Please sir, are you gay?

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
What on earth is A-level politics, let alone Year 8 citizenship, supposed to make of the great Lib-Dem sex uproar? On the principle of "show, don't tell", the recent exposure of Mark Oaten and his liaisons with a male prostitute, followed sharply by the outing of Simon Hughes, seem unlikely to ease any juvenile confusion. They certainly won't help stem the tide of homophobic bullying or ease the miseries of gay teachers reported in last week's TES.

Layer upon layer of confusion mark our public reaction to such stories: it all reminds me of the week when Ron Davies was caught on Clapham Common and one reporter asked him four times running "Minister, are you gay?" when the real question was, "Minister, were you cruising for casual sex?" Nothing wrong with being gay; lots of gay ministers do their governmental work no worse than anyone else. On the other hand, if you are in a responsible and confidential position, there is plenty wrong with promiscuity, secret adultery and random risk-taking with strangers of any sex.

"All right then, we'll talk about it," sighs Sir, or Miss, reluctantly.

"Class, I put it to you that Simon Hughes was perfectly within his rights not to tell the press what or whom he fancied. He'd always stood up for gay rights, OK? Er, yes, Jamie, except during the infamous Bermondsey by-election when he beat Peter Tatchell. He did say sorry."

Teacher sighs, crosses fingers, grimaces. "But on the other hand, what about his apparent reason for not telling? His friends say he was sparing the feelings of his mother who is "in her eighties and very religious".

Hands up who thinks that's a good reason? Hang on a moment: are you being ageist? Why is a woman in her eighties deemed unable to take in new truths? He's not a murderer, is he? And why is a religious person regarded as too emotionally fragile to deploy understanding and forgiveness? Ask your RE teacher - isn't it supposed to be the other way round? Christians, they do this forgiving thing, right?

"And what about l'affaire Oaten: why are all the papers saying it's a tragedy for him? He had a free choice whether or not to do that thing with the rent boys - quiet, Kylie, yes, we all know what the websites say it was - no need for details. Yes, Duane, it's not wrong to be gay - we did that last week when we talked about Sir Iqbal Sacranie, but Mr Oaten is married after all... and there's the issue of paying the young men, all right, the sex-workers. No, Jolene, it does not mean that all gay men go in for the thing Kylie wrote down on that bit of paper, yes, I saw, no, it's not normal gay stuff - what do you mean, how do I know? Look, my private life is private, how dare youI?"

I do not envy anybody who has to try to lay out, for the new generation, exactly what it is that 21st-century British society thinks about homosexuality, and the acceptable norms of gay behaviour. The law is visible enough - no discrimination, no persecution, civil partnerships, and it seems that it isn't illegal to question the sexuality of a police horse.

Far more difficult to be clear about more nebulous issues of approval, and about the freedom of religious groups to label thousands of inoffensive middle-aged civil partners as sinners and "a danger to society". Especially if in your own school community you have unmarried teachers being persecuted either slyly or openly, boys calling girls "lezzers" when they won't sleep with them, and mockery and violence visited on any boy who doesn't snigger loudly enough through Brokeback Mountain.

Section 28 is dead and gone and there are policies against homophobia in schools, but anecdotally it is clear that many of these are pretty half-hearted. And why? Fear of parents, I'd guess. You try suggesting at your next governors' meeting that it would be a positively excellent thing to have settled gay partners on the staff, and invite relevant visiting lecturers to be casually open about their sexuality. Eeeek! Out come the concerned Muslims, the more devoutly obedient Catholics, and the sort of parents who are convinced that gayness can be caught like a cold. Better to jink around the issue and talk vaguely about respecting individuality and "lifestyles".

But then you run aground, sharply, when the news is full of stories about MPs, giving almost the same weight of shocked contumely to a troubled but fairly virtuous single gay man as it does to a husband and father who persistently frequents the seediest end of the sex industry as a predator.

We have to decide what we think, be straight and uncompromising with parents, and stick to our line. And that means everybody in the staffroom.

And that won't be easy.

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