Guest writer, Lewis Henshall, looks at last week’s political events through the lens of his and other LGBTQ+ people’s personal experiences.
On Wednesday, a parliamentary committee voted against making Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) compulsory in all schools and not just state-funded ones.
When I caught up with this news on Thursday morning, I was raging. At the same time, I could see a couple of people talking about their experiences on Twitter, triggered by the news story. I changed my plans in order to write this article, for it’s a subject close to my heart.
In Year 9, I remember having to draw our ‘ideal partner’ and I ended up having to draw a girl. Because there was nothing to take away the embarrassment of realising I liked boys.”
– Liam, 22, Hartlepool
My life would have been significantly different if I’d been educated about same-sex attraction in both primary and high school. I instinctively knew at around the age of six or seven that I was attracted to boys. I also knew that I wasn’t supposed to feel this way, that this was wrong.
In the changing rooms of the swimming baths, I got an erection at seeing the boy I fancied naked and was shamed by the laughter and fingers pointing at my penis. Even at that young age, my hard-wired sexuality was there. I remember fancying Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone and Cobra in Gladiators.
I’ve told this story before, but it sadly bears repeating in the wake of the government’s shocking decision to vote down SRE. When I was 15, in 2008, we had a Sex and Relationships Education lesson (or PSHE, as it was called then), in my small rural secondary school.
Our teacher was a well-meaning woman, but was in her sixties and perhaps not best equipped to deal with teenagers’ ever-changing concerns. Indeed, she retired later that year. My class was 75% male and mixed ability, probably 20 or so kids? At the start of the lesson, we were given a piece of paper with the outline of a person’s body – a man for the girls and a woman for boys and told to write on ‘desirable qualities in a partner’ and then swap with the person next to us.
I was absolutely terrified – I knew full well I was gay by then and had no idea what ‘desirable qualities’ were, let alone in a girlfriend, so I followed along with the rest of the boys, and wrote casually misogynistic things on my female outline – ‘big boobs’, ‘good hair’ etc. The whole incident probably contributed to me staying in the closet about a year longer than I needed to.
I’m not proud of those responses, but I was 15 and didn’t know any better. Bear in mind this was less than 10 years ago, in a school rated Outstanding by OFSTED, and given Leading Edge status.
Oh, and if the casual LGBTQ+ erasure wasn’t enough, the point of the lesson was to teach us about ‘desirable’ partners, so, don’t date druggies, don’t date people who smoke etc. No mention of consent or ‘work it out for yourself’. Absolutely appalling.
Anyway, this is why we need good-quality, varied SRE taught by specialist, highly-trained teachers now more than ever. We need to be paying teachers more so it doesn’t get fobbed off on whoever will do it, and we need to be listening to young people. What do they want to know? What are their concerns? How can we, as a society, decently discuss and manage those things?
Obviously, that ain’t happening under the Tories, but the more we open up about these issues and the more we push back, the better the world will be.
– Harry, 23, Oxford.
Towards the end of my last year at primary school, boys stayed put while the girls were taken to another room. The teacher played a VHS videotape. Erections, puberty, procreation. That was all; a perfunctory tick-box exercise in sex ed.
In my final year at a Roman Catholic high school, we were all made to attend confession. I confided to the priest that I thought I might be gay. He told me to pray. I felt wrong and ashamed for a decade before I felt safe enough to come out, at the age of 17, after being weighed down by the burden of internalised homophobia for so long.
I was so deep in the closet throughout school to the point that I was practically homophobic. Not once did any teacher speak about homosexuality and explain to us that it’s normal. That of course never helped my own situation; if anything, it made it worse, especially being as my sexuality wasn’t the only thing I was battling with at the time.
– Jaylyn, 27, Winsford.
Despite her being a social worker and continually inviting me to come out with reassurance, I had such fear of ultimate rejection that I came out to my mother by SMS text message. All was fine, and Mum had also spotted my homosexuality when I was young.
Before I did that, I came out to high school bestie, Vicky, in person. She accepted me with open arms and I cried at the relief; she was the first person I came out to to face-to-face. Vicky was inadvertently my beard – from our frequent cinema trips together, high school people assumed that we were a couple.
Things have changed since then, but very little in the big scheme of things. It’s still a predominately heteronormative society, meaning the general world view is that guys get with girls. Having it continually drilled into you that you’re to fancy the opposite sex, get married and procreate is harmful. All of that is so presumptuous.
This mentality creates problems for everyone; it’s not just about gender identity and sexual orientation. You might have polycystic ovaries or poor morphology of sperm. You might be asexual. You might have needed to have a hysterectomy or lost fertility from cancer treatment. You don’t have to be monogamous or married to have a wholesome, fulfilling relationship and a life with purpose.
You might conceive a child, foster, adopt, or do none of that. An open relationship could work for you, you might prefer to be exclusive, or it might feel right to not be in a romantic or sexual relationship. It’s your business, do what you want with your life.
Educating children about homosexuality is not going to make them gay, and teaching kids about sex won’t make them deviants. An open dialogue with children is what’s needed to foster firm boundaries, there is nothing perverse in that. Treating sex as taboo only engenders confusion, fear and shame.
As a bisexual mother, I’ve told my daughter what I think she needs to know, but I think all children should learn about alternative lifestyles and particularly about consent.
