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LGBT Inclusive Sex Education in Schools: Why the Dispute?

10/04/2015 22:30 BST | Updated 10/06/2015 10:59 BST

The National Union of Teachers announced on Sunday that pupils should be taught a "positive portrayal" of same sex relationships as a means of promoting LGBT equality in the classroom. Delegates at the National Union of Teachers conference in Harrogate overwhelmingly approved the motion on LGBT rights marking a huge step forward in the gay rights movement. The rights of young LGBT people who have often been made to feel marginalised and excluded from the mainstream sex education programme are finally being recognised.

The conference noted that "homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are still strongly prevalent in our schools" and that a recent NUT survey of LGBT teachers revealed that "only 10% of LGBT teachers felt confident to be 'out' to students". The NUT Agenda thus calls upon present and future governments to appoint an education secretary that supports LGBT rights, to encourage the promotion of LGBT History Month in schools - rewarding the schools that do this, to train teachers on how to deal with homophobic incidents so that they know what to do when they arise and to encourage schools to develop a curriculum that is inclusive of LGBT issues.

However, amidst this positive step forward in equality there has been some resistance amongst faith communities who argue that teachers will be made to choose between their job and their faith. The Christian Institute have given voice to such concerns, stating that the positive promotion of same-sex relationships in schools "is itself an act of intolerance towards mainstream Christians and their beliefs". Simon Calvert, a spokesman for the Christian Institute, has professed that "Church schools already teach love and tolerance of others without having to explicitly approve of same sex relationships".

Furthering this defence of religious freedoms, Chris McGovern, the chairman of the Campaign for Real Education has championed the argument that the NUT's recommendations are unfair on people of faith. He has stated that "the rights of groups who oppose gay marriage on sincere religious grounds should be respected as much as those who support gay marriage" and that "thought control should not be promoted by the NUT".

And finally, to throw another bigoted voice into the mix, Andrea Williams of Christian Concern has called the motion a "very concerning development", elaborating that "this kind of policy is dangerous for our children who are being oversexualised at a very young age. They are being introduced to concepts and having normalised sex relationships which robs them of their innocence and is not good for their emotional and moral wellbeing".

What is interesting here is the clash of human rights whereby one right will always win over another. Up until very recently, religious rights have had the upper hand as same-sex marriage and LGBT sex education were certainly not on the societal agenda as acceptable, let alone legal. There has, however, been a rapid turning of tables over the past decade, marking the gay rights movement as one of the fastest-growing civil rights movement in history. Change has appeared almost as if from out of nowhere and suddenly gay rights are being recognised as human rights. The reminiscence of many LGBT rights activists and equality campaigners are often forgotten about in the textbooks of history - perhaps that's something else to add to the school curriculum.

Although I believe that British society should always uphold the human right to freedom of faith - that is for individuals to have the right to believe in whatever God/s or destiny they wish - the incorporation of this freedom into the very mechanisms of societal governance arguably makes for dodgy grounds. There are many verses in religious texts that, if taken literally and incorporated into law, would prove devastating to the structure and stability of society.

To the Christian organisations that oppose the newly approved motion on LGBT rights by the NUT I ask the following question: what's the alternative?

Drawing again upon Simon Calvert's assertion that "Church schools already teach love and tolerance without having to explicitly approve of same sex relationships", I struggle to comprehend just how hypocritical his statement alone is. Not approving of someone's human identity, according to Calvert, is in-fitting with faith schools' wider teachings of love and tolerance.

Love and tolerance can never be upheld by any school - faith school or not - without full recognition of the identities of all students. We cannot preach about the inhumanity of racism or ableism, yet allow sexism and homophobia to be normalised as part of our cultural make-up. It doesn't seem human and it certainly doesn't seem Christian.

Gay people exist - young and old, male and female, rich and poor, black and white. So do gay parents and the straight parents and grandparents, siblings, aunties, uncles and cousins of gay children. Should we exclude all of them in the name of faiths that claim to be peaceful, non-judgemental, forgiving and supportive?

It's also worth noting that 41% of gay people have attempted or thought about taking their own life because of homophobic bullying. Unfortunately, such bullying is given a stamp of approval by religious organisations that continue to use faith as a tool to preach hate.

However, to end on a positive note, although the resistance to LGBT equality in the classroom reveals the underlying homophobia deep rooted in society, it also highlights the extent to which one of the most influential social structures, the education system, is willing to confront such opposition in order to finally do what is right for young people and their families.

When I was at school (a Catholic school may I add) a little over a decade ago, same-sex relationships were certainly not on the teaching agenda. Worse still, sex - when discussed by teachers - appeared to be a dirty word that generated giggles, shame and fear of STI's; a perfect contradiction with the reality outside the classroom, where students under the age of sixteen were already engaging in sexual relationships. To me, the sex education programme in all faith schools needs a major revamp - not just in terms of the inclusion of same-sex relationships, but in terms of talking about sex in a non-shameful yet responsible way. To put it bluntly: it's time to get real.

Education is one of the most powerful tools we have as a society to eliminate ignorance, hatred and combat divisions head on. The motion on LGBT rights approved by the NUT will not only bring the much needed discourse on same-sex relationships into the classroom, it will also - as the statistics show - save lives.