a battle between the Houses of Lords and Commons, and was marshalled in the Lords by the Conservative peer, Baroness Young. Debate, both in parliament and also in the press, has focussed on the need to 'protect' vulnerable young men from making the 'wrong' 'lifestyle choice' which they may later regret, albeit countered by the invocation of equality and that, if everyone else is deemed an adult at 16, then so too should gay men. While the age of consent debate undoubtedly raised questions about homosexuality as a 'choice', as a 'life style' and so on, and also the spectre of child protection and abuse, this debate has in its essentials been one concerned with who counts as 'an adult'. Even many of those who have been involved in opposing the lowering of the age of consent to sexual activity have repeatedly stated their tolerance and support for lesbians and gay men who made choices as adults; and the underlying issue hinges on when an adult becomes an adult, what rights or otherwise 'non-adults' have, and how and in what ways they should be protected, by whom and from whom.

The battle over the reduction in the age of consent, with the expressions of hatred and contempt expressed during it for lesbian and gay people, turned out to be a rehearsal for the furore that was to come over attempts to repeal Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act. In order to understand the reactions to this and the particular views expressed, it is necessary to go back to the general climate of opinion and the unfolding events of 1999.

The Moral Panic and the Press

'GAY SEX LESSONS FOR SCOTS SCHOOLS' Daily Record 29 October 1999



'KEEP THIS OUT OF OUR SCHOOLS' Daily Mail 29 January 2000

'BLAIR BEATEN ON GAYS' The Sun 8 February 2000

'TWINS ON THE WAY FOR GAY LOVERS' Daily Star 1 September 1999

'PORTILLO: I HAD GAY SEX' Daily Mirror 9 September 1999

Alongside the age of consent controversy, in the UK a 'normalisation' of homosexuality has also been taking place, including the increasing visibility of lesbians and gay men in both public and private domains and especially within the sphere of popular culture. Opinion polls and attitude surveys throughout the 1990s (Gallup 1991, Harris 1992, British Social Attitudes 1993, Guardian/ICM 1996) have consistently demonstrated that the pattern of acceptance of homosexuality rested on two variables: the age of the person being asked the question, and whether they knew any lesbians or gay men themselves. Predictably, the younger the person and the more contact that people (of any age) have had with lesbians and gay men, then the greater the likelihood of their acceptance of the validity of homosexuality as a legitimate sexual preference. Even tabloid or popular press newspapers and magazines had begun to feature 'normalisation theme' stories - for instance, front covers of two editions of OK! magazine during 1999 featured famous lesbians (pop singer Cher's daughter Chastity Bono being one of them) 'at home' with their girlfriends - and were more likely to preach tolerance of adult sexual preference (which, of course, is not the same thing as acceptance) than outright condemnation.

For instance, on 1 September 1999 both the Daily Star and the Daily Mail featured double page stories on two gay men who had entered into a surrogacy arrangement with an American woman who was carrying their twin babies, created from donated eggs which were inseminated with sperm from both of them. The papers 'pinched' the story from the popular women's magazine Woman's Own (which in turn had obtained the story from a radio programme, 'Woman's Hour', a programme which in fact often 'scoops' stories in this way). However, it was the way in which the story was presented that was particularly interesting, because both papers reported the story 'straight': there was no shock-horror, and no moralising about the end of family life as we know it. The Daily Mail ran the story without editorial comment, while the Daily Star ran a brief, but extraordinarily positive editorial. The gist of this was that, while some might think the arrangement unnatural, what is wrong with two rich young men in a committed relationship giving two children the best start in life?

A week later the press ran another positive 'gay' story. Michael Portillo, a former Conservative government minister who had lost his seat in the General Election, in the run- up to his re-entering political life decided to confront the demons that had dogged his previous life in office by announcing that he had had homosexual relationships in his early adult life, but was, of course, now exclusively heterosexual. Those papers that did comment were entirely supportive, including the Daily Mirror, which broke the story on 9 September 1999, and which ran an editorial praising his bravery and honesty and reaffirming its commitment to tolerance for homosexuality among adults. The predicted furore over the revelations never materialised and the story became a damp squib, as had clearly been the hope and intention.

