Age-appropriate education regarding same-sex relationships is vital in a modern world. There is absolutely no disputing that. As a rational, forward thinking individual, I believe that teaching children that LGBTQ people exist is the best way to tackle homophobia and transphobia. “Age-appropriate” is the key word most people seem to forget here. They won’t teach five year olds the ins-and-outs of gay sex. They’re not going to teach kids about cruising and poppers. They will simply learn that some children have a mum and dad, some may have one or the other and some will have two mums or two dads. It’s simple steps like this that will help finally bring an end to prejudice.
Over the last few weeks a school in Birmingham has hit headlines after parents have taken around 600 children out of the school and led protests over a “No Outsiders” project, created by Assistant Head teacher, Andrew Moffat. The project had been created to teach children age-appropriate information about the wide spectrum of differences between people in society from race, religion, gender, sexuality and disability. Its sole-purpose is to create understanding and acceptance among young people.
However, despite the project’s positive influence, some strict Muslim parents are angry that their children are being taught about same-sex couples. This has sparked a huge row among the LGBTQ and Muslim communities. There have been awful comments flying around on both sides but we need to remember that as minority communities we are stronger if we stick together. We need to remember that these people are not necessarily the majority. There are actually a lot of forward-thinking Muslim people who are on our side. Below is just one of many examples:
THREAD: As a Muslim, I’ve been observing for a while now – with anger and embarrassment – the brewing scandal at that Birmingham school regarding their LGBT+ inclusivity teaching programme. This decision truly fills me with shame. 1/13https://t.co/m7o6wxRYes— Umaar Kazmi 🤝🌹🎗 (@UmaarKazmi) March 5, 2019
The main problem is that since the debate hit headlines, Labour MP, Shabana Mahmood has suggested that “LGBTQ lessons are not age appropriate” for primary schools and that “religious freedom” should be taken into account. The speech she gave felt like a step back in time to when the Conservative government introduced Section 28 in the late 80s.
It’s vital that schools follow the guidance for teaching #RSE, with parental engagement and proper consideration for pupils’ religion and background. Yesterday, I made this clear to Education ministers in response to a petition signed by 1,763 #Birmingham #Ladywood constituents. pic.twitter.com/M3Whe4SgDs— Shabana Mahmood (@ShabanaMahmood) February 26, 2019
I’ve written a lot about Section 28 lately. It has a lot to answer for and cast a long shadow over our community, but for anyone unfamiliar with what it meant, here’s a quick history lesson:
1988. It’s the height of the AIDS epidemic and the LGBTQ community are desperate for help. Thousands of men are dying in the most horrific ways – lots of them, barely even old enough to have lived at all. They are weak and in agony. The community is grieving, hurt and angry. In our community’s darkest hour, instead of giving support, people turn their backs.
HIV/AIDS struck fear into the heart of the public and Section 28 took full advantage of the homophobia and disgust towards LGBTQ people. This law played on public fears that children would be “turned gay” by simply knowing that LGBTQ people exist and that those children who were so corruptible would end up dead from this “gay cancer.”
Of course, gay rights groups had been making a lot of noise about it all, demanding that somebody do something. Education was needed to help prevent the spread of the disease but Margaret Thatcher saw things differently:
“Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay,”Margaret Thatcher on Section 28
Her government introduced Section 28 which prohibited LGBTQ subjects being even mentioned in schools and denied generations of children vital education that could have cut short the AIDS crisis. As a child I heard the word on the news all the time. I vaguely remember the sensationalist fear that surrounded it. AIDS = death (in reality Silence = Death) AIDS was a gay disease – not that I knew what “gay” was when I was that small.
Growing up Gay
I grew up in Scarborough – a sleepy, isolated and dying seaside resort in North Yorkshire; my family, working class. In Scarborough we’re sandwiched between sea and countryside. The nearest cities, York or Middlesbrough, are an hour away. Gay people were not seen, nor spoken about. Those who were visible were met with prejudice. I was lucky. I’d grown up with gay people all around me. There was the gay couple over the road who were close family friends (I don’t think I ever realised they were a couple) Mum’s best friend was gay and he was like a big brother to me. Her pet name for him was “poof,” and he was fine with that. Her best friend! Poof!
