A new musical opened in London this week about Britain’s notorious Section 28, a series of laws in effect from 1988-2003 that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local council officials with authority over schools, libraries, and theaters.
The introduction of the legislation, by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government at the height of the AIDS epidemic, has parallels to today’s moral panic over trans rights in the U.K. and the U.S., especially the spreading of fear, misinformation, and self-censorship throughout the LGBTQ+ community and society at large.
In its wake, Section 28 left a generation of British young people silenced as supportive educators and community members shuttered supportive programs and offices rather than risk violating the law.
“There is a sense of Section 28 stealing years,” co-writer and performer Ellice Stevens, 31, told the Guardian, “and stealing the ability to have confidence and self-acceptance as a teenager.”
After the Act: A Section 28 Musical opened Tuesday and is based on interviews with those affected by the laws’ censorship. The title is a callback to a political action called Before the Act, a raucous benefit gala at the Piccadilly Theater in London staged a month after Section 28 was passed in Parliament.
Similar in spirit to other actions opposing the law — like protesters repelling into the House of Lords or crashing a live BBC news broadcast — Before the Act was designed to both shock and entertain. The revue was organized by lesbian theatre troupe 20th Century Vixen, and features a collection of songs and scenes resplendent in outré queer vibes and performances, with Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, and conductor Simon Rattle taking a bow and throwing pink roses into the crowd at show’s end.
As its namesake did, co-creator and co-writer Billy Barrett, 30, hopes After the Act will “function as a political action” as well as entertain in the modern day.
“The story of Section 28 is often told by the generation that fought it,” he says, “but rarely by the people that grew up under it.”
After the Act centers the students, teachers, and activists directly impacted by the laws’ censorship, in a documentary format called verbatim theatre which sets first-hand interviews to music performed by an all-queer cast. The sounds of the creators’ own musical influences — like the Pet Shop Boys, Meatloaf, and Bonnie Tyler — infuse the score.
“Section 28 was about silencing,” Barrett says, “so we’re uncovering those voices and bringing them to the stage.”
Comparisons to the trans rights panic should be obvious, say After the Act’s young creators.
“A lot of the public discourse around Section 28 feels like it’s being rerun in the hysteria around trans rights,” Barrett says, “particularly in the language of child protection.”
“I went to a protest last week about Section 35,” says Stevens, referring to Parliament’s move to block Scotland’s recent gender reform bill. “The similarities to the speeches at the 1988 march in Manchester against Section 28 are uncanny.”
“It’s about saying, does this ring any bells?” Barrett says. “Which side do you think you’re on here?”