The arguments over section 28 are anything but abstract for gay teenagers. Already unsure how to deal with their emerging sexuality, they face abuse and often violence from their peers. Even worse, reports Wendy Wallace, many of their teachers lack either the skills or the courage to deal with homophobic bullying.
The rain drumming on the roof of the lesbian and gay community centre in Manchester has not deterred 25 young people from turning up to a support group on a dark Tuesday night. Aged mainly under 20, some with pierced lips and ears and smelling of cologne, young gay men are streaming into the meeting room for a session led by youth leader Sally Carr.
It's a lively evening in which the topic - love - is explored through poems by Auden, Wordsworth and T S Eliot. Young gay men outnumber young lesbians by about five to one. There is an atmosphere of comradeship and good-humoured teasing as they take it in turns to read verses from Auden's "Tell Me the Truth about Love" (and stifle their giggles over "when it comes will it come without warning?") "We keep things upbeat," says Sally Carr, "in contrast with what a lot of them are going through in the rest of their week." The atmosphere in this purpose-built centre, established 13 years ago by the city council, is certainly welcoming. A furled Pride banner stands in the corner of the room, rainbow-coloured and covered with red Aids ribbons. A poster on the notice board encourages people to "beware biphobia in the village". (The nearby Canal Street "village" has become well known as a gay meeting place, and is the setting for Channel 4's Queer as Folk.) People refer without embarrassment to same-sex partners.
Although everyone here seems confident, not all are "out" in other areas of their lives. One young man has received a Valentine's card from a woman. An Asian man arrives like a shadow, bearing biscuits, and departs equally inconspicuously an hour later.
Outside this yellow brick building, homophobic bullying remains a reality for many members of this group. A 15-year-old schoolboy with steady eyes and spiky hair says he has been an outsider throughout his school career. "From a young age - about five or six - I've always liked men," he says. "And I've always had bullying at school - people calling me queer and poof and all the other names. As I got into secondary school, people have been saying it and meaning it, being really hurtful."
He is out to his family and a couple of his close friends at the mixed comprehensive he attends in the south of the city. "My friends have been really supportive," he says. "One of them works in a florist at weekends and her boss is gay, so she understands about it. And my mum's always been understanding." But when word went round the school that he was gay, other pupils began to punch him and try to trip him up in the corridors. He says he feels sorry for his aggressive peers. "They don't know anything about it. They don't know that being gay is okay because nobody has taught them that."
He was encouraged to come out after seeing a young man in a similar situation on television. In the absence of confident discussion of lesbian and gay issues within schools, television has become a major source of information for teenagers. The Government's recent attempt - blocked by the Lords - to abolish section 28 has highlighted once again the confusion and evasion still going on in schools. "When I tell teachers what people are calling me, they just pass the buck. PSE teachers have a very open mind, but the others don't like to look at homosexuality or think about it."
Many are afraid to. Although teachers are not legally forbidden to talk about gay sexuality or intervene to prevent homophobic bullying, the fear that is the legacy of section 28 - which forbids local authorities from "promoting homosexuality" - lives on, with teachers uncertain of their rights and responsibilities. The effect can be a deafening silence on lesbian and gay issues in schools. "Schools are very, very nervous," says Angela Mason, executive director of the lesbian and gay group, Stonewall. "The issues are cropping up all the time and many teachers would like to take it on, but it's a taboo area."
In a study of urban comprehensives published in 1998 by the Institute of Education, almost two out of three teachers questioned were aware of gay pupils in their school, and almost one in two had been asked by pupils for advice on "LGB" (lesbian, gay and bisexual - the preferred terminology in gay circles) issues. Such is the level of misinformation and confusion that one pupil approaching a teacher for help was told it was illegal to be gay until you're 18.
"Gay" is used as a general term of abuse in primary schools, where, as one 10-year-old explains: "It doesn't mean someone's gay. It just means, like, limp." At puberty, "gay" is still used as a general term of abuse but is also specifically targeted at non-macho pupils, says Dr Debbie Epstein of the Institute of Education. "The groups most likely to be on the receiving end of homophobic bullying are the gentle, studious boys who are not good at sport, whether or not they are gay." Boys use accusations of homosexuality to bolster their own emerging heterosexuality, and disown their own tender side.
"I found teachers either not noticing it, or noticing and not knowing how to tackle it," says Dr Epstein. "Sometimes they would be well-meaning but say, 'Oh, don't call him gay, that's horrible'. There were few who would say, 'What's your problem with being gay?'."
Dr Epstein and others researching this area believe many gay pupils give up on school or over-compensate. "They tend to drop out or sink themselves in their work and excel," she says. "If they're seen as swots, they're not forced to take part in the dating game."
For many gay teenagers, isolation is a bigger problem than bullying, as gay and bisexual young people work hard to hide their emerging sexual identities. The loneliness can be acute, particularly in rural areas. Dr Michael Halls is chair of the Intercom Trust, a gay and bisexual support network in Exeter, which is launching the Joint Action Against Homophobic Bullying initiative.
"Victims of homophobic bullying are far more reluctant to blow the whistle than others because there is usually someone important to them - a teacher, a friend, a parent - who they dare not come out to. That's scarier than the bullying, so they don't report it," he says. "What comes through again and again when young people telephone is that they're lonely. They say, 'As far as I know, I'm the only gay person in the whole of north Devon. Where can I go to meet other young people like me?'."