While neither of these 'gay-normalisation' stories seemed to excite much public debate, this was to change dramatically in October 1999. In mid-October, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the new President of the High Court Family Division, caused a stir by announcing that she was in favour of lesbians and gay men being allowed to adopt children in certain circumstances. Most papers reported the story without editorial comment (e.g. on 16 October 1999 the story occupied the front page of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, while it made the inside pages of The Guardian, The Times, the Daily Star and The Sun) but also included coverage of condemnatory responses from pro-family groups and individuals. The Daily Mail, however, reported that "her remarks triggered a storm of criticism from family campaigners. They accused her of putting political correctness above the welfare of children". A spokesman for the group Family Focus accused her of being "politically correct to boost her chances of a peerage", emphasising that "a child has a right to be brought up by a male and a female" (The Sun 16 October 1999), while Ann Widdicombe, shadow home affairs spokesman (sic), reportedly said that children placed for adoption should be placed in "a normal background, which is that of a traditional family. If you put a child in a homosexual background you can be robbing them of the best start in life" (Daily Telegraph 16 October 1999). That the most senior member of the judiciary with responsibility for family law should make such a radical public statement must surely have sent alarm signals to the pro-family lobby, as with a further pronouncement by Law Lords later that month.

In the case of Fitzpatrick v. Sterling, Martin Fitzpatrick had been fighting for five years to retain the Housing Association flat that he had occupied with his male lover for nearly twenty years. After the death of his partner, Mr Fitzpatrick was given notice to quit, because the tenancy had been in his partner's name and the Housing Association claimed he had no right in law to accede to the tenancy. Mr Fitzpatrick's case, which eventually reached the House of Lords, was based on his assertion that he was either the spouse or a family member of the deceased. All five law lords rejected his claim to be a spouse, but three out of five agreed that he was 'family'. The substance of their ruling was reported in the summing up by Lord Nicholls, "A man and woman living together in a stable and permanent sexual relationship are capable of being members of a family. Once this is accepted, there can be no rational or other basis on which the like conclusion can be withheld from a similarly stable and permanent sexual relationship between two men or between two women" (The Guardian 29 October).

The implications of this ruling with regard to other aspects of family law were yet to be tested. However, a clear legal precedent had now been set which sent strong signals that the campaign for equal partnership rights was gaining ground. The same spokesman for the group Family Focus, Dr Adrian Rogers, who had been reported in the media earlier in the month, now explicitly put together this ruling with the pronouncements of Butler-Sloss and the debate to come on the repeal of Section 28, and was reported in a statement that "The movement to grant equality and normalise homosexuality, of which this ruling is a part, is a crazy and dangerous move for society. The next thing will be the repeal of clause 28 on the promotion of homosexuality in schools, and then in about three years we will see a law which forbids any criticism of homosexuality." (The Guardian 29 October 1999 p 2).

On the same day that this comment was published, the Scottish newspaper the Daily Record reported the intention of the Scottish Parliament to repeal Section 28, followed the next day by a report in the 'quality' newspaper the Guardian that the UK government intended to do the same. This, it seems, was the start of the second public battle over Section 28 of the Local Government Act, some twelve years after the battle over its birth. Anti-repeal activists began to organise themselves in Scotland (where they refer to it as Clause 28) orchestrated in large part through the activities and use of the money of the millionaire owner of the 'Stagecoach' transport company, Brian Souter, who had pledged huge amounts of money to 'keep the clause' and later to fund a privately-organised public referendum in Scotland, expected to cost more than one million pounds. Meanwhile, the positions of opposition groups and policy- lines in England were still being formulated.

