Eleven years after the repeal of the infamous Section 28, Fiona Sullivan asks why there isn’t a greater focus on LGBT issues in children’s sex education and why some politicians have been dragging their feet.
In 1988, the Local Government Act famously introduced Section 28, an amendment stating that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”
The legacy of Thatcherism survived under Section 28, and whilst it was rarely used to prosecute individuals, it created a climate of insidious homophobia that prevented teachers from intervening in homophobic bullying, at a time when it was terrifying and alienating to be gay. Arguably, it is the longevity of Section 28, that despite its eventual repeal in 2004, compulsory LGBT sex education continues to be avoided.
For many years it has been Labour governments that have taken necessary strides in the battle for British equality. Social justice is an aim lying at the heart of the Labour party. From the campaign for women’s suffrage resulting in the Equal Pay Act of 1970, to the abolition of Section 28 in 2004 and the equalising of the age of consent in 2001, the Labour party has valiantly demonstrated its desire to sweep away decades of legislation, based on the prejudice and persecution of minorities.
With David Cameron having voted against the repeal of Section 28 in 2003, perhaps the lack of LGBT reforms under the Tory party can be attributed to the Prime Minister himself. In a rather awkward 2010 interview with Gay Times Magazine, when pressed about the anti-gay propaganda laws in Lithuania and his allowance of the Tory party to abstain from the European Parliament vote, Cameron responded with “I’ve tried to have free votes where possible on these sorts of issues.” Sarah Ludford, Liberal Democrat European Justice & Human Rights Spokeswoman, spoke out against the abstention, saying that she was “appalled that Conservative MEPs refused to vote against this vindictive law”.
It could be argued that Cameron’s actions stress the importance of free votes for the maintenance of a functioning democratic society. To what extent can the Conservative Party be called neutral on the subject of gay rights when it was responsible for establishing marriage equality? Cameron was most definitely criticised by traditional Tories for his passing of the Marriage Act in 2013, with just over half (128 against the 117 who voted in favour) of Tory MPs voting against the act, yet he still went through with it.
There is still a lot of work to be done in Britain in order to culturally alter the population’s perception of LGBT individuals. Legislation is frankly not enough to ensure equality; the battle for social justice is a difficult one that must aim to change the hearts and minds of those who live ignorant of the effects of their bigotry. This slow process must be undertaken by equipping the younger generation with the education necessary to combat prejudice. Their views, usually unformed and subject to influence, have the power to shape the future.
Tristam Hunt, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, has prioritised the tackling of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools as an important aim for the possible future Labour government. Homophobic bullying continues to be widespread, with over half (55%) of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people having been subjected to direct bullying. Homophobic language is endemic; 99% of young people report hearing the phrase “you’re so gay” and 96% account hearing words such as “poof” and “lezza”. Subjection to this intolerant environment is unbelievably demoralising. Two in five (41%) LGBT young people have attempted or thought about taking their own life and the same number say that they deliberately self-harm directly because of bullying.
Key to tackling the bullying is the introduction of LGBT inclusive sex and relationships education (SRE). Heteronormativity in SRE, the assumption that all students are heterosexual and the portrayal of sex as merely reproductive is alienating, and reinforces the notion that heterosexual is the default, with any other sexual identity being abnormal. Many gay young people turn to pornography as their only source of information, leaving them grossly misinformed about issues such as consent and safe sex.
Mike Freer, an openly gay Tory MP for Finchley and Golders Green, spoke out about his experience as a gay man in the Conservative Party, saying he “would be sat having breakfast with colleagues who would be openly critical of the legislation about gay marriage, not realising that they had a gay MP sitting next to them.” Despite this, Freer maintains the position that the perceived homophobia in the party is a “common fallacy.” Freer remarks that the main obstacle in the way of mainstream LGBT education is making it compulsory in ALL schools, particularly faith schools, which is extremely hard to achieve.
Objections from faith schools claiming that LGBT-inclusive education does not comply with particular ethoses emphatically must not be accepted. This attitude complies with the archaic and marginalising Section 28 and is unequivocally ignorant. Homophobia is not simply an opinion; it is an oppressive ideology and system of disadvantage waged against homosexual people. Ignorance cannot be protected by religious belief. I have experienced the stringent intolerance of a faith school, and after lots of protest from myself and other students, the equal opportunities statement has only just been amended to include a clause relating to sexual orientation and gender identity. That being said, I was still asked to remove a “proud to be LGBT” sticker from my homework planner as it “infringed upon the Catholic ethos of the school”. This is sickeningly reminiscent of Section 28 and proves that its dark shadow has yet to be fully cleared from the education system.
I do think the reluctance of faith schools to talk about LGBT issues is a direct result of religious doctrine, and the fear that by widening SRE, religious principles are not being followed. I know that the Westminster Diocese has a large influence in the running of Catholic schools across the country, and annual inspections are carried out. These inspections assess things such as the extent to which “pupils experience the richness of a Catholic way of living and believing through all areas of school life”. It begs the question, would LGBT-inclusive SRE impact the ability of a school to achieve a good report. The hands of faith schools, which are required to follow the religious doctrine they represent, are often tied. Government legislation is needed to overcome the rigorous hold of religious doctrine related to LGBT issues that prevents school children from receiving an equal education experience.
Every child deserves a learning environment in which they are accepted and encouraged to question and come to terms with their gender and sexuality, free of judgement. I sincerely hope that parents, guardians and any citizen that cares about the lives of British young people take this into account when they cast their vote on May 7.