Professor’s teaching experiences help inspire film

Published: 26 August 2022 at 14:00

Rosy McEwen, who plays the lead character Jean, and Professor Catherine Lee

Venice premiere for BBC and BFI-backed movie examining Section 28 legislation

The experiences of an Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) professor who taught in secondary schools during the years of the homophobic Section 28 legislation have helped inspire a BBC and BFI-backed film, called Blue Jean, which is being premiered at the Venice Film Festival next month.

Professor Catherine Lee was a PE teacher at a school in the north of England during the late 1980s, beginning her career around the time Section 28 legislation was introduced. The Act banned all teachers from talking about same-sex relationships in schools, and from being openly gay.

No teachers were ever prosecuted under Section 28, which was repealed in 2003, but research by Professor Lee has since shown that the legislation has had harmful effects on the careers and mental health of LGBTQ+ teachers.

Director Georgia Oakley and producer Hélène Sifre had searched for information on Section 28 and discovered Professor Lee’s research about the Act. They spoke at length about her experiences as a teacher and drew on her autobiographical writing from the Section 28 era. The subsequent production, Blue Jean, will premiere at the prestigious Venice Film Festival on Saturday, 3 September.

The film tells of the turmoil of the lead character, played by Rosy McEwen (The Alienist, Close to Me), a gym teacher forced to live a double life as a result of Section 28. As pressure mounts from all sides, the arrival of a new girl at school catalyses a crisis that will challenge Jean to her core.

Filming took place earlier this year in the north east of England with Professor Lee employed as an advisor on set. She also provided photos, books and magazines from the era to be used as props, was consulted about several scenes, and even features in front of the camera as an extra, playing a PE teacher from another school.

Professor Lee, Deputy Dean for the Faculty of Health, Education, Medicine and Social Care at ARU, said:

“2023 marks two decades since the repeal of Section 28 and so Blue Jean feels very timely.

“Rosy had taken incredible care to listen to my experiences and ask lots of questions about what it was like to be a gay teacher during Section 28. I had 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. Teaching is a demanding job at any time but all this self-censorship because of Section 28 made teaching even more exhausting.

“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.

“Revisiting the Section 28 era through the film was quite a profound experience. I felt regret that I wasn’t able to be myself as a teacher and sad that Section 28 meant that I was not able to be a role model for LGBTQ+ young people as teachers are today. 

“Watching the filming take place, I also wish that my PE teacher self of the 1980s could have known that Section 28 would eventually be repealed. I could not have imagined back then that 20 years later, schools would have Pride celebrations and LGBTQ+ teachers and students would be free to be themselves at school.”

Blue Jean is backed by BBC Film and the BFI (awarding National Lottery funding), in association with Great Point Media, with Film Constellation handling international sales and distribution. It will world premiere in the ‘Venice Days’ (Giornate Degli Autori) category at the Venice Film Festival, and Professor Lee will travel to Italy as part of the film’s delegation.

Professor Lee is also writing a book about her experiences of schools and Section 28, to be published in the autumn.

Transforming the career prospects of LGBTQ+ teachers

Prof Lee's research on challenges to career advancement has helped increase the number of LGBTQ+ teachers in school leadership roles in the UK.