Section 28 and a legacy of confusion

4th July 2003 at 01:00
Some teachers still think it's illegal to discuss homosexuality in sex education lessons, but reform beckons. Emily Clark reports

IT has taken Paul Patrick 30 years to feel openly accepted as a gay teacher.

He is respected by colleagues and pupils at the Lancashire secondary school where he teaches English. But Mr Patrick is familiar with the verbal abuse and threats that many gay teachers have to contend with.

"There are still people who equate homosexuality with paedophilia," said Mr Patrick. "I do not get criticism anymore but there are some people who would rather I kept my mouth shut."

Besides outright prejudice, many people are still confused about the meaning of Section 28 which, as part of the 1988 Local Government Act, prevents local councils from "promoting" homosexuality.

The rule does not apply to schools but has been widely misinterpreted. Some teachers think it is against the law to mention homosexuality in the classroom and others are frightened they will be sacked if they say that they are gay.

Equal rights campaigners believe the legislation, which is due to be debated by the House of Lords on Thursday, fuels much of the confusion and discrimination.

Mr Patrick, 53, said: "The misconceptions are amazing. I think eight out of 10 teachers still do not understand Section 28.

"It puts bigotry and prejudice into statute. Homophobes interpret the ambiguous wording to their advantage. In itself it is meaningless, but as a totem it institutionalises homophobia. Repealing the Act is a step towards solving the problem."

In order to win a repeal 20 to 30 peers must be persuaded to change their minds or abstain.

This week the Government outlined plans to award gay and lesbian couples similar legal rights as married couples.

Partners who register their commitment in a civil ceremony will benefit from pension and property entitlements, until now the exclusive rights of married couples.

The Learning and Skills Act 2000, meanwhile, requires teachers to challenge the stigmas and stereotypes which surround homosexuality. But Mr Patrick believes it is almost entirely ignored.

Three years ago he established Chrysalis, a training company which works alongside police and schools in the London boroughs of Croydon and Southwark to tackle homophobia.

Sue Sanders, co-founder, regularly hears from closet gays frightened by homophobic bullying and graffiti. Last week a secondary teacher told her she thought it was illegal to mention homosexuality in class.

Ms Sanders said: "Nothing is done to challenge homophobia or support gay teachers. The Department for Education and Skills needs to be much more forceful in its training and resources on this issue."

Governing bodies are responsible for drawing up and publishing their school's policy on sex education.The DfES offers guidance at wwww.dfes.gov.uksreguidance

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