In mum’s defence, there had been a child in my class when I was five who suddenly came into class one day and asked to be known by a name of the opposite gender and started to wear clothes to match. When we asked our teacher who had been supportive of the child, they didn’t explain. Confused, I talked to mum about it and she simply said: “Some people are just born into the wrong bodies. A girl might be born a boy and a boy might be born a girl and they have to go through a lot to eventually become who they really are.”
Five year old me got it straight away and carried on with life, never judging my friend. Just one example how age-appropriate education is vital to a child’s understanding of just how people can be diverse.
Still, while I knew gay and trans people existed, I didn’t know or understand anything about what it really meant to be gay except for we were always the clown character in TV and films. We existed to be mocked. We were the punchline of jokes. We were meant to be camp and effeminate or we had to be seedy and over-sexual with everything we did and said…but I didn’t fit that stereotype. Was there something wrong with me?
At twelve or thirteen things start to make sense. I notice boys rather than girls. While girls tend to fade in a dull blur of black and white, I notice boys shining in glorious colour, golden auras around them and moving in slow motion. From being tiny, I always had an over-fascination with certain male characters in TV and games: Billy the Blue Power Ranger was the most memorable. Angel from Buffy (actually, Riley and Xander too – never Spike for some reason), Leon and Chris from Resident Evil. I worshipped Lara Croft but not in a sexualised way. I obsessed over Spiderman and the X-Men. I loved Cyclops but always wanted to be Storm in the playground at school. I had older guy friends at primary school who I was always very close to and idolised. Of course primary school me didn’t know what a crush was but when puberty hit, it all made sense.
For my thirteenth birthday a family friend gave me a copy of FHM and joked I was old enough to understand now. The woman posing suggestively on the front in that soaking wet, white bikini didn’t excite me like it was meant to. The thing that really got me excited was that picture of topless footballer, Freddie Ljungberg, in his underwear. I tore this page out and hid the rest of the gross, sexist, alienating “lads mag.” (Anyone remember them?) I spent hours, secretly admiring him instead of the women in their bikinis. Out of all those pages that should have appealed to me, this one, single page did.
To an inexperienced, adolescent, just discovering themselves it felt like the perfect metaphor for being gay and how inclusive the world would be for me. A hetero world would never understand me. This magazine, full of women that I didn’t care for, wasn’t for me. I just wanted that one man. That was it. Being gay meant a harder life. A life with less people who would understand me; less chance to meet people like me (because, especially in a small town, gay people are rare). I’d likely be alone forever. I might never know love – I’d never get married. Gay people couldn’t do that. (Civil Partnerships were still at least a year away)
Maybe I’m imagining it. Maybe it’s a phase. Maybe I’m just curious. I try to lie to myself and pretend that I am interested in the girls in the magazine. I’m not. But I pretend to be.
The Death of Section 28 (Or Not)
As I move into my teenage years, school is hard. Teachers are forbidden to mention anything “gay.” That is a filthy word just like the people it describes. I don’t know they’re forbidden to talk about it. I just think they don’t care. There’s a feeling of unease around the subject – that it’s taboo. Gay is used as an insult and hurled across classrooms at the straightest of boys who become inexplicably enraged by being accused of such things (clearly those stereotypes affect his thinking too)
It’s also a word thrown at the quiet kid who keeps their head down, trying to be invisible. The kid who attracts negative attention without trying to. The kid who is an outsider – who doesn’t quite fit in and grew his hair long so that he could hide behind it. That kid who is different but isn’t sure why. Me.
They call each other gay and laugh but the difference is that when they call me “gay” there’s venom in their tone – a deep-rooted hatred, a sneer on their lips and that dangerous gleam in their eyes like a predator about to attack. Sometimes they do.
I’m in Year 9 back in 2003 when Section 28 is abolished. I’m still thirteen. I still have a further two years of secondary education after the death of the vile legislation. I don’t know section 28 existed. It might as well have never ended.
