LGBT+ education deserves better from the DfE

It’s been nearly two decades since the damaging Section 28 amendment was repealed by Parliament. But, as schools gear up for a new relationships and sex education curriculum, the spectre of the discrimination that Section 28 legitimised is still evident throughout society, writes Ann Mroz

LGBT teaching: Lessons at some primary schools have sparked protests

"Your belief is a belief. My existence is a reality.”

That was the powerful message from drag queen Divina de Campo in a recent episode of BBC reality television competition RuPaul’s Drag Race UK.

She was discussing the long-lasting effects of the controversial Section 28 amendment, passed into law 31 years ago by prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s government. It stated that a local authority could not “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. It was repealed 15 years later, in 2003.

Today, no school would dream of referring to LGBT+ parents as having a “pretended family relationship”. Their commitment is rightly considered to be as real and as legitimate as any other. Underpinning this has been the powerful “Love is love” message from the LGBT+ community that has resonated far and wide. Yet, despite this progress, we still see the echo of Section 28 in recent efforts to have belief triumph over reality.

It has been sad to witness the protests outside primary schools in Birmingham over teaching about LGBT+ relationships. These protests have caused unjust pressure on primary heads in the area and it was gratifying this week to see the High Court permanently ban such protests at one of the schools involved. There is understandable concern around the new compulsory relationships education (at primary) and relationships and sex education (at secondary), to be taught from September next year. Unfortunately, it does fudge the issue of when to address same-sex relationships in primary schools, saying only that “LGBT content” should be taught “at a timely point”.

Teaching about same-sex relationships

This deliberate vagueness is a craven attempt to ensure any ire over the matter is directed at our school leaders rather than our political leaders. The government should, as Michael Hand, professor of philosophy of education at the University of Birmingham, says, “provide the clarity headteachers urgently need, and that all primary schools must teach about same-sex relationships”.

In dodging the issue, there is room left for doubt and indecision. That’s bad news for an open society accepting of all partnerships, but also damaging for the wider perception of sex education: the attention garnered by the protests creates the false impression that this is where all the problems lie in sex education.

Children are being exposed to an online world of unhealthy sexual relationships that teachers and parents often have little knowledge of and exposure to. Young people are accessing information and videos before having the media literacy skills to interpret them.

That’s just the start. The difficulties to navigate are more numerous than ever. It’s not just pressure to have sex, it’s the pressure to take and send intimate pictures, the rise of revenge porn and more.

And the issue of consent, especially for girls, remains underdiscussed. Saying yes to sex with a boy once does not mean yes to sex with him for ever. Saying yes to one man does not mean yes to all men and certainly not against your will, as many rape trials now try to make out.

And if consent to have sex wasn’t enough of a problem, since the tragic Grace Millane murder case in New Zealand, there’s been extensive coverage of a new concept: the “rough sex” defence, which attempts to imply women have consented to their own deaths.

That’s a long way from the “key building blocks of healthy, respectful relationships” advocated by the former secretary of state, Damian Hinds, in his foreword to the new statutory guidance. We need to be braver if RSE is going to be useful and worth doing.

Love is love. That’s the reality – even if that sometimes feels difficult to believe.

@AnnMroz

This article originally appeared in the 29 November 2019 issue under the headline "The DfE needs to face reality instead of pandering to belief”