Georgina Tomsett-Rowe explores how the UK should move forward with LGBTQI education in schools

BY GEORGINA TOMSETT-ROWE, IMAGE VIA ISTOCK

As we watch children returning to school in a post-COVID world, we think about the endless discussions of how they will be learning. We have spoken less, however, about what they will be learning.

In September 2020, schools in England will be introducing mandatory LGBTQI material in sex education and PSHE classes. Pledged by the government in 2017, these policies will ensure that all primary schools will include material relating to a variety of family compositions, and all secondary schools in England will be required to broach the topics of sexual orientation, gender identity, and same-sex relationships.

It is important to note that this is not a case of covering intimate sexual information, simply the acknowledgement of the wide variety of identities which make up our society today. If our children have ever played “mummies and daddies” or made a family tree, these familial relationships are already being discussed, and we are merely expanding the vocabulary. Whilst this is a fantastic step towards greater inclusivity and equality in education, behind closed doors, there is an undeniable sense of trepidation within the LGBTQI staff body.

The vast majority of staff teaching today either taught or were educated during the Section 28 era of 1988-2003, and the stigma attached to this time casts a long shadow. The first anti-gay legislation to be introduced in the UK for 100 years, Section (or Clause) 28 of the Local Governance Act prohibited local authorities from “intentionally promot[ing] homosexuality or … the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Whilst there was consternation over the enforcement of this policy, there was a far greater sense of support for, and celebration of, the new law, and these voices shouted the loudest. One right-wing MP, Peter Bruinvels, went as far as stating, “I do not agree with homosexuality. I think that Clause 28 will help outlaw it and the rest will be done by AIDS”.

This vitriolic rhetoric of the 1980s-2003 is hard to ignore. With these words ringing in their ears, a notable section of LGBTQI teachers are concerned that with the new legislation coming into force this September, the discussion of these matters could open a treasure trove of vulnerability harking back to the Section 28 atmosphere of “discrimination and anxiety”.

When addressing these new mandates, the LGBTQI workforce should be one of our greatest assets; after all, we are trying to communicate to pupils that being LGBTQI does not mean ‘wrong’, ‘immoral, ‘damaged’. However, with current MPs, councils, senior management, and colleagues having made their views on the matter clear during the Section 28 years, this section of the LGBTQI staff body find it hard to trust that authentic support and a positive approach to the subject material will truly be there.

We should be encouraging our LGBTQI staff body to communicate their experience honestly – both the positives and negatives – and allow the pupils to see a reflection of themselves in their teachers, in whatever form this may take. In order to empower and reassure this vital asset, we need to provide an unflinching atmosphere of support, an honest and collaborative working environment, an unquestioning climate of acceptance. To ignore this sense of concern and paper over the cracks with positive buzzwords would be to overlook the history of LGBTQI roles in education, the highs and the lows. To truly progress and teach of a positive future, we must first acknowledge and accept the failings of our past.

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