I guess I can understand why some observers of the row over No Outsiders classes in Parkfield Community School, and now four others in Birmingham, might tell metroliberal gay men in London to calm down about it a bit. Mine is one of the luckiest gay generations in British history. I have the good fortune to live in one of the most socially liberal cities, and indeed countries, in the world. There are few better places to be out and gay. And today the House of Commons has voted by a landslide to approve guidance for compulsory, LGBT-inclusive Relationships and Sex Education in England.
Growing pains, growing gains
Of course, in relative terms Britain’s been one of the best places to be gay for a long time. But in absolute terms, it still amazes me how far and how fast things have come. I’m (just) young enough to have gained from most of the final legal barriers, and a vast array of social barriers, collapsing at the very beginning of what I thought (and my parents were kind enough to, mostly, tell me) was my adult life.
I left school in 2004, one year after Section 28 was repealed. To me, gay people didn’t seem to officially exist. Students definitely knew we existed, of course: many described us in glorious Anglo-Saxon technicolour. I do remember one time when a boy in my class was being taunted as a ‘queer’ and a teacher called it out on those grounds. (Mrs Beattie: thank you.) We once had a whole day dedicated to sex and relationships education (don’t ask me why we went that far). I don’t think anyone in authority used the words ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ once that day.
I want to emphasise I didn’t have that hard a time. In fact, I imagine my experience was better than that of many gay people my age — let alone the generations before. Sure, I got called ‘queer’ or ‘batty boy’ a few times. But I think that had more to do with being a bit too studious (and a bit too ‘not from here’ at first: I’d come back from six years in American schools) than any actual suspicion. I didn’t come out, but then in my generation people generally didn’t until they got to university.
Still, while it’s hard to distinguish the personal from the general, the shift in attitudes from around 2003 to 2006 seemed revolutionary to me. Civil partnerships felt like the state was saying society was basically on our side. As a second-year student, I remember walking through town holding hands with my then boyfriend. I glanced across the square and saw an elderly couple looking askance at us. I remembered it was 2006. I deliberately made eye contact; I held it. They looked away; I didn’t. I think things might well have gone differently five years earlier. By 2013, equal marriage felt like confirming something which had basically already happened.
Would a class acknowledging that gay and bi people existed have made a difference to me? Would I have cared had schools made a point of saying they were normal and welcomed? I’m pretty sure I would. When I was a teenager, I was stubborn enough to be in the minority and argue for gay rights. I wasn’t stubborn enough to say it was personal. I’d like it to be different for kids in future.
Spring forward, fall back?
I’m going on at length because I want to explain this is visceral for a lot of gay people. Our gains feel miraculous and fragile in equal measure. Even to people like me, who really didn’t have it that hard. Our legal and (growing) social equality are too recently won to take for granted. So I can’t see hundreds of people outside schools with placards bearing slogans like ‘say no to promoting of homosexuality and LGBT ways of life to our children’ without a shiver running down my spine.
To recap: parents have been protesting outside Birmingham schools over the No Outsiders programme. As the name suggests, it’s about promoting acceptance and inclusion of people whatever their background — including race, religion, disability and sexuality. The programme is age-appropriate — saying some children have two mums or two dads is hardly an anatomy lesson.
Nonetheless, hundreds of parents withdrew children from obligatory lessons. Protests with truly awful slogans and chants — things I hoped we were working to remove from playgrounds, let alone school gates — have sprung up. At the time of writing, five schools have suspended No Outsiders pending ‘open dialogue’. Some protestors also seem to have demanded that a head teacher resign. The parents are overwhelmingly Muslim, and they have made a point of saying object as Muslims. We should, though, note that hardline orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians have also appeared in support of the protests.
I was appalled, and a bit frightened, to watch Shabana Mahmood, a Labour MP, claim that people have legitimate and reasonable concerns that a programme which covers gay people’s mere existence is ‘age-inappropriate’. Acknowledging that we exist is no more age-inappropriate than same-sex couples picking up their children from school. It is fair and important to say that Ms Mahmood also condemned the homophobic protests. It is also disingenuous to claim the objections really stemmed from process.
