Opinion: Religious freedom can’t mean queer invisibility
I was about six when I learnt what gay meant. I was chatting animatedly with some friends on a playground bench, when another boy ran up and excitedly asked the question:
‘Are you gay?’
Everyone went silent, as I considered my response. There was something about his look that suggested a trick question. But, having read Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five, I recalled that ‘gay’ meant happy in their idyllic 1950’s netherworld.
‘Yes,’ I replied.
The moment I saw the boy’s eyes light up I regretted my answer. The crowd of children around me, delighted I’d been their canary, were similarly on edge to learn what I’d just admitted.
‘You like men!’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Like kissing them and stuff!’
The kids burst into hysterical laughter. I blushed with shame, and stared at the boy in shock. I couldn’t believe such a thing existed. Every narrative I’d experienced until that age, from fairytales at bedtime to the gospels in mass, taught solely that man belonged with woman. Films on TV showed that inalienable truth, pop songs on the radio celebrated it like joyous hymns to heterosexuality. I’d certainly never heard anything different in my rural Catholic primary school.
When I went home that evening and confusedly asked my Irish father, overwhelming oracle of my young world, to confirm that gay people existed, he sighed, and told me, beer on his breath, solemnly that they did indeed, but to be gay was a very bad thing. They would never go to Heaven (I doubt he was au fait with the Charing Cross super club). I nodded and accepted this viewpoint: it made sense in my early-90’s North Somerset world where nobody was gay. The concept was the work of the devil, who tempted Jesus in the wilderness.
None of this – my lack of exposure to the existence of gay, the condemnation of my father, nor my own loyally inherited dislike of gay people – stopped me becoming gay, myself. When puberty hit, my sexual thoughts about men rose with a vengeance. The code was already written into my genes. What it did ensure, in my secondary school that still laboured under Section 28, was that I felt incomparably lonely. I spent my teenage years terrified I’d be disowned if anybody found out.
My experience shows Section 28 never worked. At six, I already knew what gay meant: the playground is far more advanced than the curriculum, it always has been. But because the state, and my faith, sanctified homophobia through the cowardly accomplice of silence, my classmates learnt gay to be a bad thing – enshrined into their slang by adolescence – and I was conditioned to hate myself. What an education. It’s taken years of work to overcome my internalised homophobia.
When LGBTQ people hide their true selves in the shadows, throughout their most formative years, the psychological damage can be real. Matthew Todd writes eloquently about this subject in his book Straight Jacket. I myself suffered from a rocky relationship with alcohol for much of my twenties, and it’s the reason I write often about issues disproportionately affecting the gay community, like chemsex, susceptibility to HIV risk, and struggles with emotional intimacy.
These issues do not pop up fully formed in some gay wilderness vacuum; they are symptomatic of a scarred community’s mental health, scarred from growing up in a society that made them invisible.
This can’t happen again. The situation of the Birmingham schools targeted by faith protesters is shocking. The ‘No Outsiders’ lessons used a book featuring two mothers and a child to teach pupils, in a non-sexual sense, that gay people exist and some children have same-sex parents. My LGBTQ friends who have recently had children would be delighted at such progressive policies. They teach our next generation to be tolerant, to embrace difference and celebrate diversity. Good qualities.
I ask you to sign the Humanists UK petition to support tolerance over homophobic hate in our schools. I say ‘our’ to include all citizens, gay or straight, Muslim or non-Muslim. It would be counter-productive to allow this debate to descend into gratuitous Islamophobia. I’d hope the Muslim Council of Britain can light the way for respecting tolerance on LGBTQ issues. The phrase ‘incompatible with Islam’ is fallacious for, as with any religion, there are gay members of Islam.
Scott Siraj Al-Haqq writes in his book Homosexuality in Islam how the homophobia supposedly codified in Islamic tradition is arguable, and modern leaders could pave the path for acceptance. There are LGBTQ Muslim groups all over the world. Eradicating the homophobic Muslim stereotype would remove a rhetorical weapon that far-right groups use against Islamic cultural integration. Religious freedom can not mean writing LGBTQ existence out of the curriculum.
Lastly, there are parallels here with Section 28. It began with the children’s book Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin, describing a child living with two dads. These books don’t exist to make children gay: they’re there to instil empathy that could, in twenty years’ time, produce a UK society that is a world leader in terms of courage, generosity and honour. Something to look forward to considering the haphazard chaos in which we currently labour. Don’t be silent. Stand up. Be counted for good.