The Kids Don't Stand A Chance
LGBT sex and relationship education in schools has been in the spotlight during the past few weeks. Protests from religious groups, coat-tail riding from US right wingers, and questionable reactions from elected officials have made for a conversation that centres everyone except for the most important people involved - the children.
The current debate was sparked by the news that a same sex education programme called No Outsiders has been suspended by schools in Birmingham under pressure from parents groups. The programme is run as part of sex and relationship education (SRE) lessons and was introduced around four years ago. It is aimed at tackling homophobia, also tackling other other issues such as racism, and is not intended to be a comprehensive breakdown of the complexities of being gay in 21st century Britain. It isn’t a biology lesson on gay sex, rather a simple inclusion programme designed to promote the ideals of the 2010 Equality Act. It features books such as And Tango Makes Three, titles that were written specifically for children, and the programme’s content caters to the young age of the pupils while avoiding anything hard-hitting.
In 2016, when No Outsiders first gained attention, The Guardian’s Liz Lightfoot interviewed some of the young pupils who had taken the classes with Andrew Moffat, the teacher who had put the programme together. One child said her parents “respect what the school is doing and it is good but we must remember our Muslim faith”, acknowledging that, while there may be a clash of views, the programme was ultimately a good thing. The piece concluded by saying that there had been no complaints about the programme at the time.
Yet 16 years after the repeal of Section 28, a Thatcher era amendment which banned schools from teaching “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”, the programme has faced indefinite suspension in a number of schools over complaints from parents and religious groups. A spokesperson for the parents group who lead the protests in Birmingham claimed that it “discriminates against the beliefs of Muslim children, parents, family values and undermines parental rights”.
While the group denies being homophobic, demanding the suspension of a programme for “promoting LGBT ways of life” definitely looks a lot like homophobia, employing the same rationale behind Section 28, a suggestion that promoting gay relationships would persuade others to choose to be gay themselves. For anyone who attended a faith school, the argument is instantly recognisable. However, these are not beliefs that children cultivate themselves. They’re beliefs that are transferred unto them by their parents and their community, and they’re indicative of the gulf that exists still between religion and secular society.
Conservative politician Andrea Leadsom claimed that it should be up to parents to decide when their children “get exposed to that information”, but it’s fair to say that in 2019, most children are already aware that same sex relationships (and attraction) exist. They’ve already been “exposed”.
Throwing around the word gay on the playground has been a longtime hobby of many a schoolkid, and using slurs usually quickly follows suit. Children are aware of the word gay, what it means, and what connotations it can have when used negatively. Children have likely also seen gay characters on their screens; popular video games like Overwatch feature gay characters, books like Love, Simon have been best-sellers and adapted into major motion pictures, and children’s TV giants like the Disney Channel have made history with their first openly gay character.
Regardless of whether LGBT issues are on a school’s curriculum, children are already learning about them from popular culture and their peers, albeit in a dramaticised way. These stories, as written for the screen, are far removed from their own reality and often far more glossy. This is not inherently bad, and today’s representation is increasingly positive, but it can only do so much. Young people who take to the internet to learn about sexuality will also have a hard time finding any realistic and meaningful representation.
Educational content is available, but it’s not the easiest content to access. The 7th result when “lesbian” is searched for on Google is a lesbian porn Twitter account. Similarly, when formerly popular blogging platform Tumblr announced the removal of adult content in order to make it safer for young users, the #gay and #lesbian tags were immediately flagged as NSFW due to the large amount of users and bots posting pornographic and explicit content. This sends a message to young gay or questioning people that is not entirely dissimilar to the one spouted by Leadsom - that LGBT relationships and lives are inherently adult, explicitly sexual, and something to be hidden from children.
This is why programmes like No Outsiders are important; not only do they not “expose” children to anything remotely harmful, they can actually prevent young people from exposing themselves to overwhelmingly negative or adult content. They provide young people with a better understanding of the discrimination that young LGBT people, people of colour, and disabled people face, and how they can be better friends and allies. This sentiment was shared back in 2016 by parents of children who took part in the No Outsiders programme, with one interviewee stating that “if they don’t learn about gay, lesbian and transgender people in society from school, they will learn it from the outside world and they could hear [that it’s disgusting], I don’t want that”. It’s unfortunate that there seems to have been a regression amongst some parents, but even more unfortunate that young children are being used as scapegoats by these parents.
In Northern Ireland, there is no comprehensive LGBT education plan for schools, however organisations like Cara-Friend have piloted an LGBTQ+ inclusive schools programme in a number of different schools throughout the country. In spite of this, over two thirds of LGBT young people in Northern Irish schools said that they felt unwelcome.
In 2013, I was studying for my A Levels at Dominican College, a Catholic school in Belfast with an appropriately strict ethos. It was strange to me at the time that my English teacher had chosen two texts with gay themes, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and The History Boys, for a significantly large portion of our coursework. It was even stranger to me still that this choice was made knowing that the school’s computer network blocked any relevant reading and study material, flagging it as “Gay and Lesbian Interest”.
I had done my own personal research some years prior. I’d taken the “Am I gay?” quizzes on random websites, I’d looked up the Kinsey Scale, and eventually made space for myself to learn about my feelings. In a school where even heterosexual sex education was off the table thanks to Catholicism’s emphasis on abstinence, I didn’t have high expectations of how these texts would be handled by my teacher and my peers. Those English classes served as a reminder to me, largely in the closet but slowly peeking out, that my relationships and my sexuality existed in this space as something for debate, to critique and analyse, but not acknowledge as meaningful or real. With the education sector firmly in the grip of churches, it’s unlikely that there will be an overnight shift in the way our own schools deal with issues around homophobia.
While the debate rages on amongst educators, religious groups, and parents, young gay or questioning people are faced with the reality of having to teach themselves about the realities of their sexuality in the face of a system that is willing to accommodate outdated beliefs rather than stand up to them. Young people know that same sex attraction exists, and there are young people who experience it. They shouldn’t have to navigate it alone, without support, and in spaces that aren’t for them. Now that members of parliament are dismissing lessons on LGBT issues as being about parental choice, and with protests spreading beyond Birmingham into other areas of greater Manchester, the kids won’t stand a chance on their own.