By Steve Wardlaw
Hatred and homophobia start small. It’s someone’s careless remark, or a nodded conversation between two people at a bus stop that’s overheard. But experience breeds normalisation and tolerance of those views, creating fertile ground for intolerance and phobia to grow and spread.
Does this sound far-fetched? Perhaps. But there have been studies that look at social behaviour as something that is learned and which spreads very easily and very quickly.
Active, loud homophobia can also have damaging health effects on those who are subject to that hatred, as figures on increased cases of mental health issues and self-harm among the LGBT+ community demonstrate.
Let’s be clear about what’s going on in Birmingham, Britain’s second city where in recent days four more schools have announced they will not teach LGBT+ issues to their pupils.
The move comes in the wake of the outcry over Parkfield Community School’s decision to suspend LGBT+ rights lessons earlier this month following protests from parents of the mainly Muslim school.
This is about homophobia rather than children’s welfare (see the personal attacks on the gay deputy head of Parkfield, shouted through megaphones outside the school, and the fact that non-parents are joining the demonstrations).
The school and its governors tried engaging with the parents, but also continuing the lessons, part of the No Outsiders project that Ofsted, the national schools regulator, has rated as “excellent”. But they gave in and agreed to suspend teaching their pupils – some of whom will be gay and trans themselves – about the values of tolerance and inclusion.
The school has said lessons will not resume unless the governors reach some form of resolution or compromise with the parents. But how is that likely to happen in the current climate?
Reports are also filtering in of complaints reported to seven primary schools in Manchester about LGBT+ lessons.
What can be done to fight this outbreak of homophobia in Britain’s schools?
The first step is to look very carefully at the schools in which these views have taken hold. Ofsted and the local authorities should make clear that they will not countenance removing a vital part of the school curriculum because it offends the personal views of some parents.
And let’s not call them religious views – I know too many practising Muslims who are as unhappy about these protests as I am.
This is bigotry wrapped in the cotton wool of religion. If parents then choose to remove their children from school, they should be prosecuted for that offence, and face the fines and/or prison sentence. If a parent does not want to teach their children the national curriculum, then their option is to home-school them.
If you want the state to take on the role of educating your children, you must accept the values that it chooses to teach them, including tolerance and acceptance of difference.
The second step is public education.
There needs to be a national campaign, led by the government (or more likely LGBT+ activists) explaining about gay and trans issues and young people, but also about parents’ obligations – not just to their children but as members of the wider society.
This is part of a broader teaching on, yes, tolerance, but also vital general sex and relationship training for children on, for example, how to spot sexual grooming, online or otherwise.
These are important issues.
We need to learn from past experience. The sensitivity around discussing gay sex in the 1980s allowed HIV/AIDS to take a greater hold in a climate of ignorance. It is fear, ignorance and, yes, prejudice, that allows parents to think this behaviour is acceptable, and absolves those who should be fighting it when they stay passively quiet, citing only freedom of opinion.
This behaviour will spread rapidly if not tackled head on and urgently; the physical and mental health of young members of the LGBT+ community are now at risk.
All opinions are the writer’s own
Steve Wardlaw is chairman and founder of Emerald Life, an insurance company
(First published by Thomson Reuters Foundation 20 March 2019)