In early November 1999, the Daily Mail reported on a Law Commission report which recommended the extension of compensation for the death of a partner to lesbian and gay couples. The Mail cited this as an example of a general trend towards treating lesbian and gay couples on an equal footing with heterosexual couples, and it also reminded readers of the recent Butler- Sloss and Fitzpatrick v. Sterling pronouncements. It suggested that the Law Commission's recommendation "will be seen by supporters of marriage as yet another blow to the special status of married couples. If ministers act on its recommendations, yet another incentive to marry will be removed from the legal system." (Daily Mail 11 November 1999). This is a clear statement that privileges need to be in place for heterosexual marriage to be an attractive proposition, and can be seen as either criticising the recommendation, or else simply as recognition that this is so, although the tone of the piece made it clear it was the former. With hindsight, the fact that this report appeared in the Daily Mail is significant, for at some point the Mail stopped being simply a means of reporting on events and itself became 'part of the action' in an interesting way and I will comment on this again later.

In early December 1999, the proposed repeal of Section 28 became a live Conservative Party issue when its leader William Hague imposed a three-line whip opposing repeal and sacked shadow cabinet minister Shaun Woodward for his support for repeal. While Hague supported the reduction in the age of consent, for him the repeal of Section 28 was one step too far. As usual in British politics, things were quiet around the Christmas period while MPs and other political activists and journalists had a holiday break. However, this changed dramatically in January, the start of the new millennium.

It is a queer coincidence that exactly the same thing had happened in the first battle over Section 28, exactly 12 years earlier, for Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 had begun life just before Christmas 1987, and is a classic example of the cynical timetabling of controversial measures in the hope that they will thereby fail to gain much political attention. Then, as now, the policy measure had had little to do with the needs and rights of young people. In 1987/8, it had much more to do with the Conservative government's attack on what it characterised as 'loony left councils'. A paradoxical outcome of the Conservatives' many years in power was that it gave local government Labour strongholds the space to develop strongly radical alternative policies and during the 1980s many Labour councils had developed equal opportunities policies which included lesbian and gay rights. For some Labour councils, this meant encouraging positive images of lesbian and gay people, as well as the provision of services geared to their needs, and it was this that Section 28 was a response to.

By the time the 'second battle over Section 28' began in 1999, the issues were more complicated. While the events of 1987/8 involved a contest between a dominant central government and 'radical' oppositional local government, those of 1999/2000 particularly involved issues of devolution, the reform of the House of Lords, and the 'last ditch' attempts of organised religions to have a say in the secular world of politics. The devolution issue was used by supporters of 'the clause' in Scotland (e.g. Daily Record 29 October 1999) to suggest that the Scottish parliament was merely dancing to the tune of Westminster. In what might be seen as a victory for open government, the Scottish Parliament made the repeal of Section 28 a public consultation issue, rather than strategically (and cynically?) slipping in the measure where it might be least noticed (as was arguably the case with its initial introduction and New Labour's attempts at repeal). The reform of the House of Lords was clearly on many people's agendas: as with the age of consent proposals, it was clearly expected that there would be a battle between the Commons and newly reformed Lords. The role of religious groups and organisations was more surprising and is more complicated to unravel.

In January 2000, the views on Section 28 of three major church leaders were reported: the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, the head of the Church of England, and the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool. The first major salvo came from Cardinal Thomas Winning, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland. In a speech made in Malta on 21 January 2000, he referred to homosexuality as a 'perversion' and called upon the 'silent majority in Scotland to act to retain the prohibition, stating that a militant homosexual lobby was threatening the Christian family. This language caused an uproar and he was accused of being a 'raving bigot' (The Guardian 24 January 2000). Leaping to his defence, in two-thirds of a page of the 'quality' newspaper the Daily Telegraph, the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool was the first non-Catholic clergyman in England to support Cardinal Winning. In doing so he posed the disarmingly honest question, 'is there a moral difference between gay and straight relationships?' No reference was made to the needs or feelings of young gay people or to tolerance for what adults chose to do, and instead he argued that there are moral differences and that straight is best, citing the extinction of the species, the design of genitals and the transmission of disease in homosexual but not heterosexual sexual activity (by implication, and of course erroneously, he seems to be referring to HIV/AIDS here) as his evidence. And the main point of his argument is very clear: only the married state or the single state of celibacy are acceptable 'vocations' for both straight and gay people in the Christian tradition. Therefore it follows that the prioritisation of marriage is not of itself homophobic and that policies to repeal Section 28 present the view that straight and gay relationships are morally equivalent (Daily Telegraph 24 January 2000).

