Why do we need LGBTQ teachers to be visible in our schools?
When Margaret Thatcher announced the introduction of Section 28 in 1988, it sent shock-waves across the LGBTQ community.
Section 28 is a reference to a specific piece of legislation in the UK – the law was in force from 1988 until 2003. The name Section 28 is because the specific provisions that impacted LGBTQ people were found in Section 28 of the Local Government Act that was enacted by the UK Parliament in May 1988.
The Section 28 provisions of that legislation was, according to the former Prime Minister, designed to “protect” children from LGBTQ people.
The stated purpose of the legislation was to “prohibit the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities” – Local Authorities are Local Councils, who provide all the services at the local level in the UK.
One of the reasons that Section 28 was introduced was that it was a reaction to the publication of a book called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin – written by Susanne Bösche. The book tells the story of a family where the parents are a same-sex male couple, and it aimed to give children information about different types of family relationships.
At the time, the UK Prime Minister was Margaret Thatcher, who said: “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life.”
The impact of the law meant that there wasn’t able to be any discussion or acknowledgement of LGBTQ people or queer sexuality in schools across the UK. Queer kids were bullied and victimised, and teachers felt that they risked losing their jobs if they tried to address the issue or intervene to support LGBTQ kids.
Decades after the introduction of Section 28, it seems clear that there is a danger of history repeating as debate continues as to how LGBTQ people should be discussed in UK schools.
Inspired to become a teacher
When Claire Stewart-Hall attended school under the reign of Section 28, she describes a particularly hostile environment for LGBTQ students.
“It was totally forbidden to be associated with anything to do with LGBTQ people at my school, unless it was an insult,” she recalls.
Teachers were overtly homophobic, pushing conversations about LGBTQ people further under the carpet.
“People were very scared to talk about it in case people thought they were gay,” she says, “and it made students scared to discuss it.”
A turning point came for Claire when she met her Sixth Form English teacher, who was a lesbian and open with students about her sexuality.
“She taught me extracts from A Handmaid’s Tale in 1992,” explains Claire. “And when I began writing about the homoerotic overtones, she acknowledged that it was well spotted and was a good example of critical analysis.”
Claire remembers homophobic insults being flung across the classroom towards her teacher, but said they were never addressed.
That said, Claire recalls feeling inspired by her teacher, resulting in herself opting for a career in education.
“I remember feeling like I had a place,” she says of her English classes.
A positive role model for staff and students
Around the same time that Claire attended school, newly qualified teacher, Jason Todd, was embarking on his teaching career in London.
“It was here in Lewisham that I encountered Paul Patrick, Britain’s first teacher in the UK to come out to parents and pupils and retain their job,” he recalls.
Despite the constraints of the homophobic legislation at the time, Jason says that Paul “enabled new teachers like me to negotiate Section 28, which had the potential to silence the discussion of LGBTQ issues, stories and representations.”
Jason believes that having a teacher that was open about their sexuality enabled students in his school to also feel comfortable to discuss their own sexuality and gender identity.
The school ethos, argues Jason, also played an important part in allowing students and staff to feel comfortable opening up these conversations.
“This experience has had a profound effect on the way I approached my teaching then, and continues to influence my approach in educating new teachers today,” he says.
Should LGBTQ teachers be ‘out’ at school?
Teachers often share aspects of their lives outside of the school gates with students, believes Claire, however for an LGBTQ teacher this is often questioned.
“All this was impossible for me as a lesbian teacher,” she shares. “It was viewed as a political act rather than just factual reference to my family.”
In fact, Claire was warned by her first head teacher in 1998 that he could not “protect” her if she came out to colleagues or her students.
“Whilst lots of people are outraged by this, I felt it was realistic and a genuine way to protect me and be realistic about the institutional homophobia,” she says.
Jason agrees that a supportive school environment is key when a teacher decides to come out to their students.
He says that schools should be “working and campaigning to create the circumstances where people felt able to come out” rather than assuming all LGBTQ teachers feel comfortable to come out.
Both agree that a lot has changed since their earlier experiences in education, but the protests outside a primary school in Birmingham has brought back memories from the past.
“The protests in Birmingham indicate that this campaigning work is still necessary,” argues Jason.
“The attempts to shut down dialogue are redolent of the way that section 28 could serve to discourage people from talking,” he continues.
Claire thinks that “so many opportunities were missed” to have positive conversations about LGBTQ topics at school.
But says having these conversations can make such a difference to LGBTQ students: “It is a real privilege to support a young person to talk about their sexuality, especially in the context of Britain today.”
Where can LGBTQ teachers go for support?
Not all LGBTQ teachers are comfortable to discuss their sexuality or gender identity with their students or colleagues, without outside support.
Daniel Tomlinson-Gray is the co-founder of LGBTed, a collective of LGBTQ educators who seek to be “visible and authentic in school, for the benefit of LGBTQ students.”
“We know from our own experiences at school that we badly need visible role models; somebody to show us that they are different and they are OK with it,” says Daniel.
He believes that by having more open discussions about LGBTQ topics in the classroom, this can reduce the number of LGBTQ students who might be feeling isolated and alone.
“The more visible role models we can have in school, the more we can reduce the shocking amount of homophobic bullying children are subjected to, and the terrifying suicide rates of young trans people,” he explains.
What’s the deal with LGBTQ education in Birmingham?
It was back in January of 2019 that tensions began to rise at a number of primary schools in Birmingham. Parents were raising concerns that their children were being taught about the existence of LGBTQ people and about same-sex relationships.
What’s the LGBTQ issue?
