Fear of LGBT-inclusive lessons harks back to 80s, says Peter Tatchell

Lack of guidance to schools after Birmingham parent protests

By Peter Tatchell

London, UK – The Guardian 28 May 2019
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Peter Tatchell knows exactly who is responsible for the recent protests about relationships and sex education outside primary school gates: it’s the government’s fault, he says.

“To its credit, the government has spoken out in defence of LGBT+ inclusive lessons – but it hasn’t backed this up with explicit, concrete guidance to schools about what they can and should do,” says the veteran gay rights campaigner. With religious extremists trying to “hijack the issue”, a culture of fear around mentioning LGBT orientation has sprung up. “Many teachers are left feeling very uncertain about what they are required to do or what they’re allowed to do or say.”

Instead of spelling out what it expects schools to teach, the government’s guidance on the new relationships and sex education (RSE) lessons, to be introduced in September 2020, is vague, says Tatchell.

“While in principle it says that LGBT+ issues should be addressed it doesn’t state how they should be addressed and to what extent,” he says. This lack of support for schools already implementing the policy is a “de facto green light” to parents who want to raise objections.

“It’s a very sad indictment of our society where a relatively small number of parents can create a hue and cry that leads to teachers and schools across the country rowing back on what they know and believe to be necessary,” he says.

Protests began around Parkfield community school, in the Saltley area of Birmingham, when parents claimed the school’s “No Outsiders” programme was “promoting LGBT ways of life”. The school’s award-winning equality lessons were suspended in March after weekly demonstrations by Muslim parents and activists.

Similar protests at schools in Birmingham, Manchester and east London have had a “chilling effect on many other schools”, he says. “They are now fearful that if they do what they think is their moral responsibility to support LGBT+ pupils and families, they will be targeted.”

Schools that have asked him to come in to give talks now sometimes want the “really positive” LGBT+ education they are providing to be kept secret: “They fear a backlash,” Tatchell says.

Tatchell lived through the oppression of the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government made it illegal for schools to “promote” homosexuality. The result was that teachers were afraid to make any mention of LGBT orientations. The law, section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, was repealed in Scotland in 2000 and in England and Wales in 2003.

“It’s depressing that all these years later we’re still having arguments about so-called ‘gay indoctrination’ in schools. It’s frustrating, unnecessary and incredibly damaging to young people,” he says.

He says the education secretary, Damian Hinds, should make it clear to parents that headteachers are backed by the government. “There is a legal obligation on schools under the Equality Act 2010 to tackle prejudice, discrimination and hate crime – and to teach an understanding of LGBT+ issues, which will reduce the level of bullying in schools and hate crime on our streets.

“It’s important that these lessons talk about the diversity of families in modern Britain, that some children will be in families where they have a mum and a dad, others will be in single-parent families or extended families or same-sex families. That’s just part of the spectrum of modern British life.”

Tatchell, 67, has spent 40 years campaigning for human rights, as a co-founder of OutRage! in the 1990s and now with the Peter Tatchell Foundation. With support from Stephen Fry, he is urging the government to review its proposed compulsory RSE lessons, suggesting that they do not go far enough.

He knows first-hand the importance of teaching tolerance and understanding. Growing up in Australia, he was taunted at school, called “Poofty Peter” and “Peter Pansy’”. He had no inkling, however, that he was gay until after he left school – had he been given sex education at school that included LGBT+ issues, he thinks, he would have realised earlier that he was gay and “felt comfortable about it”.

Tatchell was raised in a fundamentalist evangelical Christian family. “School for me was a refuge from home. And it was thanks to the support of teachers that I managed to escape that religious fanaticism and develop liberal humanitarian values.” That’s why he places such great importance on the value of good, supportive teachers and wants them protected when they teach about equality and respect for difference.

“I was like a fish out of water compared to all the other kids at my school, but I had a succession of teachers who validated my passion for anti-racism and for social change and that was of great benefit to me, mentally and emotionally. Teachers who give young people the facts – who support and affirm who they are and their values – can make a huge, positive difference.”

He is concerned there are still question marks over whether teaching RSE will become mandatory in faith and independent schools. He would like to see more funding for training teachers in RSE to ensure that at least one teacher in every school has been trained.

In the current “inflammatory atmosphere”, it takes courage for primary schools to teach children LGBT content, he believes. With little support from the government on offer, the way forward, he thinks, is for schools to have public consultation meetings with parents to counter “the lies being told about RSE”.

“The feedback is that once parents understand what these lessons actually involve and their purpose, the opposition is far, far diminished. Parents’ concerns are heard and they’re answered. They then feel reassured.”