On the same day, a sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, the head of the Church of England, was reported in several newspapers, including the Daily Mail (24 January 2000). In this, he makes no judgement on the repeal debate itself apart from saying that safeguards are needed in schools, which he knows that the Education Minister David Blunkett is addressing. Instead, this report highlights his concern about homosexual relationships being seen on an equal footing with marriage. One reading of this is that in fact Carey was working 'behind the scenes' with the government, and the juxtaposition of this report alongside that of the Bishop of Liverpool suggests that some of the press were setting him up in his role as head of the church (see here The Guardian 22 February 2000 for a discussion on the politics of sexuality and the role of Carey in the church of England).

Of all the newspapers that reported on the debates and events around the proposed repeal of Section 28, the Daily Mail developed a pro-active stance and turned it into a major campaign promulgated by the newspaper, in doing so in my view firmly stepping over the always complex border between 'commenting on' and 'being a player within' public events. Thus, for instance, it was the Daily Mail that amalgamated the position statements from the leader of the Conservatives, William Hague, the Roman Catholic Church, the Moslem Council, the Chief Rabbi and the Hindu Council under the banner of 'the backlash against section 28' (eg. Daily Mail 26 January 2000), by doing so giving a clear impression of a close and unified allegiance between these than in fact did not exist. It was also the Daily Mail that initiated an 'investigation' of presumptively 'inappropriate' spending by local authorities on lesbian and gay issues; however, its reports about this, under the heading 'Clause 28 Watch (the same terminology being used by the Souter-funded 'Keep the Clause' campaign in Scotland), mainly provided examples of youth services which had nothing whatsoever to do with provision to under-sixteens (e.g. Daily Mail 28 January 2000). Again, in doing the Mail presented 'facts' which were in fact not factual in order to provide a picture of 'them' and their supporters which could then be attacked as illegitimate, and in this case also illegal. Other activities involved in its campaign were a clipout coupon/letter objecting to repeal for readers to cut out and send to their MP (Daily Mail 28 January 2000) and also an opinion poll, commissioned from MORI (Daily Mail 29 January 2000).

A 'moral panic', in the now classic statement of this from Stan Cohen (1972), sees a gathering trajectory of events, some 'real', others artefacts produced by being brought together in ways which imply (or state) causal connection; and with a certainly circularity between 'reporting' and 'real events', both those presumed to cause the panic and others made in response to it. A moral panic, then, is a complex dynamic that takes on what is almost 'a life of its own', and within this the media plays an important role in providing mis/information that then affects social behaviour engaged in as a response to it. And whether politicians choose to mobilise, or even to initiate, a moral panic (as William Hague has done in Britain with regard to asylum- seekers) is also part of the amplification process.

In the case of the campaign against the repeal of Section 28, while the Daily Mail has clearly not been the only agent as work nor necessarily the most important one, it has nonetheless 'played a part' by promoting and giving publicity to what has been presented as a homogenous set of 'oppositional' voices and also providing 'facts' which are presumed to legitimate their response. That is, the role of the Mail has involved making a moral panic out of a range of contending and disagreeing voices and in doing so not only giving the impression that 'the opposition' to repeal is unified in the views and beliefs held but also strongly implied that there were actual allegiances between the different groupings involved. It remains to be seen, of course, whether actual allegiances might now come into existence in the political events to come, when the Labour government puts into effect its next round of policies to achieve repeal of Section 28, although there are some signs that this might be the case. As for why the Mail, with its otherwise 'normalisation' storylines on lesbian and gay 'events', took this path, some of the contributing factors involved include its continuing efforts not to much to increase sales and circulation as prevent these from falling, its earlier jettisoning of its 'traditional' 'Tory blue rinse' image as part of this, and its circulation wars with other popular press newspapers equally prepared to make use of whatever high-profile 'stories' that might come along to encourage even short-run circulation increases.