The answer, sadly, is almost nowhere, says Dr Halls, unless they can reach Plymouth, which does have a support group for young people.
The Government will try again later this spring to get rid of section 28, combining its abolition with the introduction of new guidance on sex and relationship education. Education Secretary David Blunkett has indicated this will be more relevant than the blunt instrument which was section 28. Teachers will be "teaching pupils to understand human sexuality and to respect themselves and others", he says, while restating a commitment to teaching "the importance of marriage in bringing up children".
Angela Mason of Stonewall is optimistic. "We need to put the past behind us and start out on a new and better road which is fair to everyone," she says. "What presumably you're trying to encourage in young people is the ability to have long-term, committed relationships and see the value of those relationships. That applies equally to lesbian and gay young people, for whom a lack of good role models is an issue."
Sue Sanders, an equal opportunities trainer and member of the Southwark Anti-Homophobic Forum, believes lesbian, gay and bisexual issues need to be tackled as racism is - not just through outlawing overt hatred but by actively developing inclusive education. "Everything else has moved on - the media, books, films," she says. "But schools have stayed still. We are letting down our young people. We need a whole-school approach, including not just anti-bullying measures but positive images of lesbians and gays, with their lifestyle and achievements acknowledged. I read Virginia Woolf in the sixth form, but nobody at any point told me she was bisexual. That would have turned my life around."
For information on Joint Action Against Homophobic Bullying, contact: The Intercom Trust, POBox 285, Exeter, Devon EX1 2Y2. Tel: 01392 201018
* Lizzie's story
Lizzie Morris (right), now studying A-level English, biology and sociology at a Nottingham sixth-form college, says there was "no way" she could come out at her comprehensive school. "I began to wonder if I might be gay at about age 12, and by the summer of Year 10, when I was 15, I was really thinking I was. But I was so worried about what it meant and would I be able to have children and things like that. I didn't tell anybody else; I didn't really even tell myself. I had these feelings but I didn't want to think about them.
"One pupil in our school came out as bisexual and it was completely understood that no one would have any more to do with him. One person tried to beat him up. I thought, 'I'll keep quiet then'.
"A couple of people suspected and I was always very nervous in case people found out, so for my own safety I joined in, picking fights with him and stuff. It was very confusing. I remember watching EastEnders, and they had quite a positive gay character but there was so much hatred at school, with people talking about queens and faggots. I remember a teacher sort of rolling his eyes but not doing anything; the attitude was that this is what children are like. But those children left school still holding the same views.
"Racism was discussed all the time and if teachers knew anything about it you'd be called in to the head. But comments like 'don't be so gay' went unchallenged. It made me feel what I was was bad. School is where you spend years and years of your life and it felt like a prison sentence."
* Andrew's story
Andrew Finn (left), now 17, left his south London comprehensive last summer after GCSEs. He came out at school when he was 16. "The rumour was going round the school not only that I was gay but that I was going out with someone in my year group, which wasn't true. One day I just stood up in my class and said: 'The fact is that I am gay. But I'm not going out with X.' Everyone gasped. Then I got handshakes. I gained a lot of respect in my year group, but I got comments from Year 10, calling me queer and batty man.
"Until then, I had always felt I was keeping a secret and couldn't really be myself. But since I was 10 I knew I fancied people of the same sex. It was confusing, because no one ever talked about it and the words batty man and queer boy have been around since primary school. I didn't match myself with the word 'gay'.
"I went through a really bad phase of depression when I was 14 and 15, when I kept bursting into tears at school and rushing out of class. I hated school because I could never express myself. You're putting on an act every day of your life. I think some of my friends knew anyway. I wasn't running around in a dress listening to 'YMCA', but we'd be walking down the road and they'd be going, 'Oh look at her, she's really fit. What do you think Andrew?' And I'd just say, 'Shall we go to lunch?' "I became a lot closer to people when I did come out. What gave me the confidence to do it was that at home I had the Internet. I started going to gay chatrooms - it was the first time I had chatted to gay people. On the net, because you're not face to face, you can almost say anything you want. One person, a man of 42, asked if I wanted to meet up. We became good friends, just friends - he didn't take advantage of me. He introduced me to people and showed me gay newspapers and pictures of the gay scene, and I started going out to clubs. Before, I never went out.
"I told my sister first. I just said, 'I'm gay' and she said, 'I've always known that'. My mum had taken the dog out for a walk so I ran after her and said, 'You know I'm gay?' She said she'd still love me the same.
"After I came out at school, I volunteered to do PSHE sessions, basically on myself, because nothing was ever said about homosexuality. I went to about four classes and at first people were asking stupid questions like, 'Do you fancy anyone in your class?' Then it would be, 'Why did you come out?', 'Have your friends changed towards you?'. PSHE should include homosexuality, not so much on the sex but on relationships and the way other people react to it.
"My personality has changed a lot since I came out. The way I dress, the way I act. I'm a lot more self-confident. It's like in Queer as Folk; one boy's mother says, 'If you're young and gay and you don't come out, you explode'."