Homophobia in the British School System

To make ends meet these days I’ve joined the ranks of Ozzie, South African and Eastern European supply teachers who prop up our beleaguered British school system. Acting work is thin on the ground and finding a publisher for my memoir Human Angel is proving more of a challenge than I had anticipated. So in late January, bleary eyed and still only partially dressed, I take the early morning call from the supply teaching agency.

‘Hi babe. Could you go down to a school in Poplar, East London today?’ says one of the agents.

I anticipate the hour long commute from Wood Green in North London. The jam-packed tube carriages and the DLR train full of bankers making their way to the investment banks in Canary Wharf. But when the agent names the actual primary school which serves the notorious Robin Hood Garden residential estate in Tower Hamlets, I take a sharp intake of breath; memories come flooding back. And not all of them good.  Nearly fifteen years ago I was on a permanent contract there teaching a class of challenging nine and ten year olds. But it’s not the idea of teaching the kids that turns my stomach.

After a few months teaching at this school back in 2002, it soon became apparent that some of the children were using the word ‘gay’ in a derogatory way. My way of addressing their ignorance was to purchase a copy of Jenny Lives with Martin and Eric, by Danish author Suanne Böshe. The story describes a few days in the life of a five-year-old named Jenny, her father Martin, and his boyfriend Eric who lives with them. (Those that remember The Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) may be familiar with the title.) The book, along with several others, stood in pride of place on my desk for the children to read if they so chose to.

Not long after I had displayed the book in my class, I was promptly escorted by the Deputy Head to the Head Teacher’s office. I was, at the time, in the middle of teaching a Maths lesson. This was clearly a matter of great urgency.

I was stunned as the Head, who I took to be liberal and open-minded, sat behind her desk, clearly agitated, and accused me of pushing the gay right’s agenda.

‘I’m a divorced woman,’ she said at one point, waving a copy of Jenny Lives With Martin and Eric in my face. ‘Do I go shoving that information down everyone’s throat?’ Her own throat was notably mottled pink with indignation and rage.

I explained my reasons behind having the book in my classroom but they fell on deaf ears. Looking back I should have probably contacted my teacher union. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But despite it being the twenty first century, this event happened in an era before Stonewall founded their Education For All campaign to tackle homophobic bullying in schools. And Section 28, which forbade the ‘teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality,’ had not yet been repealed.

Despite being strapped for cash, I refuse to accept the day’s work that is offered by the supply teaching agency. It’s only been a few days since Donald Trump, having been inaugurated as president of the United States, deleted the LGBT page from the White House website, along with pages on civil rights and climate change. Try as I might I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between the confiscation of the book I had introduced to my class back in 2002 and the disappearance of that government website.

It is apparent that the erosion of human rights is now potentially part of a dangerous and volatile new world order. Here in the United Kingdom we may feel immune to some of the more overt forms of homophobia, misogyny and racism that are currently manifesting on the other side of the pond. But it wasn’t long ago that several overtly homophobic candidates stood for the election of the leadership of the Conservative Party. Remember the likes of Andrea Leadson? Or Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crab, who, it was discovered, had links to a ‘gay cure’ organisation, Christian Action Research and Education (CARE).

My point is that we can’t take recent progress in civil rights, and that includes LGBT rights, for granted. Neither can we accept a creeping normalisation regarding the erosion of these rights. The women’s marches across the globe last Saturday were testament to what can happen when we actively resist inequality and bigotry.

As we approach LGBT history month and also prepare to mark the 50th anniversary of the first LGBT rights legislation – the partial decriminalisation of gay sex – we need to ensure in schools that we build on the work Stonewall has achieved with its highly successful campaign against homophobic bullying. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s idea of embedding LGBT history to the National Curriculum is also a step in the right direction but this needs backing from everyone who shares a progressive vision of education. But as for the way sex and relationship education in schools is currently taught – there is clearly massive room for improvement. Perhaps Justine Greenling, Secretary of State for Education, who announced she was gay on last year’s Gay Pride march in London, in conjunction with liberal minded educators and parents, can be part of the change that is so desperately needed in this area of the curriculum.

Children generally have no problem accepting people who identify as LGBT. In my first year of primary school teaching, I came out to a Year 6 class in Haringey. After ten minutes it was no longer news that Sir was gay. But in that particular school the backing of the Head teacher made all the difference. As for my book, Jenny Lives with Martin and Eric, what happened to it, I hear you ask; I’m still waiting for it to be returned.

(First published as featured blog post on Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/timothy-graves/homophobia-in-the-british_1_b_14394368.html

Homophobia and the Orlando Terror Attack

I have decided to dedicate this week’s blog post to the terror attack and hate crime that took place at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in the early hours of Sunday morning. So far 49 people are reported to have been killed and a further 53 as injured. I’m sure I share your sentiments when I say my thoughts are with the deceased, the injured, and their friends, families and partners.