We need to be frank about what the objections actually boil down to. Fatima Shah, one of the most publicly vocal parents at Parkfield School, says ‘children are being told it’s okay to be gay, yet 98 per cent of children at this school are Muslim.’ That is a homophobic objection. Elsewhere, she expressed her concerns that children would be taken out of school altogether. I share her concern, but it’s not some act of God. It’s an act of parents.
I don’t object to an open dialogue with parents. But I do want to know the principle of gay and bi equality won’t get thrown under a bus. If in the end it turns out a few hundred people with homophobic placards can force a latter-day Section 28 through, how secure should I, or any other gay or bi person, feel? Section 28 wasn’t so long ago. It existed for over half my life.
I’m pretty much at the bottom of the list of LGBT people affected, of course. What about gay parents at any of these schools? And how should LGBT Muslims feel if the liberal state won’t support them when it comes to education? The children whose parents oppose No Outsiders most are probably the ones who need it most. LGBT Muslims are often among the people most strongly opposed to conceding the point now. They also rightly point out that Muslim communities are not monoliths.
For me, this is a test. A clear homophobic demand has been made of the state — almost certainly not for the last time. The correct response to that demand is ‘No, and while we’re happy to talk, the law will be upheld — and if needs be, enforced.’ Will that be the response in the end? Is the equal worth of gay and bi people a core value in the public realm? Or is it up for grabs if people rail against it enough? Does the British state understand the difference between the rights of people and the merits of ideas well enough to face people down when they demand that religious conservatism be allowed to dictate what a school does and doesn’t teach?
Liberalism and pluralism
Today’s vote suggests it does. But the relative silence about recent events (where is the Education Secretary, apart from the odd distinctly wary statement?) might well suggest otherwise. This issue will play out again. If the state fails to stand firm, it will set a baleful precedent — for LGBT people and, in a different way, for all minorities.
At the moment, liberal social attitudes and support for cultural diversity and fairly open immigration tend to go hand in hand. But what happens if people who’ve gained most from social liberalism start to conclude that those two things don’t go hand in hand? What happens if some of them start to fear they’re directly opposed to each other?
This isn’t a pure hypothetical. At the risk of being misconstrued, it’s partly how politicians like Pim Fortuyn happen. British observers mostly know Pim Fortuyn as a populist, anti-immigration politician in the Netherlands who helped trigger an unpleasant shift in Dutch politics, and so he did. But he was also a gay man, loudly supportive of LGBT rights. He labelled immigration a threat to a freewheeling, socially liberal Dutch society. He came second in the Dutch elections of 2002. Dutch politics has never been the same since.
Populist and far right parties are referring to homophobia when attacking Muslims more and more often. Obviously people like Marine Le Pen (no friend of gay rights) are exploiting the issue. Obviously they want to demonise people who are, were or just look foreign, not protect gay people. But gay people, and otherwise socially liberal people, can and do vote for the populist and far right. In fact, some evidence suggests people who support LGBT rights but hold nativist views are more likely than nativist-minded people who don’t to vote for them. I’ve focused on LGBT issues here, but you could tell some very similar stories about women’s rights.
I am not arguing for pulling the drawbridge up or for turning against diversity. Quite the opposite — I want to defend all those things. But to defend liberal immigration and a society where people can rub along together, you need to uphold some basic liberal norms. You need to tell gay people the state will stand behind them, and mean it. You need to tell women the state will back them as equals.
You also need to be able to challenge prejudice from wherever it comes. That holds for minority communities who themselves face prejudice too. In this specific case, you need to be able to say that if 52% of British Muslims believe that homosexuality should be illegal, that indicates a problem. And we should never for a second say that can’t change, or erase liberal and gay/bi Muslims from the conversation. We shouldn’t ignore people like Fiyaz Mughal arguing for LGBT-inclusive education. Nor should it ever come at the expense of supporting Muslims facing hatred and violence. The horrifying attacks in Christchurch make the need for that grimly clear.
The same values make LGBT equality non-negotiable and the right to worship in peace sacred, in a secular as well as religious sense. Consistency matters. Liberal values matter. They should serve us all. But to serve anyone, they have to be upheld.