The UK takes a step forward on LGBTQ sex education in schools

When it comes to what happens in the bedroom, queer people are no longer invisible on the curriculum.

The UK takes a step forward on LGBTQ sex education in schools
Photo by Tra Nguyen / Unsplash

As the academic year gets underway for school students in England, we’ve reached a milestone in the inclusion of the LGBTQ in the school curriculum.

This year marks the implementation date for new regulations for teaching relationships and sex education. By the end of this year, secondary schools will teach about sexual orientation and gender identity, and primary schools will teach about different families, with schools being “enabled and encouraged” by the Government to include LGBT families in this teaching.

Sex and relationship education has been failing LGBTQ young people for far too long. Whatever you were taught at school, it almost certainly wasn’t enough to guide you through the emotional minefield of LGBTQ dating.

“Having inclusive sex and relationship education could have helped me feel so much more comfortable with my sexuality…” says Phil Samba. “Particularly if it discussed things such as intimacy and same-sex relationships.”

Phil’s experiences of growing up in London, at times struggling with his sexuality, weren’t helped by a lack of inclusive relationship and sex education at school.

“During my teenage years, I couldn’t fathom a relationship with another man because it felt wrong,” he says. “It was something I had never knowingly seen or been exposed to before during my time at school or within my culture at home.”

“When I was in school, I was confused about my sexuality…” says Phil. “Especially between the ages of 12 and 14. I went to an all-boys Catholic school in East London, where all of my friends were straight guys. I always felt like I couldn’t come out or that something was wrong with me. No one would ever discuss what being gay really was.”

Phil’s story is far from unique, with other LGBTQ young people expressing similar concerns about their sex and relationship education. The Terrence Higgins Trust surveyed over 900 young people who attended secondary education between the years of 2009 and 2016 regarding their experiences of sex and relationship education.

Only 5% felt that their sex and relationship education was LGBTQ-inclusive. 50% of those surveyed rated their sex and relationship education as ‘poor’ or ‘terrible’.

Dr Verity Sullivan is a HIV and Sexual Health doctor. She sees first-hand the consequences of not having adequate sex and relationship education for LGBTQ young people. She echoes the concerns found by the Terrence Higgins Trust.

sex and relationship education

“Allowing young people to have their first sexual relationships without the knowledge to make informed and safe choices is unforgivable…” explains Verity. “It’s frustrating to see young people who haven’t received the appropriate advice for the sort of sex they’re having. For example, young gay men not getting vaccinated for Hepatitis B, young trans women not being directed towards tailored support. Sex is different if you’re a gay man as opposed to a straight woman or a trans person. And the risk of STIs, HIV, pregnancy and coercion are different for each group too.”

Due to the lack of tailored education, Phil says young LGBTQ people are looking in other places to fill the gaps.

“The consequences of not having inclusive sex education can result in a lot of LGBTQ young people having no choice but to receive very problematic sex education from porn…” he says. “The problem with this is that porn does not teach about things such as the intersectionality of being both a gay man and a person of colour, how to practice safe sex, the importance and regularity of sexual health check-ups or basic information on what consent is and how it should be used.”

The need to cater for the diversity within the LGBTQ community was also highlighted in a Stonewall School Report. They found young LGBTQ people from BAME groups are the least likely to feel able to talk about their sexuality at home.

sex and relationship education

The history of Section 28

In 1988, when Margaret Thatcher – the Prime Minister of the UK – announced the introduction of Section 28, it sent shock-waves across the LGBTQ community.

Section 28 is a reference to a specific piece of legislation in the UK – the law was in force from 1988 until 2003. The name Section 28 is because the specific provisions that impacted LGBTQ people were found in Section 28 of the Local Government Act that was enacted by the UK Parliament in May 1988.

The Section 28 provisions of that legislation was, according to the former Prime Minister, designed to “protect” children from LGBTQ people.

