So Gay: Teaching About LGBTQ Issues in Schools

02/11/2012 17:16 | Updated 23 January 2014
  • B.J. Epstein Senior lecturer in literature and public engagement, University of East Anglia

Here's some really gay news. And by "gay", I mean "great".

This week, it was announced that France is going to start teaching about LGBTQ issues in primary schools as a way of helping to combat homophobia. They've likened the situation to educating young people about other types of bullying.

France seemingly recognises that it's simply not acceptable for children to throw the word "gay" around as an insult (well, okay, to throw around the French version of "gay", which is apparently "pédé") or to discriminate against people based on their gender identity and/or sexual orientation. Defending this new educational programme against the criticism that it is homosexual "propaganda", Daniel Labaquere, the national secretary for the teachers' union in France, said that actually, this is just about teaching children about relationships and respect.

Sounds wonderful, doesn't it?

So why aren't there such nationwide programmes in the UK or the US?

Thinking about it brings to mind a quote from Julie Burchill's book Sugar Rush. When Kim's school brings in an anti-bullying performance for the children to watch, Kim thinks:

"You couldn't argue with the basic premise of course - that people shouldn't be picked on just because they're gay. But this is SCHOOL, excuse me, and you could just as easily do a play about how wrong it is picking on ginger people, people with glasses and people who put their hands up in class for any other reason than to demand toilet-time. We'll GROW OUT OF IT! In the meantime, doing stuff like this for us makes about as much sense as doing it for a bunch of monkeys in the zoo."

This cynical view - ie that bullying is just what kids do and we should accept it - seems to prevail in many countries, not least the English-speaking ones. But that's a pitiful excuse, because it suggests that we should accept anything people do, just because, you know, they're doing it. It gets pretty tautological, doesn't it?

Also, of course, people don't necessarily "GROW OUT OF IT", as Kim puts it. If they aren't receiving the message that bullying and discriminating are wrong behaviours, how and where are they going to learn? What, exactly, is supposed to make them grow and change?

Here's what I'd suggest as a programme of education in the UK, the US and elsewhere. First of all, let's start with literature. We know that literature is a way for children to learn about different cultures/backgrounds/beliefs/feelings/experiences, and that often they can empathise with characters, even if they have little in common with them other than their humanity (which, indeed, is quite a lot that we all share). So we'd begin by introducing young people to queers and to queer topics through some of the great age-appropriate books out there.

We'd then gradually bring queer topics into other parts of the curriculum. Why not feature a gay couple in a maths problem the way a straight couple would generally be featured? Why not talk about queer artists or writers? Or about how LGBTQ people have been oppressed just as other groups have throughout history? Why not talk about how queer feelings are just as acceptable as other kinds, and explore safe sex and safe relationships across the range of gender and sexual identities? Referring to non-heterosexual and non-cis people and experiences strengthens children's understanding that they are equally valid.

Then, schools can also invite in LGBTQ people to give talks, such as through Elly Barnes' Diversity Role Models programme. Sociological research shows that meeting and talking to "the other" is one of the best ways to decrease fear and dislike and to instead increase understanding, respect, and acceptance.

For those who would argue against this, what exactly is their reasoning? If they're afraid that learning that LGBTQ people exist is going to turn young people queer, what proof do they have that this is how sexuality/gender identity works? After all, lots of queer people were only exposed to books/films/articles about heterosexuals and only met straight or cisgender people, but that didn't make them straight or cis.

And if they're worried that validating other people somehow invalidates their own lives, they can't be very secure in their own identities.

An educational programme along these lines is very obviously not about recruitment. Rather, it's about, well, education. It involves telling children about the kinds of people they're likely to meet during their lives and indeed the kinds of people they might even be themselves. It will make schools (and, later, workplaces, and society in general) more tolerant. People might stop using "gay" to describe everything bad and they might show more respect and concern for their fellow human beings.

Let's join France by doing something truly gay: let's educate children and help them develop into respectful, tolerant people.