All power to the pupil activists drawing attention to the lack of information about LGBT issues in sex education in England
All I remember from my relationship and sex education in school is phallic objects, condoms and everyone being terrified of pregnancy. Looking back it’s clear how disjointed and inadequate this was at a time when I was struggling with the complexity of being a black, queer, working-class boy navigating life inside and outside school.
If I had been given information about the kind of relationships I would later come to be in and given the space to think critically about my gender it would have made my road to self-acceptance a less bumpy one. It was also a missed opportunity to address toxic elements of masculinity such as suppressing emotion or objectifying women. Modernising the sex and education curriculum wouldn’t just make LGBT+ people safer, but would benefit the wellbeing of all students.
So when I found out that young south Londoners had put this particular new year’s resolution to the Department for Education, I was elated. Students put banners on every secondary school in Lambeth, demanding that relationship and sex education (RSE) in schools be inclusive of LGBT+ relationships and for it to examine gender and stereotypes. When you consider that inclusive RSE isn’t mandatory in schools in England, hasn’t been updated for well over a decade and almost half of young people no longer identify as exclusively heterosexual, it’s clear it’s time for a much-needed overhaul.
The demand is there. According to a report published by the Terrence Higgins Trust looking at responses from 900 young people aged between 16 and 25, 97% of them thought RSE should be LGBT+ inclusive, but the vast majority (95%) had not been taught about LGBT+ sex and relationships.
This isn’t the only front the current RSE is failing on: 75% of young people were not taught about consent and 50% of them rated their RSE as “poor” or “terrible” with only 10% rating it as “good”. In this context, the shocking 22% rise in cases of gonorrhea between 2016 and 2017 is sadly unsurprising.
I spoke to one of the students responsible for this action; they are 17 years old and asked to remain anonymous. When asked why they felt this action was necessary they said: “Being LGBT+ in school can be an isolating experience … I have experienced ignorant remarks from students and teachers alike. We wanted to do this visual action to draw attention to what feels like a hidden issue, but the impact of which I and many like myself feel on a day to day basis.”
Only 13% of LGBT+ young people have learned about healthy same-sex relationships. Those who do receive inclusive education are less likely to experience bullying and more likely to report feeling safe, welcome and happy according to Ruth Hunt, chief executive of the LGBT+ equality charity Stonewall.
The feeling that this is a “hidden issue” comes as no surprise given the long history of active exclusion of LGBT+ people and their experiences from public life. In 1988, the Thatcher government introduced section 28 which stopped local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality in schools. It took 15 years for this piece of legislation to be overturned, but many teachers still don’t know if they are legally able to openly discuss LGBT+ topics, and many feel that they lack the expertise to do so.
The reason inclusive RSE isn’t mandatory is because sex education as we know it today was introduced by a Labour government in 2000, but section 28 (the law that banned “promoting” homosexuality) wasn’t overturned until 2003. It is humiliatingly out of date. An inclusive RSE curriculum could mean LGBT+ identities could be celebrated in a place they were once erased and demonised.
Thanks to campaigning organisations such as the Terrance Higgins Trust, the government has committed to making RSE lessons compulsory in all secondary schools in England and relationship education compulsory in primary schools. This was meant to be rolled out in 2019, but has now been pushed back to 2020. Whether this will cover LGBT+ relationships and gender adequately remains to be seen, as the finalised guidance that will be used by schools to deliver the RSE has yet to be published.
The rollout can’t come soon enough. LGBT+ people are more likely to experience poor mental health in the form of depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harm and substance misuse due to the pervasive discrimination, isolation and homophobia they experience. This shake-up of RSE could be an important step towards changing this.
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