From political commentary and disagreement, then, a full-blown 'moral panic' came into existence, one which was in important ways orchestrated by a section of the popular press in the UK. Earlier I commented that I prefer to use the idea of a 'backlash' to characterise these events and the debates around the proposed repeal of Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act, rather than invoke the more general idea of 'New Right' activities. This needs explaining.

Feminist commentators have used the idea of backlash to understand the ways in which the advances made in gaining greater equality for women have provoked reactions against them. Susan Faludi (1992) has argued that a backlash is "an attempt to retract the handful of small and hard-won victories that the feminist movement did manage to win for women…The backlash is at once sophisticated and banal, deceptively 'progressive' and proudly backward" (p.12). Moreover, she adds that "…if fear and loathing of feminism is a sort of perpetual viral condition in our culture, it is not always in an acute stage; its symptoms subside and resurface periodically…such flare-ups are hardly random; they have always been triggered by the perception – accurate or not – that women are making great strides…they have always arisen in reaction to women's 'progress', caused not simply by a bedrock of misogyny but by the specific efforts of contemporary women to improve their status…" (p13). If we were to substitute the advancement of lesbian and gay equality into this argument, we can see that recent events around Section 28 follow a similar pattern; some gains are made, followed swiftly by a reaction – two steps forward, one step back. However, in a sense it is the progress of change that provokes reaction, rather than some monolithic reactionary force preventing change from happening in the first place.

I find the idea of backlash a useful one because it makes explicit the contested nature of reaction which comes into being as a response to change; it recognises the existence of social change and the dynamic forces that create change. This for me is a more satisfactory way to think about the events discussed above than the idea of a 'New Right', with its implications of the hegemonic existence of the New Right as a 'new social movement' in its own right and thus of the homogeneity of those groupings who might come under that umbrella term. The battle over Section 28 demonstrates quite clearly that reactions against homosexual equality are neither static, nor homogeneous. The various groupings that the Daily Mail gathered together, in its pages at least, for its interventions in these matters are actually saying rather different things about homosexuality. For example, the church of England and the Conservative Party are preaching the language of tolerance for adult homosexuality, albeit whilst wishing to retain the sanctity and privilege of heterosexual marriage, whereas the position of the Catholic Church, the Moslem Council and the Chief Rabbi are that homosexuality per se is unacceptable. This demonstrates movement on the part of the Church of England and official Conservative policy since the first Section 28 debate and also very real differences between them and the other religious groupings. It simply will not do to lump together these very different approaches, as the Daily Mail would have us do, and also as would some academics (see Waite in this issue for a commentary on this) under the convenient and simplistic heading of a 'New Right'. Moreover, as Melucci has argued in relation to what he describes as the 'vacuousness' of the categories of Left and Right, "…it tells us nothing about today's new conflictual actors, or about the direction of the present change…'Left' and 'Right' are no longer identifiable once and for all in any simple fashion…it may well be possible to observe the 'Rightist' of yesterday transforming into the 'Leftist' of tomorrow." (Melucci 1996 p213). I should also add here that I am not saying that a 'New Right' phenomenon could not come into existence in the future in the UK and have a hegemonic character and unified set of policies and so forth; but that close observation of what seems to have happened and is happening around Section 28 suggests that this does not exist now. It remains to be seen whether 'the opposition' to repeal of the 1988 Local Government Act becomes more cohesive, actually (rather than apparently) acts more in concert, in the face of the planned activities of the Labour government both to effect repeal and to 'tame' the House of Lords.