It was a deliberate act of hate and homophobia targeted against the LGBT community by an American-born citizen, Omar Mateen, who, at the time of writing, and according to the FBI, had links to Islamist jihadi groups.There has been a lot said, in response to the attack, about love, particularly in social media – all in good faith. But just like the rainbow that is a symbol that represents the gay community across the world, ‘love’ itself is made of a spectrum of colours. And one of these colours  has nothing to do with the warm, fuzzy feeling one might feel snuggled up with one’s beloved. This particular colour is about standing up against injustice, bigoty and hatred. It is this aspect of love which is motivating me to write this article. And indeed this love which inspired me to write my first novel, Homo Jihad. Sadly, it is this aspect of love which many in the LGBT community are only too familiar with, having battled against homophobia and internalised homophobia whilst growing up in a world where a large section of straight humanity still views us as disgusting, perverted and unnatural. (The Velvet Rage is an excellent book, written by an American psychotherapist which looks at the issue of toxic shame which many gay men experience as young boys.)

The individual who perpetrated this act of violence was clearly motivated by his hatred of the LGBT community. In other words he was homophobic. It has also been widely reported in the media that his father noted his son’s disgust on seeing two men kissing in Florida. Today the father reportedly said it was up to God to punish gay people. Surely, this is what is truly disgusting and offensive. Not two men holding hands or kissing in the street. Not gay people having fun in a nightclub.

But the tentacles of this hatred for LGBT people go deep. Hundreds, if not thousands of years deep. There is, in my opinion, a relationship between the Abrahamic faiths which originate in the Middle East, and homophobia. St. Paul, Leviticus, certain hadiths from the Koran etc. The passages are well known and quite repugnant so I won’t reproduce them here. But it is religious bigotry and homophobia justified in the name of God or Allah or some ‘sacred’ text or other that needs to be challenged. Humanity needs to evolve! In his excellent article for The Spectator, Homophobia is now met with the same silence given anti-Semitism,  Nick Cohen writes:

‘Religions, to use Dawkinesque language, are pre-scientific memes, and their DNA carries the hatred and blood-lusts of their time. Their authority has to be destroyed, so that they can no longer authorise murder.’

I sympathise with the above sentiment as a lot of what is written in these religious texts is defined by the culture, history and bigotry of their time. However, I still regard the essence of Christ’s teachings as a force of good in the world. And I believe Buddhism as a religion/philosophy is a time honoured tradition which has compassion and wisdom at its heart. I would not recommend throwing the baby out with the bath water! But religious extremism and homophobia need to be confronted whenever and wherever we encounter them. Which is why I feel Peter Tatchell’s response to the attack merits praise:

‘There is no room for the complacent and naïve belief the Islamist fanatics will confine their killings of gay people to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.’

Islamism as a political, fascistic ideology exists. The first step in combating this ideology is naming it. Not pretending it does not exist. Omar Mateen was a homophobe AND an Islamist who sympathised with Jihadi groups. However, some people seem to have a problem discerning between Islamism and Islam and in their ignorance and Islamophobia play directly into the hands of both Donald Trump and Isis. In the words of Peter Tatachell:

‘We must resist those who want to use this slaughter to demonise and scapegoat the Muslim community.’

We have all seen the violent, murderous face of homophobia in the devastation and loss of life caused in Orlando but I have also been shocked by the subtle and not so subtle display of homophobia in some of the media coverage of the attack. The Daily Wail didn’t even cover the worst attack on LGBT people since the Second World War on its front page. And I can only applaud The Guardian journalist, Owen Jones, for walking out of a Sky News interview. Julia Hartley Brewer, reporter for The Telegraph, and its presenter continued to downplay the fact that The Pulse nightclub in Orlanda was an LGBT venue until Jones, quite rightly, walked out. Do Jewish sites that are deliberate targets of terrorism get questioned on their basis of how Jewish they are?  The fact that homophobia here in the West is still not recognised for what it is, is clearly part of the problem.

The events in Orlando and certain media coverage of the events today have triggered certain personal experiences of homophobia. I remember being sent to Coventry by everyone on campus after I had naively come out to my room mate in the first week at Exeter University. The Headteacher of a primary school in Poplar, East London demanding to know why I had a book entitled ‘Jenny lives with Martin and Eric’ in my classroom. (It was in fact to combat homophobic bullying) I remember her words quite clearly. ‘I’m a divorced woman. I don’t go shoving that down everyone’s throat.’ She took the book I had bought with my own money and never gave it back. The time I had comforted a boyfriend on a bench in the street. He was feeling ill and we were subjected to homophobic verbal abuse. In many ways I have been lucky. I haven’t been beaten up or kicked out of my home or sent to prison or executed for my sexual orientation. In many parts of the world this still happens. Doubtless, some bigots would think this article is shoving my gay rights agenda down their throat.

I leave you with a photo of a packed Old Compton Street in Soho, where a vigil to commemorate the victims of the Orlando attack took place this evening. You can see the  Admiral Duncan pub, where seventeen years ago, three people lost their lives and dozens more were injured when a Neo-Nazi sympathiser detonated a nail bomb. We are ‘God’s gift of infinite variety in human love.’ We are the LGBT community.

soho vigil