I haven’t actually come out at this point. I pretend to have girlfriends when interrogated about my sexuality by the bullies who circle around, leaving me with no way to escape. I lie and say I’ve had sex with imaginary girls while on make-believe holidays to disguise the feelings I’m trying to hide from myself – even more so from them. They can never find out how I feel inside. Ever.
It’s two years later and I’m in Year 11 when I finally pluck up the courage to come out; first to a couple of girlfriends who support me – later to my best friend whom I have a crush on. Our friendship had surprised me. I was unpopular, hated even. All because I grew my hair long and was quiet and shy. He was popular and loved by everyone. We were complete opposites but we had loads in common and our friendship flourished. Eventually, I confided in him privately, convinced he was gay too. He promised to keep my secret. Next day I turned up to school and everybody knew.
First, the name calling got worse: Gay boy. Faggot. Poof. Bum boy. Arse bandit. Fudge packer. Fairy. Pansy. Shirt-lifter. AIDS Freak. Queer. I brush them off, hoping that things will die down. I keep quiet. I take it. Words don’t hurt. Outwardly, at least. Inside I’m falling apart and have nobody to turn to. I’m optimistic that if I don’t rise to them they’ll stop. I’m wrong. They get worse.
IT Class. The first day that everyone knows. Someone comes after me with a fire extinguisher, threatening to smash my head in with it. Naturally, I try to distance myself. Once the teacher notices and calms the situation, she walks me back to my seat and we find explicit, hardcore gay porn on the screen. The class gather round and burst into hysterical laughter. I am sent out. I did nothing wrong but I am being punished.
Science. Every. Single. Damn. Lesson. We’re doing experiments with bunsen burners. The bullies threaten to set me on fire. The tone of their voice says they mean it. Experiments with acid are a no go. I sit right next to the teacher as if that’ll save me when they decide to throw acid in my face or pour it over my head like they threatened. Scissors or scalpels on the table – they threaten to cut off my hair and stab me. They tell me they’re going to kill me and I believe them.
Sex education is always about straight sex – the “right way.” Not the dirty, perverted “bumming” way.
They make a point of reminding me of that, loudly so that everyone hears. Everyone except the teacher who pretends not to notice. Soon the whole class is in a frenzy, screaming and shouting insults and throwing textbooks at me. Only then, the teacher steps in but they still ignore the reason why this is happening. When we learn about STDs we discover that HIV/AIDS is mostly a disease for “homosexuals” (“Poofs,” someone interjects and goes unchallenged) but some women can get it. The information ends there. When the questions come and the abusive, violent, homophobic language begins, it is ignored again and they are told to “calm down.” They don’t.
We don’t know what HIV is or what it does. We just know that if you catch it, you die and if you don’t die, you’re on medication that ruins your life and you won’t live long. Moving on to the other STDs, Sex Ed is basically like Mean Girls.
On the way to another lesson I’m confronted at the top of the stairs. We’re on the third floor. The stairs snake down so there’s a huge gap right down the middle. I’m pushed up against the railing so much that I’m leaning dangerously far back to try and breathe without them right in my face. The slightest movement could unbalance me and I’d fall three stories to my inevitable death. They’re snarling at me; a whole group of them, invading my personal space. I hardly make sense of what they say. The world is spiralling out of control and the moment is just a haze of panic and adrenaline. They let me go. I think I’m free but as I start to descend the stairs, I feel a heavy force on my back and I stumble, lose my balance and fall down the flight of stairs. I crash down onto the midway landing. I’m sore and I’m bruised. They’re laughing and my pride is hurt but I’m not broken. The cracks are spreading inside. Invisible. I’m breaking but I’m just about holding myself together. I pick myself up and run.
Maths. I’m quietly working, struggling. Maths is my weak point so I’m in a lower set than everything else. The worst bullies are in this class. The name calling goes unchallenged by the teacher. Then it gets physical. They’re kicking me under the table. I ignore them. I grin and bear it. They punch me and the teacher watches, dumbfounded. I think (I hope) she’s just stunned which leads to her inaction. She’s scared of them. I am too but she’s meant to protect me.
