With the repeal of Section 28, teachers can feel free to discuss homosexuality. David Self reports
Four years ago, I was surprised to receive an invitation from Thurston Community College in Suffolk to talk frankly and personally about being both gay and Christian at a two-day "Sex and Sexuality" conference for its lower sixth. This week, I've paid my fifth such visit to Thurston and, in the interim, talked on this issue in three or four other schools and colleges.
The surprise, of course, stems from the fact that many schools and teachers seem to have been terrified even to mention homosexuality, thanks to the notorious Section 28 legislation which forbad the "promotion" of homosexuality or of "the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". Indeed, a 1997 survey revealed that 82 per cent of teachers said they found the law "confusing".
Much more recently, 44 per cent admitted to difficulties addressing the needs of young lesbians and gays because of the legislation. Part of the Local Government Act of 1988, it was passed by the then Conservative government which seemed to believe the tabloid myth that every primary school in the country was using a children's story book, Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, as a set text.
Even though the Education and Skills Act of 2000 removed any local authority responsibility for sex education, many teachers and governors have remained afraid to provide help for frightened or lonely students who discover they are gay or to intervene in cases of homophobic abuse.
The campaigning charity Stonewall famously championed the case of James, aged 17. He kissed a girl. The girl's brother head-butted James and broke his nose saying he didn't want his family "contaminated by queers". James's teacher refused to take him to hospital. The headteacher denounced homosexuality in assembly as abhorrent, the bully remained unpunished and James studied for his A-levels at home. During this summer's House of Lords debate, Baroness Howarth cited the case of a 15-year-old boy who had experienced homophobic bullying at school. His teacher told him to talk to his parents. The boy's father was homophobic. The boy decided to run away.
As the baroness said: "We know what happens to young homosexual boys and men on London streets."
As a result of a long and bitterly fought campaign (and that Lords'
debate), the Local Government Bill received Royal Assent this September and Section 28 was finally taken off the statute books. Schools should now feel confident enough to raise the issue of homosexuality with older students.
Some have found that, by exploring Christian and other faith attitudes to the subject, time spent on such discussion counts as RE provision, as well as forming part of a citizenship or PSHE course. At least one college gives only 24 hours' notice of the project, possibly to minimise parental objections and to dampen prurient student expectations.
On several occasions, I have been joined by Evangelical or Roman Catholic "hard liners" to put a case for what often sounds like the "prosecution". I find this helpful: it saves me having to outline "an alternative viewpoint" and stimulates debate. Thurston also invites a biologist to cover some of the salient science - for example, the fact that sexual orientation is fixed by the age of five, if not earlier (a consensus view stated by the British Medical Association in 1994).
Despite having been a drama teacher, I've never felt it appropriate to suggest any role-play, believing general question-and-answer sessions and subsequent, structured small-group discussions to be more appropriate.
Never have I met any serious homophobic reaction but I've twice been told by teachers: "Some of the lads won't say what they really think for fear of appearing uncool in front of the girls."
I am also now prepared for discussion to become narrowly focused on any topic currently in the news, such as gay parenting or fostering - or gay bishops.
A gay partnership Bill should be announced in the Queen's Speech later this month and in December there will be changes to employment law, giving (for the first time) protection against discrimination and harassment at work to gay and lesbian people. Even quite young children will be aware of these news stories and want them explained. Section 28 is no longer an excuse for such matters to remain behind the bike sheds.
Silenced Sexualities in Schools and Universities by Professor Debbie Epstein, Sarah O'Flynn and David Telford (Trentham Books pound;15.95) shows how homosexuality can be systematically excluded from discussion in schools and how universities are often less welcoming to lesbian and gay students than might be imagined.
Stonewall's website includes an "issue bank" from which succinct briefing papers can be downloaded: www.stonewall.org.uk
FFLAG provides support young gays and lesbians, their parents and friends Tel: 0161 628 7621 www.fflag.org.uk
Schools Out! is an organisation for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals working in education www.schools-out.org.uk