Image Credit: Abhi Sharma
On 7th November, the Department of Education concluded their public consultation on Relationships Education (RE) and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE). This article is not a particular call for a contribution to that consultation; however, I do encourage everyone to have their voice heard by emailing their local MP if they missed the consultation period. Instead, this article comes from my own conversations with fellow members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Education on LGBTQ+ issues is not like education in other areas, like History or Physics. In other areas of education, you can lay out the facts in front of the class and leave them there. This is, undeniably, the way we are accustomed to think teaching occurs: “Here are the facts class, now absorb them”. While education focussing on LGBTQ+ issues certainly describes realities, it seems like such education goes further. Teachers are also engaged in breaking down norms. They lay out the facts but, by the very nature of the LGBTQ+ community as an oppressed minority, they also confront the students’ subconscious biases.
It is for this reason that I feel that conservatives have a point when they accuse the education system of “turning people gay” – albeit, not the one they intend. Education does not create an LGBTQ+ person’s attraction for a particular group, but it does empower them and help them to realise this fact about themselves and identify it with a neat label. Education gives an intelligible social form and shape to individuals’ feelings and in this way we don’t just identify but amplify them. We break down barriers not just around the person but within the person themselves. I have heard so many LGBTQ+ people talk about this strength they have found in learning about others who are like themselves, and it goes beyond simple recognition but actual amplification of identify through externalisation in shared cultural symbols.
“We need to make sure that when education reform presents itself we don’t just ask that LGBTQ+ identities are covered but that people are asked to consider their own place along this spectrum of sexuality and gender.”
In my own experience, though I was always bisexual, there was a very real extent to which I was ‘straight’ because my internal focus was on those aspects of my personality. It was the external signs of gay culture and identity that led to a reassessment of my internal self.
So, what does this have to do with education and where’s the controversy? Well, despite recognising the effect that education can have, I feel we too often restrict it to a minute and passive role. We play into a middle line of only asking that education lay out the facts around the LGBTQ+ community – that we exist. We then seem to hope the rest gets done through the personal enquiry of individuals. But I see no reason why we shouldn’t do more.
An extra step should be taken to not just say that we exist but that those listening might be one of us. We live in a society that has normalised certain modes of life and sexual behaviour. These norms exist internally for all of us, and passively giving information to students does the absolute minimum to challenge them. We should be actively encouraging students to question themselves. We need to make sure that when education reform presents itself we don’t just ask that LGBTQ+ identities are covered, but that people are asked to consider their own place along this spectrum of sexuality and gender, or else we leave it up to the hard determination of the individual to recognise and overcome the barriers themselves.
“We have to be clear that questioning should be embraced right from the start.”
If you agree with me so far you may, like me, wonder why this hasn’t always been the narrative in the LGBTQ+ community. Here is my realisation, which I came to in my discussions with my LGBTQ+ friends. I think we have shied away from pushing for this extra step in education out of fear of playing into the narrative that we ‘make’ people trans, gay, queer, etc. Though not everyone thinks we put chemicals in the water, even my own liberal school was unwilling for me to actively promote participation in LGBTQ+ events on campus for fear of an angry parent saying we “indoctrinated their son”. I would pretend to have protested, but I freely admit to believing the school’s difficult position was reasonable, so long as information was available.
However, the act of questioning is in no way insidious or biased – it doesn’t favor one outcome over the other, it just asks people to decide for themselves. Our willingness to ask solely that information get portrayed without the addition of questioning implies that the choice to self-identify as LGBTQ+ is just as easy in our society as identifying as straight. But we know this isn’t the case; members of our community have constantly recounted the struggle of their youth and of ‘finding themselves’.
We have to be clear that active encouragement of questioning needs to go alongside information because of the norms of the society in which we live. We have to be clear that questioning should be embraced right from the start. And we must not let this imperative be miscontrued as an initiative for “turning people gay”.