Some Directions for Future Research

As I suggested at the start of my discussion, the events I have briefly outlined and commented on here were by no means expected by any of the 'knowing' people involved, neither by either the radical or the mainstream press, nor by campaigning groups and organisations, nor by academic commentators. Consequently understanding these events and interpreting them requires some new directions in thinking, researching and theorising, and I would like to sketch out some of these 'new directions' in this concluding section. I am taking it as read that there are some extremely obvious directions that can just be listed, and I will then move on to some of the less obvious work that could usefully be done.

The 'obvious directions' are as follows. Firstly, there is some evidence of interconnections between 'opposed' religious groupings in the UK taking place around these political events, even while areas of disagreement continue to exist; and this is fascinating, probably unprecedented, and there is little information on how this occurred and what its long-term implications might be. Secondly, while it has become commonplace to look at newspaper coverage, particularly in the popular press, of public events, there is comparatively little work on what I have referred to as 'becoming a player' in political debates. Thirdly, in Scotland the role of a particular individual in bank-rolling the campaign was important, perhaps even crucial; and while comments and some serious investigation of, for instance, the activities of Georg Soros in political change- making has been carried out, at a more local level there is again remarkably little serious work on 'key individuals' in promoting political campaigns. The less obvious new directions for research require more contextualising, and I shall sketch out two of these only, regarding 'new social movements', and regarding children and their rights.

It is an interesting comment on 'new social movements' (NSMs) that in 1988 lesbian and gay campaigning groups could mount a huge scale campaign in alliance with members of many other NSMs compared with now. There are now 'specialist' campaigning groups that have come into existence, including Stonewall and Outrage, and there may be a tacit assumption that 'these will do it for us'. Stonewall emerged from the Section 28 events and is now a well-oiled and highly professionalised lobbying machine, while in 1988 and before there were no professionalised lobbying groups of these kinds. What the new campaigns around Section 28 are perhaps witnessing is the 'archetypal' ebb and flow of NSMs that Melucci and others have commented on (Melucci 1989,1996; Kriesi et al 1995). Another 'then and now' difference is that the present campaign is being waged by the liberal (as opposed to the radical, eg. Outrage) wing of activism – Stonewall and Labour politicians – and many of the latter do not understand the fundamental dynamics of 'oppression' and the degree of negative feeling that underpins and supports the existence of this.

The values of lesbian and gay NSM groupings seems to me essentially liberal, and they do not comprehend the nature of the beast, framing their campaign in the language of education, equal rights and the protection of children from bullying, when, more simply, the 'opposition' are concerned with the much more fundamental matter of the right of lesbian and gay people to be, to exist. The paradox here is that some oppositional groupings are focussing on the basic issue of whether homosexuality is alright or not, while the 'progressives' are not arguing that it is, simply that people should not be directly discriminated against in public policy.

In what direction might research move here? I have already suggested that I see these particular events in terms of 'backlash', rather than seeing the 'New Right' as a unified platform. However, work on the 'New Right' as a multi-faceted and dynamic social movement needs furthering, while some serious and detailed work needs to focus on 'the traditional' NSMs and the ways in which the assimilation of these also brings political costs, some of which I have alluded to here, and of which a lack of preparation for the expression of 'oppression' in hatred, vilification and a refusal of the rights of others 'to be' is one. There has been relatively little work on the outcomes of social movements compared to work on their formation and operation (but see Giugni 1999), and there is very little material on the lesbian and gay movement in the mainstream of social movement theory, although some work has been done on the movement outside of that field (for instance, Weeks 1977; Jeffrey-Poulter 1991; Wilson 1995). Where these latter works have concentrated on 'outcomes', they have mainly done so in relation to public policy change, as is the case with mainstream social movement 'outcomes' research (Burstein 1999). While public policy outcomes are important and should be analysed in the lesbian and gay movement; so too should outcomes at the broader social and cultural levels, as well as the unintended consequences of the activities of social movements (Giugni 1999).

