OPINION | Outrage and Fear: The Return of ‘Section 28’22nd August 2013
By now most of us will be aware of the news that some schools in the UK have Section 28 style policies regarding sex education. While it’s not a complete return to the dark days of the actual Section 28, it is a worrying discovery and one that concerns me enormously.
I was at school from 1989 until 2002. That was the period in which Section 28 was in force, eventually being repealed in 2003. While the law banned the promotion of homosexuality, it actually did more than that and had damaging consequences for gay youth. I was one of them.
I went to a Catholic school so there was no sex education of any kind, but there was very much a culture of homophobic bullying. Whether someone was gay or simply perceived to be, their life would be made hell and the teachers would turn a blind eye to it. I was one of those kids perceived to be gay.
I came out to friends when I was 15, but I was never out to anyone at school. In primary school I was racially bullied for having a dark skinned Mum and a white Dad, but as we all moved on to secondary school and it was more noticeable that my only friends were girls, the bullying soon became homophobic.
Daily taunts about my perceived sexuality became the norm. The teachers could see and hear what was happening but never once intervened. In particular I remember a school trip to Devon. During the week long trip it was absolute hell. I had to share a room with several boys in my class and put up with their name calling. On the bus home it all came to a head.
The other lads began singing homophobic songs at me. The song ‘YMCA’ was changed to ‘why is he gay’, and the dance track ‘Til I Come’ by ATB (gives you an indication of how long ago it was) was changed to ‘Til I Bum’. It seems quite silly and I laugh about it now, but at the time it hurt and did a lot of psychological damage. The teachers on the bus could hear what was going on. I asked them to tell the other boys to leave me alone. The teachers ignored me. I had to put up with the taunting for four hours and had no escape.
Another occasion was when I had an altercation with a boy in my year. It was Monday morning and I had spent the weekend with my then friend. Alone on a Saturday night, we became intimate. On return to school on Monday morning I was greeted with hostility from him. I was called a “f**king poof” and he kicked me. My response was to punch him, so that is what I did. I’m not proud of how I responded, but I couldn’t take the bullying any more.
The teacher had been out of the class when the incident occurred but soon found out about it. I was summoned to the Head of Year’s office to be reprimanded. I explained what had happened (not the intimacy leading up to what happened, but the fact I was called a homophobic name and kicked first). The Head of Year told me that he did not want to hear about that and then suspended me for being violent. I appealed to him but it fell on deaf ears. I was ordered to leave school immediately.
At that point I was devastated. I had already begun harming myself because I could not take the homophobic bullying and that situation tipped me over the edge. From my perspective the teachers were letting it happen. They knew exactly what was being said and done, yet did nothing to stop it. It was the same for other gay kids at my school. They were also taunted and bullied in front of teachers, but got away with it.
I’ve opened up about my experiences because I want to show what damage Section 28 style regulations can do to gay youth. They have the potential to cause lasting psychological problems and that it why I am so outraged. But not only am I outraged; I am also fearful. I worry about today’s gay youth having to go through the same experiences that I and other gay people went through during the period of Section 28. It wasn’t just about sex education; it shaped the whole culture of the school. History cannot be allowed to repeat itself.
I currently run an LGBTQ youth support charity. One of the things I am trying to do is engage in dialogue with local schools to find out exactly what they do to challenge homophobia and work with them on improving that. Most schools now have anti-bullying policies that include challenging homophobia, but the cynic in me sees those policies as being a facade rather than something that is actually implemented. Engaging with local schools has proven to be incredibly difficult, with most not responding to my letters or returning my telephone calls. However, the one school that did get back to me was the school that I went to.
I had been particularly strong in my letter to them, detailing my experiences and wanting to know what they were doing now to challenge homophobia. It appeared to do the trick and I was invited into the school to speak to the Head Teacher.
I took along one of my volunteers who also went to the same school. That person is a trans male coming towards the end of the transition process. Together we spoke about our experiences and outlined what we feel the school must do to prevent today’s youth going through the same experience. The school welcomed the suggestions and have promised to work with me on some anti-homophobia/transphobia initiatives. Whether it happens is another thing, but it has been a positive step. The school seem to genuinely want to improve the way they deal with homophobia and now have a ‘respect’ day where sexuality and gender identity is discussed just as openly as race, religion and disability.
In another positive twist, I bumped into one of my former teachers at an awards ceremony last year and received an apology from her for not intervening when I was being bullied. She specifically blamed Section 28 and said that her “hands were tied”. I accepted the apology as I believed it to be sincere. And yes I did cry a little bit.
It appears clear what needs to be done regarding these Section 28 style policies. There needs to be intervention from the local education authorities and Ofsted to get clarification of exactly what the policies mean. Also as a society we need to be vocal and say that this is not something we will stand for; that we will not allow another generation of gay youth to be persecuted.
But to end on a positive note, I am aware of one school in Warwickshire that has an openly trans pupil who is now living as a female and is allowed to use the female changing rooms and toilets. That pupil has not been bullied and is one of the most popular and loved people at the school. The teachers have worked with the pupil’s family on helping that person live openly as a female and begin the process of transitioning. So although we only tend to hear the horror stories and negatives, let’s also keep in mind that in general things really are getting better.
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Opinions expressed in this article may not reflect those of THEGAYUK, its management or editorial teams. If you'd like to comment or write a comment, opinion or blog piece, please click here.