The stated purpose of the legislation was to “prohibit the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities” – Local Authorities are Local Councils – the administrative regions who provide all the services at the local level in the UK.

One of the reasons that Section 28 was introduced was that it was a reaction to the publication of a book called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin – written by Susanne Bösche. The book tells the story of a family where the parents are a same-sex male couple, and it aimed to give children information about different types of family relationships.

“Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay…” said the Prime Minister, explaining the rationale for Section 28. “All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life.”

The impact of the law meant that there wasn’t able to be any discussion or acknowledgement of LGBTQ people or queer sexuality in schools across the UK. Queer kids were bullied and victimised, and teachers felt that they risked losing their jobs if they tried to address the issue or intervene to support LGBTQ kids.

Decades after the introduction of Section 28, it seems clear that there is a danger of history repeating as debate continues as to how LGBTQ people should be discussed in UK schools.

Inspired to become a teacher

When Claire Stewart-Hall attended school under the reign of Section 28, she describes a particularly hostile environment for LGBTQ students.

“It was totally forbidden to be associated with anything to do with LGBTQ people at my school, unless it was an insult,” she recalls. “Teachers were overtly homophobic, pushing conversations about LGBTQ people further under the carpet. People were very scared to talk about it in case people thought they were gay, and it made students scared to discuss it.”

A turning point came for Claire when she met her Sixth Form English teacher, who was a lesbian and open with students about her sexuality.

“She taught me extracts from A Handmaid’s Tale in 1992,” explains Claire. “And when I began writing about the homoerotic overtones, she acknowledged that it was well spotted and was a good example of critical analysis.”

Claire remembers homophobic insults being flung across the classroom towards her teacher, but said they were never addressed.

That said, Claire recalls feeling inspired by her teacher, resulting in herself opting for a career in education.

“I remember feeling like I had a place,” she says of her English classes.

A positive role model for staff and students

Around the same time that Claire attended school, newly qualified teacher, Jason Todd, was embarking on his teaching career in London.

“It was here in Lewisham that I encountered Paul Patrick, Britain’s first teacher in the UK to come out to parents and pupils and retain their job,” he recalls.

Despite the constraints of the homophobic legislation at the time, Jason says that Paul “enabled new teachers like me to negotiate Section 28, which had the potential to silence the discussion of LGBTQ issues, stories and representations.”

Jason believes that having a teacher that was open about their sexuality enabled students in his school to also feel comfortable to discuss their own sexuality and gender identity.

The school ethos, argues Jason, also played an important part in allowing students and staff to feel comfortable opening up these conversations.

“This experience has had a profound effect on the way I approached my teaching then, and continues to influence my approach in educating new teachers today,” he says.

Should LGBTQ teachers be ‘out’ at school?

Teachers often share aspects of their lives outside of the school gates with students, believes Claire, however for an LGBTQ teacher this is often questioned.

“All this was impossible for me as a lesbian teacher,” she shares. “It was viewed as a political act rather than just factual reference to my family.”

In fact, Claire was warned by her first head teacher in 1998 that he could not “protect” her if she came out to colleagues or her students.

“Whilst lots of people are outraged by this, I felt it was realistic and a genuine way to protect me and be realistic about the institutional homophobia,” she says.

Jason agrees that a supportive school environment is key when a teacher decides to come out to their students.

He says that schools should be “working and campaigning to create the circumstances where people felt able to come out” rather than assuming all LGBTQ teachers feel comfortable to come out.

Both agree that a lot has changed since their earlier experiences in education, but the recent protests outside a primary school in Birmingham brought back memories from the past.

“The protests in Birmingham indicate that this campaigning work is still necessary,” argues Jason. “The attempts to shut down dialogue are redolent of the way that section 28 could serve to discourage people from talking.”

Claire thinks that “so many opportunities were missed” to have positive conversations about LGBTQ topics at school.

But says having these conversations can make such a difference to LGBTQ students: “It is a real privilege to support a young person to talk about their sexuality, especially in the context of Britain today.”

