“When offered the chance to read Twenty Eight: Stories From the Section 28 Generation, I had some preconceptions about what the book was likely to be.” Laura Kate Dale writes;
Perhaps I am a little jaded by a world that centres a very specific kind of queer voice in discussions of historical fights for improved rights, but I came to this anthology expecting that I would largely be reading accounts of Margret Thatcher’s clampdown on LGBTQIA+ “promotion” that frames the discussion very narrowly on homosexuality, and the direct impacts of the legislation during the specific set of years it was law.
I was very pleasantly surprised by how wrong I was.
Twenty Eight is an anthology of stories told by 28 LGBTQIA+ writers of various backgrounds, that right from its opening pages works to disrupt reader expectations of the kinds of stories it seeks to platform. The anthology features a broad variety of perspectives, making a particular effort to platform trans writers, LGBTQIA+ creators whose experience of Section 28 fall in the years immediately before or after it was enacted, as well as the perspectives of people with ranging degrees of real time knowledge that it was occurring to them.
Its opening essay, for example, follows the story of a trans person whose experience with Section 28 largely involved living through the lingering impacts the years after it was repealed. All too often it’s argued Section 28 “only discriminated against homosexuality”, and “Most of you complaining about it barely actually experienced it”, talking points weaponized as ways to discredit how far the legislation’s ripples spread, and who was caught in its crossfire in practice. The opening essay also ties its discussions of Section 28 explicitly to modern attempts to bring back similar legislation aimed at the trans community, and making the connection that learning from Section 28 is just as much about preventing future harm as it is examining the past as an isolated event we lived through.
The statement made by this book opening by platforming a trans person, drawing modern parallels, and expanding the scope of the years the legislations impacts were felt in, the anthology makes it clear from the start that it seeks to take a wider look at the subject material than many comparable books, something I really appreciated.
The essays that follow immediately after continue to set forth a strong statement that this anthology is aiming to be unpredictable in its format. The second essay is very short, but still given space. The third a poem, introducing that form is flexible as is length of contribution. Not long after follows a conversation between two people, again reinforcing that the anthology is open to creative use of form.
I was under no illusion that Twenty Eight was going to be an easy read, a book that’s start to finish discussing people living through legislation that negatively impacted my life was always going to be somewhat intense, but what I think this anthology does really well is use these changes in form, structure, and format to keep the anthology feeling fresh. By nature of the stories focusing on the same shared traumatising event, there is naturally a degree of overlap in experiences between many of the contributors accounts of their experiences, but by keeping the reader engaged with changing pacing and form, it never felt too weighed down or repetitive, rather reiterating important shared observations from differing perspectives.
Alongside the book’s extensive platforming of trans writers, alongside cis gay authors who in many cases draw the same parallels to current anti trans legislation, Twenty Eight does a really good job of balancing a variety of different experiences of Section 28’s impact. From queer teens with gay parents seeing Section 28 with the context of queer love to look to, to teachers finding ways to covertly discuss queer identity in spite of the ban, speaking to teachers who had to watch homophobic bullying unable to step in, to parents trying to protect their kids but facing pushback from educators, there is a really well rounded view of section 28’s impacts that shows how far reaching its impacts were.
John Naples-Campbell’s chapter about being a gay teacher at the forefront of scottish LGBT education post section 28 repeal in particular is a really strong addition, having himself been in school during Section 28,, and yet again drawing parallels to feeling like it’s returning for trans people, and his having to wrestle with how to stop it repeating now he’s in the position his teachers must have been when he was growing up.
I appreciate Twenty Eight’s inclusion of per chapter content warnings. Yes, given the overall anthology topic some of the content warnings are perhaps a little obvious, but all too often books like this use that as justification not to provide content warnings at all. Here, the intersectional nature of the anthology in particular makes their inclusion useful, as experiences of abuse and harassment vary and intersect so frequently.
While I grew up at the tail end of Section 28’s time on the books, and finished my education in its aftermath, a lot of the accounts in this anthology, regardless of when they were written across the decades, felt incredibly familiar. Ash Brockwell’s poem to god for example really hit home for me as a Section 28 era queer kid with a religious upbringing, as did the chapter James Corley, showing a script scene redacted to fit under section 28 rules, which was a really unique use of form.
From acknowledgement that not telling people about gay or trans existence “until they are old enough” makes identities feel like dirty taboos, to the belief that queer lives must be immoral if they have been depraved enough they needed to be outlawed, every story ultimately comes back to the fact that, even if nobody was ultimately sentenced with a crime under Section 28, it fundamentally shifted societal views, for queer people as well as those around them, and prevented people from being able to openly fight back against perceptions that were given decades to settle in.
The main thing I think Twenty Eight does well, is make it clear how not alone we are in many of these experiences, and how easily the harms done by Section 28 could return if left unchecked.
Many of the Twenty Eight’s contributors discuss that, at the time Section 28 was law, they did not know it existed. They did not know there was a named law preventing them from learning about their identity, and as a result they could not rebel against it. Knowing your enemy’s name takes away much of its potential power, and the importance of educating kids on the existence of laws that limit their ability to learn about themselves is something that is a recurrent theme in the anthology’s stories. A lesson to be learned, if Section 28 returns in some new form, by some new name, do not shut up about it, because new kids need to be able to name what they are experiencing.
Twenty Eight as an Anthology is full of incredibly well articulated observations about the nature of Section 28 as a piece of legislation, drawing illusions to the theoretical concept of a Panopticon for example to illustrate the legislation’s self governing power, but having taken some time to think about the collection of stories now it is written, the moments that perhaps stick with me most powerfully as the little glimpses of hope and positivity that come from people who lived through this law, and came out the other side.
One quote I made note of while reading, and keep coming back to, is the following:
“I am so happy that kids today can take queer representation for granted, I hope that never changes, I hope we are the last generation to have that degree of secrecy”.
While Twenty Eight is a heavy read, it is not a fatalist one. While its contributors across the board recognise the very real risk of similar legislation coming back into law, they recognise that we live in a very different world today, where keeping children in the dark about the fact they are living through an era of queer education suppression would be far more of a losing battle.
By giving space in Twenty Eight to poetry that might be more about the beauty of queer love than Section 28 explicitly, or giving its contributors space to sometimes go on tangents about how queer community found ways to survive and continue under harsh rules, the moments of beauty peppered throughout reminded me as a reader that the queer community has survived a lot of hardships throughout the years, and we always find a way to come back.
Section 28 didn’t stop a generation of young people from being queer. It led to a lot of trauma that many of us are still unpacking to this day, but it didn’t stop us existing. We still found ourselves, and each other, and we will continue to do so no matter what comes.
Twenty Eight: Stories from the section 28 generation is available from book stores now! Kestral Gaian also reviewed Abigail Thorn’s ‘The Prince’ for Trans Writes which you can read here.