And so what of children and their rights and the part of this in the campaigns around the proposed repeal of Section 28? In reviewing public policy outcomes of the activities of social movements, Burstein has argued that, "Because elected officials must constantly strive for public support, they respond primarily to the wishes of the majority, especially when the majority feels strongly about an issue. (Social Movement Organisations) therefore cannot directly influence policy when they disagree with the majority on issues it cares about. SMO's can influence policy directly, however, on issues the public cares little about…" (Burstein 1999 p 4). It is my contention that the main concern of (at least some of) those opposed to the repeal of Section 28 is really a concern with the privileged institution of marriage – the prohibition on teaching of the acceptability of 'pretended families'. However, if Burstein is right, this should not be a block to policy change, since it is hardly an issue that the majority care about: marriage has never been so unpopular as a 'lifestyle choice' in the UK, and its popularity is continuing to decline.

However, in my view articulating the debate in terms of protecting children, as both 'sides' have done, 'uses' children: either as an excuse for voicing views that are becoming unacceptable when voiced about adults, or for avoiding taking head-on the issue of marriage. In fact none of these debates, including from 'the left' and 'the progressives' involved, have really focussed on the needs and rights of children and young people, who have instead become the symbolic footballs of progressives and reactionaries alike, the former with a totally naďve and unsophisticated understanding of 'homophobia', the latter invoking a fairy story version of 'family values'. In the process, devolution, the relative powers of the Houses of Lords and Commons, the power of the 'popular media' to influence or represent public opinion, and the proper place of wealth in influencing social policy have intervened, to the exclusion of the voices and concerns of those most affected: lesbian and gay young people themselves.

There are a number of directions that research here might move in. 'What is seen as 'an adult' and 'a child' seemingly differ according to the gender, sexuality, ethnicity and other characteristics of the person or people concerned, and researching and theorising this is clearly important. However, again this misses 'the young' themselves. And so it seems to me by far the most important new direction that research could move in relates to the lives, experiences and understandings of young people, and the choices they make, choices which are made for them, and choices they would like to be able to make, of which 'sexuality issues' are an important but not the only part.


BURSTEIN, Paul (1999) 'Social Movements and Public Policy' in Giugni et al How Social Movements Matter. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp3-21.

COHEN, Stan (1972) Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Oxford: Martin Robertson.

EPSTEIN, Debbie; JOHNSON, Richard and STEINBERG, Deborah Lynn (2000) 'Twice Told Tales: Transformation, Recuperation and Emergence in the Age of Consent Debates 1998' Sexualities, 3, 1, pp5-30.

FALUDI, Susan (1992) Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women. London: Vintage.

GIUGNI, Marco (1999) 'How Social Movements Matter: Past Research, Present Problems, Future Developments' in Giugni et al How Social Movements Matter. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. xiii-xxxiii.

GIUGNI, Marco; McAdam, Doug; Tilly, Charles (1999) (eds) How Social Movements Matter. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

JEFFREY-POULTER, S (1991) Queers, Peers and Commons: The Stuggle For Gay Law Reform From 1950 to the Present. London: Routledge.

KRIESI, Hanspeter; KOOPMANS, Ruud; DUYVENDAK, Jan Willem and GUIGNI, Marco (1995) New Social Movements in Western Europe: a Comparative Analysis. London:UCL Press.

MELUCCI, Alberto (1989) Nomads of the Present: Social Movements and Individual Needs in Contemporary Society. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

MELUCCI, Alberto (1996) Challenging Codes: Collective action in the information age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MILLER, Jean Baker (1976) Toward a New Psychology of Women. Boston: New Beacon Press.

WAITES, Matthew (2000) 'Homosexuality and the New Right: The Legacy of the 1980s for New Delineations of Homophobia', Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 1, <http://www.socreson>. WEEKS, Jeffrey (1977) Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present. London: Quartet.

WILSON, Angelia (1995) (ed) A Simple Matter of Justice? London: Cassell.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000