Much like the debate over same-sex marriage, the on-going protests in Birmingham over LGBTQ+ education have yet again shone a spotlight on the clashes between LGBTQ+ rights and religious belief. For many in the LGBTQ+ community, it has been disheartening that almost two decades on from the repeal of Section 28, they find themselves arguing yet again simply for their existence to be recognised in schools. Similarly, many parents in the religious community feel the moral and religious virtues of their children at these schools are at threat.
For the record, I am wholeheartedly in favour of LGBTQ+ education in both primary and secondary school. As a young bisexual man, my time in education was a tortuous decade of bullying, fear and shame. Neither my primary nor secondary school ever once mentioned LGBTQ+ topics while I was there and I am still heavily impacted by that today. This is why LGBTQ+ education is vital. It shows LGBTQ+ students that they no longer have to be ashamed of being themselves and gives them the opportunity to explore how they feel in safety. It also teaches ideals of kindness and tolerance to all students, values which most parents would agree they would like their child to embody.
At the same time, I do understand the concerns of the parents. We all naturally want the best for our children. However, much like the recent anti-vaccine movement, this concern is based off lies pedalled by outside influencers who do not have any child’s best interest at heart. If we continue to work off misconceptions about LGBTQ+ people that we ourselves were never challenged on in school, we can end up causing serious harm. I believe this is what is happening in Birmingham. LGBTQ+ inclusive RSE will soon be mandatory across the entire country, and schools need space and guidance to engage all parents in this process, with education experts and community leaders playing a key supporting role.
From the very start, the Birmingham protests have been a clear example of how not to handle this dispute. There has been rampant and blatant misinformation on the actual content of the LGBTQ+ inclusive education programmes, as well as undue interference from outside actors seeking to weaken LGBTQ+ rights. Daily protests outside the schools have intimidated children, parents and staff to tears – further escalating tensions – while acting as a cover for many to justify their already established anti-Muslim hate. Introducing LGBTQ+ education to every school was always going to be difficult, but the stakes are high so it is vital we get it right. In the end, it will be LGBTQ+ children, especially the religious among them, who suffer the most if we don’t.
Former General Secretary for Out in Education