I can vividly remember a moment when I was eleven-years old and asked my friends on the schoolyard how they would react if I were gay. A friend of mine replied that no, she would not hate me, but she would also see herself incapable of remaining friends with me. It was not until a few years later that upon watching a film featuring a gay character, I had the realisation that being LGBTQ+ is completely normal and really not a big deal.
That was, of course, in the late 2000s, when calling your male friends gay was a “socially acceptable” insult and my high school had approximately one openly gay student, who consequently was almost a celebrity amongst everybody else — “you see him? That’s the gay Italian guy!”
My school, as well as all its LGBTQ+ pupils (visible and invisible) could have benefitted from a “No Outsiders“ programme like the one that a not-insignificant number of parents are currently trying to veto in Birmingham. The programme is aimed at students starting from a primary school level and targets themes of sexuality, as well as topics such as race, gender, age, and disability.
In spite of Ofsted deeming the lessons age-appropriate and psychologists welcoming them, parents around the country are protesting by keeping their children out of school and even threatening to have them change schools, a threat that Tory MP Andrea Leadsom seemingly supported. She recently stated in a radio interview that parents should be able to pull their children out of the LGBTQ+ lessons. Strong protests are also coming from religious communities: conservative Christians and Muslims in particular, who feel that teaching young children about issues connected with the LGBTQ+ community contradicts their traditional values.
Admittedly, schools find themselves in the uncomfortable situation where they have to ask themselves what is more important: to teach children acceptance and tolerance towards the LGBQ+ community, or to respect the wishes of protesting parents. Some schools have already given in to the parental pressure by stopping the lessons, intending to open up a dialogue about the topic again after the end of Ramadan in June.
Opening up a dialogue is certainly not a bad move per se, although the question remains why these issues have to be discussed at all. Furthermore, what the protesters say to the media is not exactly promising. One of the leaders of a protest in Birmingham was quoted by the BBC stating that: “Morally, we do not accept homosexuality as a valid sexual relationship to have. It’s not about being homophobic… that’s like saying, if you don’t believe in Islam, you’re Islamophobic.”
Now, this is an argument that’s pretty easy to dismantle: no, you’re not Islamophobic if you do not believe in Islam, and you are not homophobic just because you are not gay.
However, you are Islamophobic if you consider it a danger to your child’s emotional health and wellbeing to be taught about the existence of Islam. Moreover, if you consider non-heterosexuality and non-binary gender identities as immoral and should not be inflicted on young children, you are homophobic.
Nevertheless, further alienating conservative parents is unlikely to benefit any children. While it is important to keep in mind that homophobia is not an issue particular to people of any faith, given that the outcry seems to be loudest amongst religious communities, it might be a good idea for schools to consult with the many religious people that also identify as LGBTQ+ to try and find something resembling a compromise. Khakan Qureshi, a gay Muslim activist, runs Birmingham South Asian LGBT and he responded with lots of support for the “No Outsiders” programme, stating that “myself and many others knew from a young age that we were different and we wish we had this sort of education.”
On the bright side, Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, stated that parents have no right to veto schools’ decisions on the curriculum; MPs recently voted for LGBTQ+ inclusive sex and relationship lessons to become a compulsory part of the curriculum.
Given this, it might be of some consolation to parents that, as has been pointed out satirically by many people on social media, the simple act of being taught about the existence of the LGBTQ+ community is about as likely to turn anybody gay as education about Nazism will cause students to invade Poland, or a biology class to turn children into the powerhouse of the cell. In other words, if your kid is gay, to try and raise them as straight is approximately going to be as successful as Vernon Dursley was raising Harry Potter a muggle.
Last year in November, Stonewall published a statistic that 52% of LGBTQ+ people in Britain had experienced depression in the previous year. Considering the devastating effects that homophobia has on their mental health, there simply should not be a minimum age to teach children to be nice to other people – to be tolerant of others – no matter their sexuality, and there should certainly not be a minimum age to tell LGBTQ+ identifying children that they are absolutely normal.