A week or so ago I tweeted about the dreadful Section 28. I fully understand why Section 28 is being talked about so much in the wake of Lady Thatcher’s death and like most sensible people I want it to RIP. This year, even before Thatcher’s’ death, the Equal Marriage legislation had brought Section 28 back into the public conscience – with some absurd parliamentarians remarkably wanting a new version for the 21st Century. Unthinkable and despicable.
Section 28 was homophobic, evil, pernicious and unworkable poor legislation – it was unworkable because it never applied to schools who were and continue to be responsible for sex education. But it had an enormous impact nonetheless. And those who introduced, supported and tried to uphold it should be ashamed. I was 13 in 1987, and I was growing up gay in North Cornwall. Like many others in my school I now learn could have done with something that said ‘being gay is alright, you’re not the only one, you are safe here and you can lead a happy, fulfilling life.’
The silence in the classroom and the relentless taunting and bullying of those perceived to be gay in the playground (including one or two teachers perceived to be gay) taught me quite the opposite. That said, I don’t think Section 28 made any substantive difference to our sex education. It consisted of a video about ‘intercourse’ that is probably the source of some of my squeamishness now. I can only remember one sentence of any use – ‘don’t worry boys you can’t come when you are going and you can’t go when you are coming.’ Not one of us – gay, straight or otherwise – could have left our sex ed armed with the useful information required ready to enjoy the trials and tribulations of our young desires reassured and happy.
But that appalling, but at least equitable, standard of sex education doesn’t make me any less angry that politicians, the media and many people in society thought Section 28 was acceptable – not least in the face of AIDS which was just taking its ugly, devastating foothold within the gay community. (It would be too easy here to overlook the single good thing that did come out of Section 28 – Stonewall who have succeeded in positively influencing so much legislation, policy and practise in all areas of gay life – I am grateful to the brave individuals who set up the group, and the continuing work they do now in the UK and overseas).
Over the last fifteen years or so the UK has made terrific progress in tackling homophobia in schools and wider society. First we recognised the problem existed and started to face up to it. Then we equalised the age of consent and repealed Section 28. At the same time government took decisive action to address bullying of all sorts which eventually came to explicitly include homophobic bullying.
But sex and relationships education remains patchy, and sexuality is still too often invisible within schools. For some, Section 28 still creates confusion and concern. In the worst of cases Section 28 still legitimises homophobia and allows school leaders and teachers to be silent about sexuality and perpetuate their own unwelcome prejudice. In reality the number of teachers and school leaders who genuinely think Section 28 applies to schools is reducing rapidly. It was repealed a long time ago and many newer teachers haven’t even heard of it.
But some still have and that’s the tricky problem. Like all myths and misinformation you do sometimes have to talk about them openly to correct them: and then by talking about them you help keep the myth and its possible impact alive. As an aside it is interesting that I cannot remember in recent times hearing anyone say the age of consent used to be unequal. Rarely do I see much information about the age of consent as it was prior to 2000 (when it was finally equalised at 16 in Great Britain).
Up until a few years ago I trained teachers regularly. When talking about sex education and the law I used to include reference to Section 28 to be clear it was ok to talk about homosexuality. Ironically many newer teachers would hear about Section 28 for the first time on that course and it would create fear. Despite all my words of reassurance that it didn’t and had never applied to schools, and that it was no longer statute anyway I know from feedback that it frightened some.
So I decided to stop talking about Section 28 unless specifically asked what it was and I stopped referring to it in any guidance I was writing. Instead I made sure I only included the positive and helpful statements that affirmed the importance of teaching about sexuality – such as the very helpful and positive equal opportunities statement at the beginning of the national curriculum, and the sections of the SRE guidance which are clear prejudice is unacceptable and gay children must be supported. That seemed to work and instil confidence rather than fear.
So Section 28 is officially dead and has been for over ten years. Sadly we know from our work at Brook, and that of Diversity Role Models, Stonewall and others that homophobic bullying is alive, well, and in some cases thriving in our schools. There was however some good news last year in Stonewall’s school report showing that some progress is being made in tackling homophobia in schools. There is of course so much more to do to support teachers, change cultures and ensure all children and young people regardless of gender and sexuality are safe and nurtured in all schools, including those ‘with religious character.’
Only last week Brook and FPA had feedback from qualitative research commissioned in Further Education settings where young LGBT people said that their sex and relationships education can seem irrelevant and only targeted at heterosexual young people – their message was clear – unless we are actively and explicitly inclusive of different sexualities and identities they will often feel excluded and disengaged. Evidence has shown the same is true of resources and services – unless they say they are for people with all different identities there is an implicit assumption that the service, leaflet or website is not for diverse groups of young people. Almost 20 years ago in Sheffield they produced wallet sized cards advertising services that said Young Gay People welcome, and they found an increase in the numbers of young people identifying as gay attended the services.
So my conclusion is it’s time to stop talking about Section 28 as much as possible so its legacy does not destroy the confidence of another generation of teachers to talk about different sexualities in the classroom with confidence, and hijack another generation of children and young people’s education and ultimately their safety and happiness.
Successive governments have shamefully ignored expert advice, the consensus and evidence about PSHE and wasted the opportunity to ensure PSHE makes a positive contribution to reducing homophobia and celebrating equality and diversity. And after the publication of the PSHE review we now know there isn’t going to be new sex and relationships education guidance from government so it’s down to schools, charities, experts, unions and determined individuals. Despite all the challenges there is much wider support for the work to promote positive sexual identities and reduce homophobia – there is a consensus that we need to make schools safe for all children even if there isn’t always the skill, expertise and priority afforded to the issue.
Stonewall have some excellent resources for use in the classroom and support for schools which you can find out more about at www.stonewall.org.uk.
Diversity Role Models takes LGBT role models into school and provides workshops. For more information visit www.diversityrolemodels.org.
Finally last year a group of young volunteers at Brook developed a leaflet called Learn your LGBT ABC because they wanted a resource that could help young people understand that sexuality is diverse, life affirming and individual, not a label, a problem or a veritable political football. It’s a useful positive and affirming resource to trigger discussions. You can find out more about how to order the leaflet at www.brook.org.uk.
I have also just finished reading Maggie and Me by Damian Barr. I recommend it to you.