Early on in writer-director Georgia Oakley’s quietly devastating debut film, Blue Jean, the title character, Jean (Rosy McEwen), hears a radio broadcast about Section 28. Introduced by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, the legislation banning the “promotion of homosexuality” passed in May 1988 on a wave of fearmongering about what kids might be learning about — not to mention from — LGBTQ+ people and issues in the classroom.
Debate about Section 28 provides the backdrop for the film, as well as its tether to the present moment, when legislation is advancing across the U.S. to ban discussion of LGBTQ+ topics in schools and ban books by LGBTQ+ authors and about LGBTQ+ characters and issues. On one level, Blue Jean, which functions effectively as both a social problem film and a compelling character study, makes a distressing case for the idea that history does, in fact, repeat itself.
Lana Mims and Kaylee Owens are now forced to choose between resilience and self-preservation.
Jean is a divorced PE teacher at a secondary school — basically the equivalent of an American high school — in Newcastle. She’s also a lesbian with a girlfriend and a lively queer social life. She’s out to her family, though she keeps her romantic and social life to herself. At work, however, where her colleagues express casual homophobia and support for Section 28, she’s closeted, fearing that she’ll lose her job if her sexuality were exposed.
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Jean’s double life causes a certain amount of friction with her butch, politically active girlfriend, Viv (Kerrie Hayes), and it distances her from almost everyone else in her life. She’s cagey with her students and fellow teachers, and she keeps her sister, who doesn’t want Jean’s young nephew to know about his aunt’s romantic life, at arm’s length.
But it’s when a new student arrives at Jean’s school that her delicate balance begins to teeter. Lois (Lucy Halliday) is a talented athlete, and Jean recruits her for the girls netball team. Jean then witnesses the new kid being bullied by her teammates.
Jean soon begins running into Lois at queer bars, and becomes terrified that her secret will be exposed. At school, her ability and willingness to defend Lois from the other girls’ homophobic taunts is stymied by her own fear, which plays out silently on McEwen’s elfin face. She sees a version of herself and her heart breaks. But she knows that to full-throatedly defend Lois would be to invite suspicion and innuendo that could lead to her own undoing.
To paraphrase the old quote, the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. This is both the message of Blue Jean and the insidious consequence of laws like Section 28, which wasn’t repealed until 2003, and Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.
When queer teachers are forced into — or back into — the closet, how can they protect LGBTQ+ students? When a culture tells LGBTQ+ adults that they are dangerous, that we are perceived as predators, even when we know that we are not, how can we be mentors to young people? How can queer and trans students learn not to be ashamed and silenced when LGBTQ+ teachers are shamed into silence?
As Viv asks Jean of Lois at one point, “How is that girl ever gonna learn she has a place in this world if you of all people tell her that she doesn’t?”
Jean’s response is a gut punch: “What makes you think she has a place in this world?”
The gulf these laws create between LGBTQ+ young people and potential mentors can have devastating consequences, as is the case in Blue Jean.
“People failed me,” Jean tells Lois, late in the film, “and now I failed you.”
But if the darker elements of history repeat themselves, the brighter ones can as well. If Jean fails Lois, the film leaves us with the hope that she won’t fail again — or that she’ll strive not to. The message is clear: A generation of LGBTQ+ kids are depending on us to make the world better for them than it was for us. In the face of evil laws like “Don’t Say Gay” we don’t have the option to do nothing.