When can we start promoting homosexuality in schools?

On 21st June 2000, Section 28 was abolished in Scotland.  The notorious homophobic law introduced by Thatcher stated that local authorities, “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”  The campaign to defeat the law was a long and brutal endeavour for many in Scotland, myself included.

[Content Warning: homophobia, transphobia, violence]

I was a wean who went through school at a time when my teachers didn’t know if taking active steps to protect me from abuse from pupils (and other teachers) was within the law. We were told we couldn’t have politicians at our school during the Ayr by-election because one of the candidates might say being gay was fine and that would break the law. And how could our Modern Studies teacher discuss why the law was being changed without breaking it?  But in the end, the politicians did come, and some of them did say it was OK to be gay, so did our Modern Studies teacher – and no-one went to jail.

So while it was necessary to organise resistance to a homophobic hate campaign to defend a discriminatory (if completely unenforced) law, the truth is that its abolition simply didn’t represent the seismic change I thought I was fighting for.  Despite all the claims that your daughter would soon be studying for her Intermediate 2 in Lesbianism, the truth is that in 21st Century Scotland, many kids will leave an education system which still acts like a large and diverse section of our society doesn’t exist – or treats their existence as a matter of debate or controversy, rather than a simple fact. Despite having to go to school, send our kids there and even work there, schools remain dangerous places for many LGBTI kids, teachers and families. If we won the right to “promote” homosexuality in schools 14 years ago, when do we start?


The vow that never was.

When we were fighting to abolish Section 28, the argument went that the language of “promotion” was offensive because you’re either gay or you’re not, you can’t make people gay just by talking about it.  The familiar tales of being “born this way” and this being a matter of “nature” disguised the much bigger truths that even (or perhaps especially) gay, lesbian and bisexual people were scared to acknowledge publicly – not everyone works the same way, we don’t exist separate from our environment and far from being hapless victims of an eternal nature, we can chose to be agents of our own lives, identities and sexualities.   Challenging homophobia means making radical, collective choices about how we shape the environment of our young people and whether we allow them to understand and change that environment rather than being victims of failed systems of social and sexual organisation.  Whether some children are “born gay” is of no relevance, no child is born a homophobe, that’s something we chose to educate our children to be.


Not everyone has Gaga-esque levels of certainty about their sexuality, or needs to.

A YouGov poll commissioned to coincide with Stonewall’s “The Teachers’ Report” revealed that 9 out of 10 teachers in Scotland say they are aware of homophobic bullying in their school, 1 in 3 hear homophobic language in the staff room and only 16% of teachers questioned had received any training in tackling homophobia.   The Scottish Government, whose anti-bullying strategy was the responsibility of equal marriage opponent Roseanna Cunningham, said they had issued guidance to every school in Scotland.  Our schools remain a training ground for violent homophobic bullying and pretending guidance will fix that is dangerously complacent.  It’s no accident we’ve not even came to the notion of gender identity yet – 75% of trans* people were the victims of a hate crime last year yet there remains no framework whatsoever for educating young people about trans* issues.

There is no mandatory sex education in Scotland, so what a few “be nice to all diffrent pplz” posters will do to tackle this is less than clear – based on my own experience, I can only imagine they’ll be used to incite some form of homophobic bullying.  We have a responsibility to ensure every child knows they can live happy and fulfilling lives, regardless of their gender identity or sexuality and to provide the education needed to allow them to make safe choices. But we have a much greater responsibility to stop training our children to violently bully kids who’re not straight or who don’t gender conform.   We must ensure schools are a safe space for those who don’t have that at home; our responsibility to kids matters more than the perceived right of parents to deny education to their children or worse, to train their children to hate.

Parents can and should play a role of course, they can help you with your homework – but parents are no more automatically equip to provide a comprehensive education relating to all matters of sex and gender than they are to teach you Pythagorean theorem or quantum mechanics, especially since they’ve probably had only the most meager form of sex education themselves.  Even if your maw and da want to support you, they don’t suddenly become queer theorists or give you sage advice about staying away from “straight acting” guys on Grindr.  “How will we explain this to the children?” goes the familiar riff, following every vague suggestion of homosexuality on TV.  “The children” are more than capable of comprehending simple concepts, like the fact some men fancy each other.  The adults?  Not always so much.


More my parents cup of tea.

This isn’t about the state “bringing kids up” or interfering, it’s about recognising that at the moment, so many young people are being let down because we don’t provide the basic skills to allow children to challenge homophobia and transphobia for themselves.  If education is a right, sex education which recognises and celebrates sexual and gender diversity cannot be an optional extra.  We have to make a political choice between continuing to empower homophobia and transphobia or choosing to empower LGBTI young people.  A system which still facilitates so many opt outs is grotesque when we consider that gay and trans* kids are still being violently forced out of it – a study by LGBT Youth Scotland suggests around 1 in 10 LGBT pupils leave education as a result of being bullied.  We can’t afford to opt out on those young people any more.

But this isn’t just about sex, sex education is a tiny part of an education policy which is fit for purpose.  I remember vividly learning about Ghandi and Martin Luther King but never about Harvey Milk, being taught about the corn riots and not the Stonewall riots, I know all about those who abolished slavery back in the day but fuck all about those who fought to decriminalise homosexuality in Scotland as recently as 1980 (13 years after it was decriminalised in England and Wales).    It’s no wonder many LGBTI young people have no sense of their place in the world when our history and any recognition of our contribution to the societies we’ve made better is denied to us.

We have to acknowledge homophobia and transphobia as learned behaviour – and acknowledge that at the moment, we’re teaching it to young people in our classrooms, either directly or by omission.  With teachers largely ignorant to what they can and can’t say (44% who participated in the YouGov poll said they either couldn’t or didn’t know if they could discuss homosexuality), the guidance from the Government clearly isn’t going far enough.  Making sex education a right for young people is an important step but we won’t ever be able to deal with homophobia and transphobia in schools until we accept that the lives of LGBTI people are actually something worth promoting.


Further Reading:

Ruth Davidson, homophobia & hating all Conservatives equally

Outing Holyrood’s Haters: The MSP who didn’t vote for Equal Marriage

The Daily Grind: Homophobia from top to bottom


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