At Focal Point Gallery, video-maker Ed Webb-Ingall and The British Free Cinema remind us how quickly our civil liberties can be taken away
‘Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values re being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay’, declared then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to the Conservative Party Conference in 1987. The following year and in the middle of the AIDS crisis her government introduced Section 28, a piece of homophobic legislation prohibiting the promotion of ‘homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’ by UK local authorities. The policy effectively placed a blanket ban on the inclusion of anything queer-related in state classrooms and public libraries until it was fully repealed in 2003.
Focal Point Gallery has marked the 30th anniversary of Section 28’s instatement with ‘We Have Rather Been Invaded’, an exhibition of British video-maker Ed Webb-Ingall, one of millions who went to school during the state censorship. On show is the 2017 titular video work – part of a project originally commissioned by Studio Voltaire, London – of a roundtable discussion between Webb-Ingall and teachers, council workers and former students about their experiences of living and organizing through the queer vacuum, and an archive of protest ephemera and media responses to the legislation.
Webb-Ingall’s research shows that much of the pushback in the 1980s was arranged by women. During the roundtable council workers recall the day lesbian activists took over a booth at the Ideal Home Show declaring that ‘the ideal home is one without any men in it’. A display of newspaper clippings in the corridors report lesbian protesters chaining themselves to Buckingham Palace dressed as suffragettes and even abseiling into the House of Lords in 1988. If at times this resistance feels joyous, Webb-Ingall also makes clear the pervasive bigotry queer people faced – from parliament and the media. In a particularly callous cartoon of a boy coming out to his parents published by The Sun in 1988, a joke is made of homophobic abuse. ‘I said your dad wouldn’t take the news so well Rodney’, reads the caption, beneath a drawing of a boy hanging from a noose.
Paired with Webb-Ingall’s show is ‘Get Out and Push!’, an exhibition of The British Free Cinema: a documentary movement of the 1950s and ’60s which aimed to engender compassion and political consciousness with its depictions of working class life in marginalized demographics. Among the films on show are Robert Vas’s The Vanishing Street (1962), a record of a Jewish community in Whitechapel before it was bulldozed to make way for high-rise flats, and Michael Grigsby’s Tomorrow’s Saturday (1962), a tribute to women working in a textile factory in Blackburn departing for the weekend. While The British Free Cinema was proudly and politically independent, it borrowed from the aesthetic of wartime propaganda to push its message. In contrast, Webb-Ingall is a proponent of community video, a method of documentary-making developed in the 1970s in which a film’s subjects dictate the terms of their own visibility by assuming a directorial role.
The neo-conservative outrage that led to Section 28’s introduction was partly fuelled by news that a picture book, Susanne Bösche’s 1983 Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, about a little girl who lives with her dad and his boyfriend was being stocked in public libraries. Focal Point Gallery is located on the ground floor of Southend-on-Sea’s new library and learning facility, The Forum – precisely the sort of space censored by the legislation. To enter The Forum visitors walk through the lobby where a film reel plays Thatcher’s infamous diatribe of 1987, alongside footage of the moment lesbian activists crashed a live broadcast of the six o’clock news in 1988. ‘We Have Rather Been Invaded’ puts queer knowledge back in the public realm where it belongs. Given that the current UK prime minister voted against the repeal of Section 28, it is also a reminder of how quickly our civil liberties and our stories can be taken away.
‘Get Out and Push!’ runs at Focal Point Gallery, Southend on Sea, UK, until 19 August.
Main image: Archive material relating to section 28 from the Glasgow Women’s Library, various dates, installation view, 2018, Focal Point Gallery, Southend. Courtesy: Glasgow Women’s Library and Focal Point Gallery, Southend; photograph: Anna Lukala