For the UK’s LGBT+ educators, these past few weeks have felt like going back in time. But equality is not up for debate, says Matt Hood
When I started primary school in 1990 ‘section 28’ as it was known, prevented teachers from ‘promoting homosexuality’ or the ‘acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. By the time I left school in 2004 section 28 had just been repealed, I was out, yet still the name under my yearbook photo, approved by the school, read ‘faggy b**ch’.
We’d made more progress when I started teaching in 2007. I didn’t have the courage to come out to people but some inspiring teachers, and some even more inspiring young people, did. Fellow LGBT+ educators and I were in awe of these brave folks. By the time I left my last teaching post in 2016, not only did my pupils know that I was gay but they knew about the partner I’m now marrying this summer and, to my joy, they were interested for all of five minutes. We went from being illegal to ‘no big deal’ in a generation.
For the UK’s LGBT+ community (and its LGBT+ educators in particular) this past few weeks has been unsettling. It’s felt like we’re going back in time, right back to section 28. This was most evident when last week BBC Question Time asked, ‘Is it morally right for five-year-old children to learn about LGBT issues in school?’
Like any minority group, the LGBT+ community is always vigilant. When you’ve battled for decades for your rights, it’s hard to break the habit. With concerned parents on the streets outside primary schools, whipped up by a small number of section 28 advocates, the messages are sent around and the organising begins. We dust ourselves down, climb up the shoulders of the giants who fought for equality last time and prepare to fight for it all over again.
So here goes.
I need to use my best teacher voice for this first point, so the folks at the back can hear. Stop conflating loving relationships with sex. The obsession that some people seem to have with what goes on in the bedrooms of same-sex couples is frankly bizarre. It’s also a straw man. Nobody, in any school, anywhere, is talking to five-year-olds about sex – gay or otherwise. They are talking about loving relationships – that some classmates have two mums, some two dads, some one of each and some a wonderful smorgasbord of other combinations.
Everyone is welcome, no matter what their differences
Secondly, teaching children about the wonderful differences all around them – that no family is better than any other – develops a tolerance that goes beyond LGBT+ relationships. Tolerance of different sexualities encourages tolerance of races, religions, genders, classes, disabilities and any other characteristics, protected or otherwise, that you’d care to mention. Parkfield Primary’s ‘No Outsider’ lessons at the heart of this debate sought to teach children that everyone is welcome, no matter what their differences.
With violent attacks on people in our mosques, synagogues and churches, racism and anti-Semitism in our communities, and the far right on the streets across the world, we could do with a bit more of that right now.
Finally, let’s be clear that this not about ‘morality’; it’s about the law. The law in this land is that everyone is treated equally. It’s a law that minority groups, including the LGBT+ community, fought hard for and one that we should all dearly cherish. Contrast it with the law that changed this week in Brunei – the LGBT+ community there now face death by stoning for being who they are. Framing lessons about LGBT+ issues as belonging in a ‘moral’ grey area simply dog-whistles to this small minority of section 28 advocates and attempts to create a murky haze around a simple principle – we’re all equal and that’s not up for debate.
With that clear, let’s come back to the BBC’s question. When we knock the ‘they are teaching children about gay sex’ straw man down and silence the ‘morality’ dog whistle, what we’re left with is the simple, more pertinent question: ‘Is it right for five-year-olds to learn about all kinds of loving relationships in school?’ The answer is straightforward – of course it is.
And so teachers and school leaders will continue to do just that. Ensuring every child, regardless of their background, feels like an insider and not an outsider. We must go further too. Setting the example in our places of work by supporting educators from all backgrounds to join this great profession and develop in their roles in order to fill the leadership pipeline for our schools in the coming years.
What’s great is that the vast majority of the 457,000 educators in our schools are with us. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman and education secretary Damian Hinds are with us. The 538 MPs who voted to support the changes to sex and relationships education are with us. And the millions of pupils in our schools are with us. It’s they who give me the most hope as they look on at those who want to take us backwards, roll their eyes, and simply reply, ‘some people are gay, get over it’.