Schools, Sex, Parents and Churches

As the western world seems to nudge day by day slightly further to the right, it should probably come as no surprise that the old debate regarding teaching about LGBT+ issues in school should come to the fore. Once again in the United Kingdom, some parents (often motivated ostensibly by a religious faith, be it Christian or Muslim) are objecting to their children being taught about Lesbian and Gay relationships and gender issues.  The spirit of the notorious Section 28 lives on and casts an increasingly sinister shadow in these supposedly more enlightened days.

Education is about the imparting of facts and helping children and young people to process facts and think for themselves. Sex education - so often euphemistically but accurately referred to as 'The Facts of Life' - must always be about the realities of human embodiment, physical attraction and relationship. To suggest that it should not include the reality of same sex attraction is an absurd, irresponsible and alarming attempt to deny reality and ignore fact. It is thus counter-educational.

Nevertheless, once again we are hearing 'concerned' parents voicing their opposition to their children being taught anything about LGBT+  issues on the grounds that, for example, homosexuality is a lifestyle choice. One mother recently said in an interview, "When I was growing up, I never asked myself whether I wanted to be straight or gay. I never asked myself whether I'd want a relationship with a man or a woman, and I don't want my children encouraged to ask those questions. There's no need. Thankfully they come from an educated family so won't grow up gay."

On the basis of that last sentence alone I would question whether her children do indeed come from 'an educated family'. Be that as it may, on the assumption that this particular mother is definitely heterosexual, one wonders why she would ever have needed to ask herself about her sexual orientation. As she grew up and became aware of her innate attraction to the opposite sex, she would have simply gone with the flow. Indeed there would be no reason not to, because she clearly conformed to the accepted norm. From the very outset, her instintcts will have been affirmed and celebrated by all around her, acted out in every TV programme and film and articulated in every love song she heard on the radio. She would have no reason to question anything. Lucky her.

I'm always reluctant to look back to my own school days as they were desperately unhappy and liberally punctuated with periods of confusion, self-loathing and homophobic bullying, all of which fed - or fed off - each other, creating an extraordinary cycle of emotional toxicity. But like that 'concerned mother' I never asked myself whether I wanted to be gay. Long before the word was even in my vocabulary I became aware of an instinctive attraction to other males. Initially it was nothing more than a recognition of their beauty and a longing to be close to them, but with the onset of puberty it became a sexual yearning. I had no idea what my feelings meant but I came to hate them to such a degree that I began to despise my very self.

I was aware, of course, that I should be feeling an attraction to females, but this just wasn't happening. I did my utmost to consciously refocus my sexual desires and fantasies towards women, but it never worked, and when I had erotic dreams, my subconscious left me in no doubt that it was other boys, not girls who excited me.

The sex education we had at school at that time was abysmal. The main context of such teaching was biology, with a very clear and narrow focus on the mechanics of reproduction. The notion of sex for pleasure was never explored at-all. In a strange series of lessons entitled 'Pastoral Care' (a misnomer if ever there was one) the nature of love was explored, mainly in the context of marriage, but same-sex relationships were not acknowledged or discussed in any way.

As I began to realise that the strange feelings that I was experiencing meant that I could be homosexual, I felt totally alone. I was in a school of over a thousand pupils, and it really never occurred to me that any other child there - never mind a member of the teaching staff  - might feel the same as me. Not surprisingly, I became clinically depressed. My schoolwork began to suffer. There were times when I seriously contemplated suicide. My feelings of self-disgust meant that I couldn't possibly talk to anyone about how I felt. My parents, teachers and my GP were all at a loss to know why I was so miserable.

I wouldn't want any child to experience the claustrophobic emotional solitary confinement that I experienced in those dark days.

If schools do not acknowledge the existence of LGBT+ people, if schools do not affirm the happy loving and creative relationships that many of them form, if schools start to treat same-sex attraction once more as 'the love that dare not speak its name' , they will cause huge potential suffering to those children who are bewildered by their own feelings. To teach children about these things in a healthy way is not to 'promote homosexuality' but is simply to teach the truth and to share facts - the very essence of education. In doing so, schools surely enable children to better understand and come to terms with their own sexuality as well as being more accepting of that of others.

In the current debate, much has been made of the parents' right to choose when and how their children learn about the spectrum of human sexuality. But why is this area of reality singled out for special attention? I'm not aware of parents who object to their children learning about some of the less savoury aspects of human history, and I'm sure alarm bells would soon ring - and rightly so - if there was, for example, a suggestion that parents should decide if and when their child should learn about the Holocaust.

A clue to the true, albeit sometimes subconscious, motivation of those who object to LGBT+ issues being taught in schools lies in the emotive language they often use. They speak of their children being 'exposed' to such things with the not-so-subtle inference of corruption or abuse.

I'm aware, of course, that even some of the most enlightened parents have no wish for their child to be LGBT. Their concern stems not from any form of homophobia but rather from a recognition that an LGBT child is so much more likely to experience bullying, discrimination and prejudice both in early and later life. No sane, loving parent would want their child to have to endure this additional hardship. But these parents need to recognise that it is the bullying and discrimination that is the problem not the sexual orientation or gender-identity of their child. It is pretty universally accepted now that the latter is a given over which the individual concerned has no control, whereas the former are behaviours that can be changed. Education cannot and should not ever be about changing someone's sexuality, but it should always be about challenging and changing unacceptable attitudes and behaviours that harm others.

Finally, we have to acknowledge that those who campaign against LGBT+ rights tend to belong to various religious groups, and cite the teachings of their faith to justify their stance. Whilst they have a right to their beliefs - and a right to teach those beliefs within their own context - the 'facts of life' remain the facts of life and these should be taught objectively in all schools. The 'filter' of religious morality should only come into play within the context of the worshipping community.

In any event, contrary to what some would claim, there is no single, indisputable view of these matters. The Christian churches, for example, are fiercely divided on what we can learn from scripture concerning same-sex relationships. Whilst those divisions have to be acknowledged, and whilst it will clearly be some time yet before the disputes have run their course, what is indisputable is the generous and inclusive nature of God's love as revealed in the life, teachings and example of Jesus Christ. Equally indisputable is Jesus' aversion to, and condemnation of, self-righteousness, judgmentalism and religious exclusivity. The divine imperative to love surely 'trumps' any concern over a few at best ambiguous verses about sexuality.

In conclusion, then,  regardless of the concerns (religious or otherwise) of some parents and despite - or even because of - the opposition from some faith groups and right-wing politicians, I believe it is crucial that our children receive proper and full information about sex and relationships from the earliest possible age and that we should strenuously resist all attempts to supress this most important aspect of a full and rounded education.

A friend of mine tells the story of how her young daughter asked her one day why it was that two male friends of the family lived together.
"It's because they love each other and want to share everything, like your Mummy and Daddy do." said Mum, uncertain of what reaction she would get.
"Oh, right" said the daughter. "Can I have a biscuit?"

It is stories such as this that give me hope.        



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