Inclusive education — the hard lessons from Birmingham

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There are some political moments that you keep coming back to. No matter the sands of time. They resonate. Sometimes for the right reasons, but not always. Margaret Thatcher’s speech to the Conservative Party conference on October 9th 1987 is, for me, one such moment.

‘‘Children are being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life.’’

The row which has erupted — and is now spreading — in Birmingham about the No Outsiders programme takes me back to the streets of Manchester in 1988 where we marched against Section 28 — Never Going Underground. And we aren’t now. We can’t.

As I have written before, so many of the gains that we’ve made on LGBT rights were forged out of adversity — not least during the years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Inadvertently, true blue Thatcherism turned society pink.

But, as I have also said before, it didn’t happen overnight and it didn’t happen by accident. And if we sleep on the job, accidents can happen. Progress can slip through our fingers.

I write as the Westminster Parliament debates sex and relationships education and an intervention from the Leader of the House no less, that parents should have the right to determine whether their children are ‘exposed’ to information about LGBT identities and same-sex relationships.

Leadsom’s language alone is revealing — harking back to the notion that dykes and faggots are a clear and present danger to children.

I write, too, from Scotland with every reason to hope things are different here. In 2018, the Scottish Government announced that LGBT-inclusive education would be implemented across all state schools, after fully accepting 33 recommendations from a ground-breaking report produced by the TIE campaign.

But I’ve been around the block enough times over the last four decades to know that complacency is the enemy of progress. If it can happen in Birmingham, it can happen anywhere. Because change isn’t accidental, it has to be nurtured. Like children.

As the reality of what is happening in Birmingham has gnawed away at me these past few days, and Margaret Thatcher’s words reverberated, two, more personal, moments came to mind.

The first is from nearly 20 years ago. I was at an adoption panel in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. We were considering the approval of a Catholic couple as potential adopters.

The applicants had stated that their religious beliefs meant they would not be comfortable with the idea that any child they adopted might be lesbian or gay. The panel went round the houses a bit. In the end, I dissented from the decision to recommend their approval.

They might have been able to provide a fantastic loving home in so many ways. But not to a young lesbian or gay man. Not to a young person like the one I had been. Not to a child like me. How could approving them be in the ‘best interests’ of ANY child in their care?

For me — an adopted, Catholic gay man whose father’s reaction to my coming out back in the day had been to ‘avoid the occasion of sin’, the risk was too great. The personal is political; I’d long since stopped wearing badges, but the slogan hadn’t lost its meaning.

I would have come to the same conclusion with a Muslim couple. In a borough like Tower Hamlets that would have been controversial. But if we are serious about rights, we have to make choices — and they aren’t always easy.

The second moment is from just a couple of years ago — a more joyful occasion. It was the day my husband and I got married. We made a conscious decision that our neighbours — two families — must be amongst the guests at our small ceremony.

Our stair is the first community we step into as we leave the comfort of our home. We share that space with them and we wanted them to share our special day too. Them — and their children, all of whom we’ve known since they were born.

One of them was still very young; it was his first wedding. But the other two were older — who better, we thought, to carry our rings and walk in with us. We aren’t the only gay couple they know but they had grown up with us on the doorstep — all the way back to the days when they thought we were one — ChrisAllan.

We weren’t ‘exposed’ to them. Their parents didn’t ‘promote’ homosexuality. Or heterosexuality. We were just there. In each others’ daily lives.

From those moments to the here and now. One of the protestors in Birmingham has defended their position on the grounds that they are a ‘traditional community.’

“Morally we do not accept homosexuality as a valid sexual relationship to have. It’s not about being homophobic… that’s like saying, if you don’t believe in Islam, you’re Islamophobic.”

Sadly, his argument doesn’t stack up. When it comes to the presence of LGBT people in their midst — they will be no different from any other community. I have no interest in labelling people bigots. But not accepting the validity of homosexuality IS about being homophobic — straight out of a textbook in fact. That isn’t something we can shy away from.

Our sexuality is part of who we are. It’s not a lifestyle choice — but it does involve our right to make choices, to live our lives openly, protected, without fear or favour, whichever community we come from and however, we choose to define those places.

These aren’t choices we can simply disregard. They aren’t the same as beliefs either. Being gay isn’t the same as being a Muslim or a Catholic — or about holding any number of other religious or political beliefs. As a gay Catholic, that much I know.

There are lessons in all of this — and not just for schools. The boundaries between parents’ and children’s rights and between protected characteristics are blurred and contested. But that isn’t an excuse for compromise. Fears which are real and imagined have to be confronted but not at the expense of equality.

Birmingham is a stark reminder that progress is neither inevitable nor guaranteed. And it isn’t helpful to ignore what’s staring us in the face. One commentator said recently that Birmingham was an accident waiting to happen — a clash between pandering to the wishes of faith communities and the stridency of identity politics.

I don’t accept that analysis. But we have been measuring attitudes to same-sex relationships in Britain for nearly 40 years and there are enough clues in the data. We know where the faultlines lie and where, if we are serious about protecting rights, we need to promote dialogue, even when it’s challenging— not avoid it.

How can we best do that? The most important lesson in all of this must surely be to support those within communities like Khakan Qureshi, the gay Muslim activist who runs Birmingham South Asians LGBT who said last week:

“Myself and many others knew from a young age that we were different and we wish we had this sort of education.’’

Khakan and others like him need our back — not rowing back. Not equivocation; hard lessons, difficult choices. Thirty years on, my cause is not Maggie’s but we can agree on one thing. Let’s not cheat our children.

Chair @SAMHtweets, Non Exec @socsecscot & runner @EdinburghAC, Views my own

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