Where can LGBTQ teachers go for support?

Not all LGBTQ teachers are comfortable to discuss their sexuality or gender identity with their students or colleagues, without outside support.

Daniel Tomlinson-Gray is the co-founder of LGBTed, a collective of LGBTQ educators who seek to be “visible and authentic in school, for the benefit of LGBTQ students.”

“We know from our own experiences at school that we badly need visible role models…” says Daniel. “Somebody to show us that they are different and they are OK with it.”

He believes that by having more open discussions about LGBTQ topics in the classroom, this can reduce the number of LGBTQ students who might be feeling isolated and alone.

“The more visible role models we can have in school, the more we can reduce the shocking amount of homophobic bullying children are subjected to, and the terrifying suicide rates of young trans people,” says Daniel.

What’s the deal with LGBTQ education in Birmingham?

It was back in January of 2019 that tensions began to rise at a number of primary schools in Birmingham. Parents were raising concerns that their children were being taught about the existence of LGBTQ people and about same-sex relationships.

What’s the LGBTQ issue?

No Outsiders, a program devised by Andrew Moffat at Parkfield Community School, uses a range of storybooks which show a number of diverse families, including those with same-sex parents. Under pressure from concerned parents – who mostly identify with the Muslim faith and community – a number of schools stopped teaching the No Outsiders program.

Protests by parents

Much of the focus has been on Anderton Park Primary School in Birmingham. Protesters set up a picket line outside the school and requested that parents withdraw their children from the school while lessons that included LGBTQ content continued. There were also clashes between parents and LGBTQ advocates.

Opinion: Religious freedom can’t mean queer invisibility – by Patrick Cash

I was about six when I learnt what gay meant. I was chatting animatedly with some friends on a playground bench, when another boy ran up and excitedly asked the question:

‘Are you gay?’

Everyone went silent, as I considered my response. There was something about his look that suggested a trick question. But, having read Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five, I recalled that ‘gay’ meant happy in their idyllic 1950’s netherworld.

‘Yes,’ I replied.

The moment I saw the boy’s eyes light up I regretted my answer. The crowd of children around me, delighted I’d been their canary, were similarly on edge to learn what I’d just admitted.

‘You like men!’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Like kissing them and stuff!’

The kids burst into hysterical laughter. I blushed with shame, and stared at the boy in shock. I couldn’t believe such a thing existed. Every narrative I’d experienced until that age, from fairytales at bedtime to the gospels in mass, taught solely that man belonged with woman. Films on TV showed that inalienable truth, pop songs on the radio celebrated it like joyous hymns to heterosexuality. I’d certainly never heard anything different in my rural Catholic primary school.

When I went home that evening and confusedly asked my Irish father, overwhelming oracle of my young world, to confirm that gay people existed, he sighed, and told me, beer on his breath, solemnly that they did indeed, but to be gay was a very bad thing. They would never go to Heaven (I doubt he was au fait with the Charing Cross super club). I nodded and accepted this viewpoint: it made sense in my early-90’s North Somerset world where nobody was gay. The concept was the work of the devil, who tempted Jesus in the wilderness.

None of this – my lack of exposure to the existence of gay, the condemnation of my father, nor my own loyally inherited dislike of gay people – stopped me becoming gay, myself. When puberty hit, my sexual thoughts about men rose with a vengeance. The code was already written into my genes. What it did ensure, in my secondary school that still laboured under Section 28, was that I felt incomparably lonely. I spent my teenage years terrified I’d be disowned if anybody found out.

My experience shows Section 28 never worked. At six, I already knew what gay meant: the playground is far more advanced than the curriculum, it always has been. But because the state, and my faith, sanctified homophobia through the cowardly accomplice of silence, my classmates learnt gay to be a bad thing – enshrined into their slang by adolescence – and I was conditioned to hate myself. What an education. It’s taken years of work to overcome my internalised homophobia.