No Outsiders, a program devised by Andrew Moffat at Parkfield Community School, uses a range of storybooks which show a number of diverse families, including those with same-sex parents. Under pressure from concerned parents – who mostly identify with the Muslim faith and community – a number of schools stopped teaching the No Outsiders program.
Protests by parents
Much of the focus has been on Anderton Park Primary School in Birmingham. Protesters set up a picket line outside the school and requested that parents withdraw their children from the school while lessons that included LGBTQ content continued. There were also clashes between parents and LGBTQ advocates.
What’s the UK government doing about it?
The UK government issued advice to local authorities on dealing with protests outside schools over LGBTQ-inclusive teaching.
The 21-page document lays out how councils should support teachers to minimise disruption.
The document suggests councils could consider enforcement action if pupils are withdrawn from school because parents do not agree with what is being taught.
It also suggests if demonstrations are happening outside school gates, head teachers should consider liaising with police in case protesters are breaking the law.
The Department of Education advised schools to consult with parents on their education programme, but added it was “right” that schools should reflect parents’ views. The advice is aimed at “encouraging parents to talk to their school about concerns, rather than protest at the school gates, and will also help authorities to consider options if protests do materialise”.
This seems to be a complete abdication of responsibility by the UK government. It places the onus on schools to navigate these discussions with concerned parents, and legitimises concerns being raised about school curriculum including information about the existence of LGBTQ people.
An inconsistent approach
According to the school curriculum in England, LGBTQ-related content falls within a subject called Sex and Relationship Education – often shortened to SRE.
The current guidance from the Department of Education – published in the year 2000 – contains the following information in relation to Sexual Identity and Sexual Orientation:
- It is up to schools to make sure that the needs of all pupils are met in their programmes. Young people, whatever their developing sexuality, need to feel that sex and relationship education is relevant to them and sensitive to their needs. The Secretary of State for Education and Employment is clear that teachers should be able to deal honestly and sensitively with sexual orientation, answer appropriate questions and offer support. There should be no direct promotion of sexual orientation.
- Sexual orientation and what is taught in schools is an area of concern for some parents. Schools that liaise closely with parents when developing their sex and relationship education policy and programme should be able to reassure parents of the content of the programme and the context in which it will be presented.
- Schools need to be able to deal with homophobic bullying. Guidance issued by the Department dealt with the unacceptability of and emotional distress and harm caused by bullying in whatever form – be it racial, as a result of a pupil’s appearance, related to sexual orientation or for any other reason.
This is useful guidance, but it’s clear that there’s a lot of discretion as to how LGBTQ content is navigated. In a progressive school, with the right teacher, an LGBTQ student could learn a lot about who they are and how they fit into the world, but it seems likely that this would be the exception not the rule.
An update to the relevant legislation in 2017 requires that the Department of Education make Sex and Relationship Education compulsory for all secondary schools – up until now, it’s been optional for all schools except those overseen by local authorities. The Department of Education has confirmed that this change will be implemented by September 2020. The Department of Education has confirmed that the subject should be relevant to all pupils, whatever their developing sexuality or identity.
Where that leaves us is that while the compulsory nature of Relationships and Sex Education will mean that more students will receive sex education, and in theory that sex education should be relevant to them, there’s really no certainty as to exactly what young LGBTQ people will be learning and there won’t be any consistency in the information that they’ll be receiving.
We probably need to assume that schools in the UK won’t be able to equip young LGBTQ people with the information that they need about PrEP, or U=U, or anal sex. We also probably need to assume that schools in the UK won’t be able to equip young LGBTQ people with the knowledge about the contribution that LGBTQ people make to the world, about the power of LGBTQ people, and how to embrace your LGBTQ identity.
As a community, we have a responsibility to step up and make sure that all of this information is available to young LGBTQ people – in an appropriate form and context. It takes a village to raise a child.
Opinion: Religious freedom can’t mean queer invisibility – by Patrick Cash
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.
What action can you take?
One queer advocate is taking direct action by giving schools an invaluable resource in how to proactively include LGBTQ people in the curriculum.
Olly Pike is donating his LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books to primary schools across the UK.
Pike’s latest book is Kenny Lives with Erica and Martina. The story is about a boy with two mums who convinces his protesting neighbours that being different is OK.
The title of Pike’s book is a deliberate echo of Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin by Susanne Bösche – a children’s book that was published in 1983. The negativity surrounding the story by Bösche contributed to the passing of Section 28 – a UK law that prohibited schools and teachers from discussing homosexuality or same-sex relationships. This damaging law wasn’t repealed until the year 2000 but the current debate is resurfacing all the fears of that era.
Pike is appealing for donors to help print and distribute 23,000 copies of his book – one for each primary school in the UK.
“I don’t think children are given enough credit for how smart and understanding they are…” said Pike. “They aren’t born prejudiced, and I always find that they are collectively appalled by injustice. Part of being a kid is learning to understand the different types of people in the world around them – and specifically, in modern Britain, this means
even though we are all different, we are all equal.”
One of the speakers at the book’s launch event described Pike as a wolf in unicorn clothing. It doesn’t particularly sound like a compliment, but it was intended as one. Pike may be small and softly spoken – he jokes that when he visits primary schools he’s sometimes mistaken for a pupil – but his determination and resilience is ferocious.
Pike is on a mission. Recent data indicates that almost half of LGBTQ pupils still face bullying at school, more than four in five have self harmed and more than two in five trans young people have tried to take their own life.
Books such as Kenny Lives with Erica and Martina can play a powerful role in creating a world that’s safe for queer kids.