– Jennie, 39, Brighouse
Doing a Maude Flanders with moral panic about children is completely counterintuitive. Yes, think of the children. Consider that they may not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth. Don’t assume that they’re heterosexual. Do not presume you know their sexuality better than them.
Children are resourceful. When I ran an LGBTQ+ youth support forum, we had children as young as 13 seeking help and finding answers. With that safe space and peer support, they were able to come out at young ages, which I didn’t feel safe enough to do at my high school.
Gender and sexuality are too important to be swept under the carpet. Sex Education gives teachers an opportunity to set an example by discussing things openly, and can provide a safe space for people who don’t feel safe being out about their gender or sexuality in public.
– James, 45, Brighouse
I tried so hard to fancy girls. I went as far as I could – I had a light-bulb moment when a girl wanted to go further than just kissing and touching in a nightclub. Tony, one of my best friends, went further and forced himself to have sexual intercourse with women, despite knowing deep down that he was gay. Think of the people that have forced themselves to suppress their true, authentic selves so much that they’ve married and had kids.
Imagine feeling that you’ve been deceitful and a fraud, that you’ve spent years lying to people. It’s horrible and it is not right. If you’re in that position, please don’t blame yourself. The wrongdoing is society’s. I know this will trigger memories for some and what I’d say is, if this is making you feel angry or sad, please talk about it and get it out of your system.
Become friends with older LGBTQ+ people and let them guide you. Then, when you’re older, pass it on and help out the baby gays. Some queer people never get involved in politics or activism, saying things like ‘my sexuality doesn’t define me’ and ‘times have changed.’ That’s fine; we all live life in our own ways. My sexuality doesn’t define me – I’m a well rounded person with many facets. Don’t misconstrue my campaigning as me having a problem. My sexuality is in fact the thing that I’m the most secure about.
There’s little enough understanding of bisexuality already: bi people face higher levels of mental illness, abuse, and homelessness than gay or straight people. That’s largely due to the stigma we face from people who don’t understand bisexuality, and to think another generation is being doomed to suffer in a similar way for lack of education is really concerning.
– Holly, 35, Manchester
The reality is that as much as you may want to be treated distinct from your sexual orientation, our society makes it impossible for that to be 100% the case in our lifetime.
Consider that, in just recent months:
- George Michael’s long-term partner Fadi Fawaz was referred to by the tabloids as his ‘lover’, such as in an article in The Sun, George Michael ‘tried to end relationship to on-off lover Fadi Fawaz many times’ before he died
- Two finalists from the thirteenth series of The X Factor are in a ‘secret gay relationship’, and that’s our business to know according to Mirror Online: X Factor finalists ‘nearly revealed secret gay relationship to fans over Snapchat’
- Also from The X Factor 2016, the awesome Bratavio were branded ‘a disgrace to homosexuality,’ as was quoted in the Daily Star article ‘Disgrace to homosexuality’ Model obliterates X Factor‘s Bratavio
- Long-serving Labour Party MP Keith Vaz resigned from the Home Affairs Select Committee after The Sunday Mirror delighted in scandalising him enjoying consensual sex with male sex workers: Married MP Keith Vaz tells prostitutes in his flat: ‘Bring poppers’ … ‘We need to get this party started’
Yes, times have changed. But the introduction of marriage rights and other legislation didn’t suddenly flick a switch and fix the prejudices with which we were raised.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967, with an age of consent of 21. The age of consent only became equal very recently, in 2001. It was 1992 when the World Health Organisation stopped calling homosexuality a mental disorder. It was 2003 that Section 28 was repealed.
Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 dictated 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.’
This is Margaret Thatcher’s legacy. Same-sex marriage may have been on David Cameron’s watch, but he voted against the repeal of Section 28. Our current Prime Minister, Theresa May, voted against the repeal too as well as, in 1998, voting against an equal age of consent. I’d be lying if I said I’d never kissed a Tory, but I don’t understand how a gay person can be happy to vote for a party with such a shoddy record on LGBTQ+ rights. The Conservative Party, frankly, disgusts me.
Voting down mandatory sex and relationship education sets up yet another generation to have problems that needn’t exist. We live in a society that hugely stigmatises HIV/AIDS but doesn’t educate children about how to practise safer sex. We don’t teach children about what consent looks like and we don’t educate them about how to spot and escape domestic violence.
This is not just about LGBTQ+ kids, but all children. Whether you teach children about sex or not, plenty will be doing it before the age of consent. Wouldn’t you rather they were equipped with the knowhow to look after themselves?
It is deeply disappointing that the government has once again blocked the implementation of inclusive Sex and Relationship Education in our schools. That in 2017 students are leaving school without the appropriate knowledge to protect themselves and their partners is completely indefensible. I would call on the Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, to reconsider the government’s position on this issue and provide our young people with SRE that is both appropriate and inclusive of LGBTQ+, gender, and consent issues — and not to fail yet another generation of young people
– Tom Hayes (@PositiveLad), 31, Birmingham; Tom is Editor of beyondpositive, an online magazine for people living with HIV, and is an advisor to the UN and EU on sexual health and health promotion.
I could go on, and on, and on and on about this topic. Let’s keep working together to make things better for all young people. They deserve nothing less.
Follow Lewis on Twitter (@ljhenshall)