The lesbian professor whose Section 28 ordeal inspired a film

Anglia Ruskin University dean Catherine Lee explains how diaries from her time as a gay teacher in the 1980s were used for an acclaimed British movie

October 31, 2022
Rosy McEwen stars in the Section 28 drama ‘Blue Jean’

As a gay teacher in late 1980s Britain, Catherine Lee lived in constant fear that she would be outed as a lesbian. That sense of fear and isolation returned, briefly, this year when she visited the set of Blue Jean, a BBC film drama about a lesbian gym teacher forced to live a double life after the introduction in 1988 of Section 28, which prohibited schools from “promoting homosexuality”.

“The school had been mothballed since the 1980s, and it looked exactly the same as the one where I began teaching – it smelt the same, too,” explained Professor Lee, now deputy dean for education at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), who was invited to advise during filming. “Everything was familiar, but I also had that same feeling of apprehension as I did back then – always checking myself so I didn’t give anything away, that I had to leave part of life at the school gates.

“There was also a searing regret that I wasn’t braver or that I didn’t do more for others, even though I couldn’t come out or be a role model for LGBTQ+ young people as teachers are today,” said Professor Lee, who, as professor of inclusive education at Anglia Ruskin has written widely about the harmful effects of Section 28, which in effect banned the discussion of same-sex relationships, on the careers and mental health of LGBTQ+ teachers.

Her scholarly reflections on this subject were spotted by a production team who, in subsequent conversations on the film, noted the uncanny similarities between Professor Lee’s life and their protagonist’s, also a lesbian PE teacher. “It was a complete coincidence, but my master’s thesis had described working as a physical education teacher in a northern school, so I sent it to the producers,” she explained.

Professor Lee also shared several diary entries from the time, some of which were adapted for use in Blue Jean, which won the People’s Choice Award at the Venice Film Festival in September and had its UK premiere last month. “One was about a night out to a gay bar in Liverpool with my girlfriend, where I saw someone from the school netball team. I thought my career would be over by Monday morning, but that girl never told a soul and nothing happened,” she recalled.

Professor Lee, who features briefly on screen, playing a PE teacher from another school, also spoke extensively to the film’s lead actor, rising British star Rosy McEwen.

“I talked to her at length about how I tried to remain as invisible as possible at school. I never spoke about my home life, I avoided socialising with the rest of the staff and always hesitated before speaking in case I might say accidentally something at school that hinted at my sexuality,” Professor Lee said.

“Rosy captured everything we had talked about perfectly in her depiction of Jean. I was in awe of the way in which she subtly conveyed the inner conflict I had described and was really moved to see Jean struggle like I had, constantly worrying someone at school might find out she was gay.”

Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which banned teachers from “promoting” homosexuality as a “pretended family relationship”, was repealed in Scotland in 2000, and then in England and Wales in 2003. It is now widely seen as a flawed and prejudiced piece of legislation by all British political parties. In 2009, the Conservative leader David Cameron told a Gay Pride event that the law was “offensive to gay people” and regretted his opposition to its repeal in 2003.

Nonetheless, Professor Lee said, the film covers an important story that has yet to be told. “It will resonate with anyone who was a lesbian teacher in that period, but the bigger impact will be with those LGBT people who never had anyone at school to ask about these things, never had an LGBT role model or saw anyone in the curricula who was gay while they were struggling during a difficult time in their adolescence,” she explained.

It will also address the absence of lesbians within screen depictions of this era, she added. “The narratives of the late ’80s and early ’90s tend to focus on gay men and the Aids epidemic – which are important stories – but lesbians from this time also need their story told,” said Professor Lee, whose own book on Section 28, Pretended, which combines academic analysis with her own experiences, is being published this autumn.

“There were lesbians and gay teachers who were forced to be invisible in schools – there hasn’t been a mainstream film about these quiet people who just wanted to do a good job and live their lives,” she said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

Section 28 concerned lesbians and gay men - not the fabricated 'LGBTQ+ community'. I know this because I too was of the generation who lived through that period as a gay adult. We have memories too and are able to see when something from that period is being presented ahistorically. So, it's unfortunate to see someone like Prof. Catherine Lee who lived, suffered and is admirably bringing her story as a lesbian to a national TV audience, attempt to rewrite lesbian and gay history by using the very recent, and ever expanding, formulation 'LGBTQ+'. The historical fact remains that Section 28, to repeat, specifically targeted lesbians, gay men and bisexual people in same-sex relationships not the recent formulation of 'TQ+' whose interests are quite distinct and often opposed to those of gay men and lesbians. I reject the assumption that, as a gay man, I am part of this alphabet soup. I particularly object to the 'Q' part, denoting 'queer', a hateful slur largely used by heterosexuals in search of the frisson of gay-adjacency. How dare they use this term? 'Queer' is the equivalent of the 'N word' to many gay men in particular. My clearest recollection of it was when it was hurled at me by the three men who attempted to beat and kick me to death in a violent homophobic assault in the mid 90s. I appeal to Prof. Lee and to the THE, when using 'LGBTQ+' to denote lesbian and gay people to at least caveat it by acknowledging that it rejected by many of us just as 'BAME' has been by many in the diverse non-white populations in this country also concerned that their specific experiences and histories are being subsumed under an ideologically driven umbrella masquerading as settled truth.
Espedair's comment just goes to demonstrate how worthless the incessant classifying of individual human beings by one particular characteristic that they don't have any control over actually is. We should, perhaps, concentrate on treating everybody fairly and kindly whoever they might happen to be.

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