Chris Woodley (pictured), writer of Section 28-themed play Next Lesson, writes exclusively for Attitude about how the intrinsically homophobic legislation influenced his school life as a student - and as a teacher.
is about Section 28. Section 28 is the notorious legislation from the Thatcher government that banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools from 1988 until its repeal in 2003. The play is a portrait of a London secondary school, which focuses on Michael, a gay student when the story begins in 1988, and follows his transition to becoming an English teacher at the same school.
I was born and bred in Bromley and attended an all-boys secondary school in the early nineties where I experienced a large amount of homophobic bullying. Those five years in an all-boys school were possibly the worst five years of my life in education. I was spat at, sworn at, shoved around, belittled, bullied and abused on a regular basis. The school did very little. I chose not to tell my parents about the real extent of the bullying because I didn’t want them to feel embarrassed. There were only a handful of teachers that ever challenged my tormenters. Homosexuality wasn't discussed in my PSHE classes or in form time and it certainly wasn't something to be seen as normal. The legislation put a stop to any dialogue on matters surrounding sexuality, meaning that many students during this period of time had no voice and nowhere to turn for support.
It was not until my early twenties that I told my parents the extent of the bullying I had faced at school. I realised the huge effect it had had on my confidence and feelings of self-worth. In 2005, two years after Section 28 was repealed, I went back to Bromley to work as a secondary school teacher. This time I was to be the teacher in the classroom, not the student. It would make or break me. The first term in the school was a challenge, some students would mimic my voice or make comments when my back was turned, however I had an incredibly supportive department who would report homophobic incidents and ensure students faced the consequences of their actions. I was the only openly gay teacher at my school. Within a year I saw the difference it had made to my life and also that of the students. There were more openly gay students coming out in school, I directed plays on sexuality, I challenged homophobic bullying.
After six years working as a drama teacher I returned to my passion, acting and writing. In 2014 Above The Stag Theatre organised a staged reading of Next Lesson.
The play is now set to have a run at The Pleasance Theatre in Islington from 20th-25th October
. My hope is that this play will continue a dialogue about how sexuality is dealt with in secondary schools. Section 28 has had a huge effect on many LGBT young people at a time when they simply couldn’t talk about who they were and what they felt in school; it’s heartbreaking. The repeal of Section 28 came incredibly late and I feel it left a really confused feeling in our education system about what could and could not be discussed in schools. Even today the way in which we deliver Sex and Relationship Education in this country needs to be addressed; without open and honest conversations about SRE we are at risk of failing LGBT young people.
I still teach in secondary education and it is really interesting to see how schools tackle homophobic language and address matters related to sexuality. One positive thing since the launch of Next Lesson
is my old secondary school has invited me back. It has been seventeen years since I've been inside that building; I'm apprehensive, but looking forward to seeing the progress that’s been made. I sincerely hope that lessons have been learnt.
info: Next Lesson plays at the Pleasance Theatre from October 20-25.
Words by CHRIS WOODLEY