Our collective view of sex, sexuality and the family has changed a great deal in the 36 years I have been alive. I was born to a single mother – still a source of shame in the early 1980s. At school, in Somerset, I can still hear the conspiratorial whispering of other children about the fact that I did not have a dad in the traditional sense.
To be gay would have been unthinkable. Indeed, ‘gay’ was the go-to insult thrown at any boy thought to be even slightly effeminate. Section 28 – a law enacted to prohibit the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools – contributed to this oppressive climate. The notion that children had to be protected from the promotion of ‘gay lifestyles’ fed into a malicious conflation of homosexuality with paedophilia, as well as the erroneous concept of homosexuality as a frivolous choice (as opposed to an expression of love).
In fact, Section 28 legislation never directly affected schools, but rather local authorities, and local authorities had no influence over the teaching of sex and relationships education. But what Section 28 did was contribute to an atmosphere in which to be gay was to be perverted, weird and fundamentally abnormal.
There were no gay kids or teachers in my school. Of course, there were – statistically speaking there were lots of them – but everyone had to keep up appearances in order to appease those grey-suited ‘family values’ politicians who, at the time, seemed to be ubiquitous. (Though, as we gleaned from the newspapers that our parents read, it was those given to moralizing about sex that you had to watch out for).
During the 1990s, more liberal winds swept the land. Section 28 was abolished, the age of consent for gay people lowered to 16 and same-sex civil partnerships recognised by the law. Soon enough, politicians on both sides of the house were disowning their previous support for Section 28.
Yet debates around the promotion of homosexuality in schools have re-emerged in recent weeks. In a reprisal of some of the arguments of the past, Muslim parents have pulled hundreds of children out of a school in Birmingham in protest at what they see as the promotion of “homosexual lifestyles”. As a result, Parkfield community school in Saltley, Birmingham, has dropped its ‘No Outsiders’ lessons in which children from reception to year six were taught five sessions a year about homosexuality. The school, rated “outstanding” by Ofsted, is situated in a predominantly Muslim area.
Bigotry today has become adept at draping itself in the garb of victimhood. Thus the wilier parents at Parkfield school have been careful to direct their ire not at gay rights per se, but at the supposed age-appropriateness of sex and relationships lessons at Parkfield. “Stop exploiting children’s innocence”, read one of the signs at a recent protest.
Fatima Shah, an unofficial leader of the protests, pleaded to the Guardian that she was not a bigot. “We are not a bunch of homophobic mothers,” Shah said. “We just feel that some of these lessons are inappropriate. Some of the themes being discussed are very adult and complex and the children are getting confused.”
Adult life is complex, and one of the purposes of an education is to equip children to deal with these complexities. Life is certainly not the black and white morality tale portrayed in certain religious and ideological texts. Leaflets rammed through letter boxes near Parkfield school reprise some of the old – homophobic – arguments used to defend Section 28. “There is a general policy to push gay and lesbian values to children in our schools,” one leaflet reads.
Some of the children at Parkfield school will invariably grow up and discover that they are gay. Those insistent that parents should have absolute dominion over the things their children are taught by the education system miss the obvious point that we have very little dominion over our sexuality. Gay and lesbian ‘values’ do not exist. Attraction is not a choice. Homosexuality is as ‘legitimate’ and natural as heterosexual love. “Some people are gay, get over it”, as a campaign by the LGBT charity Stonewall put it.
Judging by the evidence, there is a pressing need for inclusive sex education in Birmingham’s schools, despite the protestations of some parents. According to the Prevalence of Homophobia Survey, 93% of Birmingham’s teachers have witnessed a homophobic incident, while a quarter have been on the receiving end of homophobic behaviour. Society has advanced, but residual prejudice lives on.
Andrew Moffat, the assistant headteacher at Parkfield, was driven out of another Birmingham school in 2014 after parents complained that they did not want their children to “learn that it’s OK to be gay”. Moffat says he has received threatening emails from parents at Parkfield since the protests started. Parkfield school has insisted that its No Outsider lessons will continue next term, but only after a consultation with parents has taken place.
Responding to the protests, the local Labour Party has gotten itself into a mess trying to square an impossible circle. Birmingham Labour MP Shabana Mahmood urged schools to take “proper consideration for pupils’ religion and background”.
Mahmood, who voted in favour of same-sex marriage in 2013, has since rowed back on her initial comments after criticism from LGBT groups. In a blog post, Mahmood wrote that she does not back the “terrible homophobic banners and hostile protests at Parkfield school in Birmingham”. Tellingly, however, the Member of Parliament for Birmingham Ladywood used her blog post to question the “age appropriateness of conversations with young children in the context of religious backgrounds”.
This suggests that special consideration ought to be given to parents whose views about homosexuality – owing to their ‘religious backgrounds’ – are not as accepting as we might like. It is a wretched statement that is imprecise enough, like so many such utterances nowadays, to get a free pass among the slovenly-minded.
It simply won’t do – sometimes it is necessary in politics to inform one group of people that they are wrong. This is true even when it means upsetting constituents who may then refuse to vote for you. On some questions there can be no triangulation, equivocation or, indeed, weasel words.
Indeed, much of the conversation – as with Section 28 when I was a kid – is framed back to front. Those of us who wish to see children taught about the full spectrum of human sexuality are not seeking to impose anything on anyone. Rather, we are trying to chip away at, and mitigate, the religiously-mandated stigma that still surrounds homosexuality – a stigma which is more keenly felt today in minority communities.
Liberals must stand firm against bigotry and insist that people are free to live out their lives as they wish. Parental pressure like that being applied in Birmingham must not be allowed to prevail. Our commitment to equality – backed up by law – is also a deeply held belief, and we have a right to demand that our point of view is respected, even if we don’t take our principles from a holy book.