When LGBTQ people hide their true selves in the shadows, throughout their most formative years, the psychological damage can be real. Matthew Todd writes eloquently about this subject in his book Straight Jacket. I myself suffered from a rocky relationship with alcohol for much of my twenties, and it’s the reason I write often about issues disproportionately affecting the gay community, like chemsex, susceptibility to HIV risk, and struggles with emotional intimacy.

These issues do not pop up fully formed in some gay wilderness vacuum; they are symptomatic of a scarred community’s mental health, scarred from growing up in a society that made them invisible.

This can’t happen again. The situation of the Birmingham schools targeted by faith protesters is shocking. The ‘No Outsiders’ lessons used a book featuring two mothers and a child to teach pupils, in a non-sexual sense, that gay people exist and some children have same-sex parents. My LGBTQ friends who have recently had children would be delighted at such progressive policies. They teach our next generation to be tolerant, to embrace difference and celebrate diversity. Good qualities.

I ask you to sign the Humanists UK petition to support tolerance over homophobic hate in our schools. I say ‘our’ to include all citizens, gay or straight, Muslim or non-Muslim. It would be counter-productive to allow this debate to descend into gratuitous Islamophobia. I’d hope the Muslim Council of Britain can light the way for respecting tolerance on LGBTQ issues. The phrase ‘incompatible with Islam’ is fallacious for, as with any religion, there are gay members of Islam.

Scott Siraj Al-Haqq writes in his book Homosexuality in Islam how the homophobia supposedly codified in Islamic tradition is arguable, and modern leaders could pave the path for acceptance. There are LGBTQ Muslim groups all over the world. Eradicating the homophobic Muslim stereotype would remove a rhetorical weapon that far-right groups use against Islamic cultural integration. Religious freedom can not mean writing LGBTQ existence out of the curriculum.

Lastly, there are parallels here with Section 28. It began with the children’s book Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin, describing a child living with two dads. These books don’t exist to make children gay: they’re there to instil empathy that could, in twenty years’ time, produce a UK society that is a world leader in terms of courage, generosity and honour. Something to look forward to considering the haphazard chaos in which we currently labour. Don’t be silent. Stand up. Be counted for good.

What action can you take?

One queer advocate is taking direct action by giving schools an invaluable resource in how to proactively include LGBTQ people in the curriculum.

Olly Pike is donating his LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books to primary schools across the UK.

Pike’s latest book is Kenny Lives with Erica and Martina. The story is about a boy with two mums who convinces his protesting neighbours that being different is OK.

The title of Pike’s book is a deliberate echo of Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin by Susanne Bösche – a children’s book that was published in 1983. The negativity surrounding the story by Bösche contributed to the passing of Section 28 – a UK law that prohibited schools and teachers from discussing homosexuality or same-sex relationships. This damaging law wasn’t repealed until the year 2000 but the current debate is resurfacing all the fears of that era.

Pike is appealing for donors to help print and distribute 23,000 copies of his book – one for each primary school in the UK.

“I don’t think children are given enough credit for how smart and understanding they are…” said Pike. “They aren’t born prejudiced, and I always find that they are collectively appalled by injustice. Part of being a kid is learning to understand the different types of people in the world around them – and specifically, in modern Britain, this means
even though we are all different, we are all equal.”

One of the speakers at the book’s launch event described Pike as a wolf in unicorn clothing. It doesn’t particularly sound like a compliment, but it was intended as one. Pike may be small and softly spoken – he jokes that when he visits primary schools he’s sometimes mistaken for a pupil – but his determination and resilience is ferocious.

Pike is on a mission. Recent data indicates that almost half of LGBTQ pupils still face bullying at school, more than four in five have self harmed and more than two in five trans young people have tried to take their own life.

Books such as Kenny Lives with Erica and Martina can play a powerful role in creating a world that’s safe for queer kids.

Donate a copy of Kenny Lives to a primary school and help support LGBTQ education