Luke Tryl, head of education at Stonewall, writes:
"If you haven’t read the children’s book Jenny lives with Eric and Martin (pictured above), I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s hard to believe that the stilted narrative, dull plot and images that look dated even by the standards of the 1980s ever captured children’s imagination. But it’s fair to say that it wasn’t the book’s literary flaws that The Sun picked up on with its 1986 front page splash: “Vile Book In School: Pupils See Pictures of Gay Lovers”.
The rest, of course, is history; the book became a lightning rod for the opponents of a nascent gay equality movement and the catalyst for the introduction of Section 28 in 1988. Section 28 of the Local Government Act was a pernicious piece of legislation which forbade local authorities from “intentionally promoting homosexuality or publishing material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promoting the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Quite what the promotion of homosexuality is has never been explained and the then-Department of Education and Science was always clear that Section 28 didn’t apply to “objective discussion” of homosexuality in schools.
Section 28’s proponents, however, were very clear about its intention, and they got their wish through the chilling consequences found throughout our education system. Thousands of teachers entered the classroom untrained in tackling homophobic bullying and lacking the confidence to support lesbian, gay or bisexual pupils. Within our schools, homophobia quickly became rife and led to a culture where young people felt afraid to be themselves.
It was in response to this legislation 25 years ago that a group of visionary men and women founded Stonewall, to fight back against Section 28 and to lobby for equal protection of lesbian, gay and bisexual people under law.
The Britain of 2014 is a testament to their success and that of their allies, and nowhere more so than in our schools. Section 28 has been gone for a decade; more than 10,000 schools, including a significant number of faith schools, have worked directly with Stonewall to tackle bullying and in 2010 all three parties pledged to tackle homophobic bullying in their manifestos.
To be clear, the situation is far from rosy, with more than half of gay young people in secondary school experiencing homophobic bullying. This has a devastating impact on their enjoyment, attainment and well-being at school. Nine in ten teachers have never been trained to tackle homophobic bullying and young people who grow up with same-sex parents continue to feel excluded because their families are never mentioned in school.
That’s why, 25 years after a book about different families led to the introduction of Section 28, we’ll be sending our film about different families, FREE (pictured below), into every primary school in the country. FREE follows the stories of four children as they explore family, friendship and what it means to be yourself. The film directly challenges homophobic bullying and language, and shows the importance of celebrating difference in an age-appropriate way. Above all, FREE sends out the unambiguous message that what matters is not the shape or size of a family, but the love between its members.
Having worked with hundreds of primary school teachers, pupils and parents to create the film, we know that schools are not only ready to talk about different families, but are eager to create learning environments where every child feels included and able to be themselves.
We know that 93 per cent of parents believe that we should tackle homophobic bullying in schools, but there will of course be a small minority who object to the film. To them, we say: watch the film, and you’ll quickly see that FREE isn’t about promoting one type of family above another or trying to change young people. Instead, it’s about saying to young people that they and their families are of equal worth – a message we think few can disagree with.
We hope that FREE will capture the imagination of primary school students and give their teachers the confidence to celebrate difference in the classroom. We want FREE to show the 20,000 children of same-sex parents that there’s nothing pretend about their families. And, above all, we hope that its message about respect, acceptance and diversity will stay with young people into secondary school and beyond.
FREE is released today. To find out more or order your copy of FREE visit www.stonewall.org.uk/FREE.