Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 1993

It is now five years since the notorious Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 became law – largely through the influence of Christian pressure groups and their supporters in Parliament like Baroness Cox and Dame Jill Knight. Martin Stafford gives the background to the legislation and assesses its effects.

The Need for Gay Lessons

by J. Martin Stafford

In 1991, a Health Education Authority survey of more than four thousand 16- to 19-year-olds found that over 80% had been told nothing about homosexuality in their sex education lessons and 45% regretted that they had not received more information at school about gay and lesbian relationships. Why should there be this serious deficiency?

Whereas the objectives of the National Curriculum are clearly defined, the regulations which cover the teaching of gay issues are evasive, ambiguous, and even contradictory. The Education Act of 1986 places on each school’s governing body the ultimate responsibility to determine whether there should be sex education and, if so, what it should include. This act stipulates that governors must have regard to, and yet are not bound by, the policy statement which each LEA must issue and that any sex education which is given should encourage pupils to have due regard to moral considerations and the value of family life.

DES Circular No 11/87, which is only advisory, recommends that sex education “should ... present facts in an objective and balanced manner so as to enable pupils to comprehend the range of sexual attitudes and behaviour in present day society; to know what is and what is not legal; to consider their own attitudes, and to make informed, reasoned and responsible decisions ...”. So far, so good. However, a subsequent paragraph asserts: “There is no place in any school in any circumstances for teaching which advocates homosexual behaviour, which presents it as the ‘norm’ or which encourages homosexual experimentation by pupils. It must also be recognised that for many people, including members of religious faiths, homosexual practice is not morally acceptable, and deep offence may be caused to them if the subject is not handled with sensitivity ...”.

This paragraph starts off by tilting at windmills: firstly because it is highly unlikely that any teacher would encourage sexual behaviour or experimentation of any kind; secondly because in a statistical sense (which is the most plausible one) homosexuality is obviously not the ‘norm’, and only a fool would claim that it is. It then seriously understates the problem it describes in that such people as are offended by homosexuality would be displeased if it were given any mention which is not entirely censorious and negative. This dilemma admits of no compromise: for one could no more reconcile the objective and unbiased treatment of homosexuality with the bigotry of zealots than one could devise a sound curriculum for geography which would satisfy the members of the Flat Earth Society.

The DES Circular was issued in September 1987, not long after a general election in which the Conservatives had conducted a virulent poster campaign in those London boroughs whose councils had adopted ‘positive image’ policies. There was at this time clear party-political advantage to be derived from anti-gay posturing, and it is quite possible that this paragraph, so different in style and tone from the rest of the document, was drafted as an afterthought and inserted so that at the party conference due to take place a couple of weeks later the Secretary of State could wave it around and thereby appeal to the homophobic elements who were so vociferous at the time. Three months later, a Tory backbencher introduced what was to become Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988.

By this infamous piece of legislation it was enacted (among other things) that a local authority shall not promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship. Among the factors which had motivated its supporters was the policy statement by Ealing’s Education Committee, one of whose aims was “developing respect for and acceptance of individuals and their caring relationships (including homosexual relationships) and increasing understanding of sexuality in the context of love, personal relationships and home life ...”. Another was the innocuous book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, in which a little girl is depicted living with her father and his lover. It seems both perverse and ironic that after stipulating that sex education should encourage pupils to have regard to moral considerations and the value of family life, the government passed a law which appeared expressly to forbid putting homosexuality into the moral context of caring relationships. A greater irony is that Section 28 almost certainly did more to ‘promote’ homosexuality than anything else in living memory: for it brought gay people together in a sustained campaign of unprecedented unity and vigour, thereby taking gay rights to the forefront of public awareness.

The DES was quick to point out that since Section 28 was so worded as to apply not to schools or to individual teachers but only to local authorities, it would not affect directly the teaching of gay issues in the classroom. It therefore disappointed the repressive aspirations of its sponsors. However, it has undoubtedly stifled progress by engendering a climate of anxiety and self-censorship. In an area so pervaded by controversy, teachers inevitably feel defensive, and yet they cannot look to their employers to give a lead; nor can they rely with confidence on their support if they themselves take the initiative and then encounter problems. On the contrary there have been cases where gay teachers have been dismissed or suspended merely for revealing their sexual orientation to pupils or for discussing homosexuality in ‘too sympathetic’ a manner. The present situation, in which central government does nothing but also inhibits others from acting, is profoundly unsatisfactory.

It has been known since the publication of Kinsey’s research in 1948 that at least one person in twenty is exclusively homosexual. They are distributed evenly and often inconspicuously among all socio-economic groups. However, it is not just this sizable minority which needs homosexuality to be adequately covered. The syllabus should have two objectives: (1) to reassure those who grow up to be homosexual that they are not ill or wicked but rather that their sexuality is a perfectly natural, common and healthy phenomenon which can find expression in satisfying relationships and about which they need therefore have no regrets; (2) to instill in those who are not gay or lesbian an understanding of what homosexuality is so that they will acept workmates, friends, and perhaps eventually their own children who might be. Since the subject is still shrouded in ignorance, it stands – if anything – in greater need of frank discussion than heterosexuality.

Many young lesbians and gays feel isolated and confused. Although some do well in school in spite of the socially induced problems with which they must contend, the performance of those who are less gifted or who come from less stable backgrounds is further depressed by the adverse forces which confront them on account of their sexuality. They often experience appalling victimisation. Of a sample of 416 in a survey commissioned by the London Gay Teenage Group, a quarter of those responding to the relevant question had been subjected to verbal abuse and a sixth of the male respondents had actually been beaten up. One in five had attempted suicide. By its refusal to address the problem, the educational system is failing to relieve, if not actually abetting, much needless misery and distress.

This article was first published in Education Today and Tomorrow.
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