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