“Simon, if you’re going to keep causing a distraction, you can get out.”
I leave. Furious. Until this year I have been a model student. I’ve been strong in every lesson except maths which I always struggled with. It’s different now. The last few weeks (it feels like months, but it has only been weeks) have taken their toll. I’m dismissive. I’m moody. I answer back. I wear my tie looser and leave my top shirt buttons undone, I wear the chunky, steel-toed boots I’ve been told to leave at home and a metal chain hanging from my trousers. I don’t care. I leave the class and instead of going to isolation, I leave the premises and hide in the woods that border the school field.
The pain of having nowhere to turn, no one to talk to, begins to consume me. I’m angry and I argue with mum. It’s just me and her. We’re close but we’re drifting apart. We argue and I’m verging on a meltdown. She knows something’s wrong but I can’t tell her. I feel ashamed, like I’m letting her down because I’m an only child. She always talks about how she wants grandkids. She calls her best friend “poof,” she’s said things in the past like “I’ll always love you, even if you’re gay.”
My mum is the least homophobic person in the world. I know now that she loves and supports me. She’s a massive ally – hell, she looked after her gay friends who had been beaten up in the 80s. She marched with them on protests. She hung out with LGBTQ folk before I was born and has always loved us unconditionally and is fiercely loyal to our community. On my wedding day, she cried as she walked me down the aisle because she was so proud.
When I finally came out to her (another story for another time) she said she always knew.
Even after coming out and leaving school I spent my late teens and early twenties dealing with mental health issues and self-harm. I struggled with myself and my perception of gay culture. Still living in Scarborough, I became a typical masc4masc, femme-shaming bully. It was a defence mechanism. Small town mentality is dangerous. I felt like if I wasn’t a “typical” gay, my “gayness” would be more accepted and I could change people’s perceptions on LGBTQ people – “I’m a man who just happens to be gay.” (I hate that sentence now. Actually, not hate…LOATHE!)
It didn’t work. Homophobes will always be homophobes. Stereotypes and lack of education have rooted themselves deep into the psychology of the general public and that’s what we need to reverse.
For me, my defining moment came when I left home and moved away for uni. My world expanded and as I moved out of the tiny pond that acted like an echo chamber of self-loathing and low self-worth in Scarborough’s seedy gay underworld, I evolved and set off on the path to finding myself and becoming the person I am today. I look back now, ashamed of that person I was. Embarrassed that I had been so cruel, often to people’s faces. It all comes back to the need of education. If I had felt accepted and equal, how different might those years have been? If I had not spent that time feeling confused, conflicted and hating the LGBTQ community and the people who “give gays a bad name,” imagine how much better things would have been.
The fact remains that our community suffer a higher rate of mental health issues and there are higher cases of suicide among LGBTQ people. Without decent role-models, representation or exposure to queer culture, it’s too easy to fall on the same path I did. Education is the key to righting this wrong. Like I mentioned earlier, that simple explanation of trans people when I was five stuck with me. I understood and it didn’t ruin my life. It made me understanding.
It is sixteen years since Section 28 was defeated in England and Wales and it is only now that things are moving forward significantly. More teachers are comfortable being out to their students, the new SRE (Sex and Relationships Education) curriculum is mandatory but LGBT inclusion is “optional” at Primary level. Faith-schools can, sadly, opt out at all levels. Hopefully they will move on with the times and eventually catch up to the modern world. “Religious Freedom,” is no need for ignorance. To quote my favourite words of wisdom that I ever came up with:
“If you can disregard living, breathing human beings and deny their equality and rights on the word of an ancient deity of which there is no solid proof, you’re a pretty awful person.”Simon Sayers-Franklin on “Religious Freedom”
However, the fact that most schools are taking LGBT inclusive education seriously is a huge step forward and will hopefully help to make this generation feel much more comfortable than those who suffered under Section 28.
Do you have any stories about growing up gay through Section 28? What are your thoughts on LGBTQ inclusive education? Don’t forget to retweet and join in the conversation on Twitter