Jenny is still an outcast after 20 years

15th September 2006 at 01:00
Two decades on from controversial book and gay teachers fear that attitudes have not changed enough.

A small girl is in bed with her naked father and his gay lover. This image from a dated picture book is still having an impact in schools, 20 years after it was the focus of national controversy.

Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin, which depicts the domestic life of Jenny, her father and his male partner, was published in Denmark in 1981. Two years later, a British edition appeared.

Its photographic illustrations show Jenny holding a tea party for her mother, mending a bicycle with her father, and climbing into bed with Eric and Martin. The book, aimed at six to eight-year-olds, remained largely unknown until 1986 when a copy was discovered in the Inner London Education Authority's library.

Professor Michael Reiss, of the Institute of Education at London university, said: "Very few people read it. It was actually quite difficult to get hold of. But icons work in many ways."

In a letter sent 20 years ago this month, Kenneth Baker, then education secretary, wrote to ILEA saying the book amounted to "blatant homosexual propaganda". He demanded it be removed from its shelves.

The tabloid press immediately weighed in over what they called "the homosexual book". "They (gay people) wanted homosexuality to be regarded as socially quite acceptable," said Sunday Today. "Then they wanted to crusade for it, by having it taught in schools and written about in books for children, as something admirable."

The TES quoted Ron Bell, heterosexual spokesman for gay and lesbian issues for Haringey council, at the time saying: "I can see the point of burning the book. It is more like a pornographic book than a serious educational book."

Today, Paul Patrick, of School's Out, the organisation for lesbian, gay and bisexual teachers, believes the dubious quality of the book lost it much left-wing support. "Those were very different times," he said.

"There was no acknowledgment that gay or lesbian people could be parents.

So even if it had been a good book, there would have been a fuss. But it wasn't. There was no understanding of children's use of language. And it chose to show two men in bed together, apparently naked, with a small girl between them. On all sorts of levels, it wasn't a good children's book."

But Tony Fenwick, a Hertfordshire English teacher, says that many schools still choose to ignore teaching materials that promote family diversity.

"If Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin came out today, it would be less controversial," he said. "Some schools would say what's all the fuss about? Others would ignore it if they could. There are modern versions of Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin, and schools aren't buying them."

The controversy surrounding the book led to the introduction of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, 1988, which made it illegal for local authorities to promote homosexuality. As a result, many teachers were afraid to discuss the subject at all.

The law was repealed in 2003. But Mr Fenwick, who came out at his own school in 1995, believes that its impact is still felt in schools today.

"Right now, it's fashionable to be homophobic," he said. "Homophobic bullying is a growth industry. That's the effect of Section 28. We need to make sure that children know that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle.

"In the 1980s, gay teachers expected that, if they came out, they'd be sacked. Schools can no longer sack someone for being gay. But it's difficult to keep your head above water in teaching, so it can be easy to get rid of someone if you want to. Society has changed since 1986. But schools are still dragging their feet."



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