Gender and sexuality: reducing the taboo through education
The existence of LGBT History Month is arguably a crucial sign of a changing society. A society that is trying to rethink its traditionally held beliefs about the constraints of gender. A society that attempts to weaken the stigma attached to issues of sexuality. A society that celebrates differences.
Yet, the headline ‘Parents protest over Birmingham school's LGBT equality teaching’ appeared in the news only last year, suggesting time has not seen the changes we believe it has.
Why does society still have trouble accepting the LGBT community?
Arguably, the problem lies in the lack of LGBT representation in the school community. The education sector enforces the teaching of relationship issues, online safety for children and young adults, yet it has only been announced this year that the curriculum will continue to evolve in an attempt to make it LGBT-inclusive. Although compulsory LGBT-inclusive sex education will not be introduced to primary schools, junior schools will be strongly encouraged to introduce LGBT content when teaching about family relationships.
Recently, I saw the West End production of ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’, a musical inspired by the true story of a 16 year old boy from Sheffield who dreams of being a drag queen. During the musical, Jamie is scolded for entertaining the thought of going to prom in a dress by his school teacher, calling into question the stigma that is attached to cross-dressing and opening a larger debate about sexuality and gender.
This is a fundamental reason as to why LGBT education is necessary in schools -- the LGBT community is not only made up of adults, but young people and children too. To suggest that identifying as LGBT is merely relevant to grown-ups is to be ignorant of the fact that some children may identify as transgender from a young age, or that their parents may be of the same sex, for example. One study showed that homosexual teenagers are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. Typing ‘LGBT youth suicide’ into Google will present 4,670,000 search results -- surely this is all the more reason to encourage LGBT awareness in schools.
The Department of Education claims that, “Pupils should be taught about the society in which they are growing up”, highlighting the desire for change by starting the discussion at the earliest level of childhood maturation and development.
Education from a young age about the history and evolution of LGBT rights and its acceptance is, arguably, the only way to tackle the taboo surrounding it and the idea that it is wrong to transgress age-old societal ideas about sexuality. If we educate our younger generation to see LGBT as something built into society rather than something that has fought to become a part of it over the years, gender and sexuality may not even be called into debate. People will express themselves in the way they wish without fear of questions or criticism, so that the LGBT community will be an ingrained part of society that is just as normal as being heterosexual.
Curriculum developments could be accompanied by introducing gender neutral bathrooms into schools, which would demonstrate that children are able to express themselves freely, in a way that reflects their true identity. In addition, the curriculum changes will not only benefit those who they directly target, but indeed every child in the classroom: they will begin to comprehend the world they are living in and how they can support their friends who are discovering and beginning to understand their identities.
However, these new changes have not been wholly welcomed. It is understandable that parents feel changing the curriculum will unnecessarily introduce complicated concepts and debates into a child’s life at too early a stage. But the content that will be covered in class is, in my opinion, crucial for encouraging young people to see that simply being different, whether that be for the toys we play with, the clothes we like to wear, or the way we want other people to refer to us, should be embraced rather than repressed. It is about teaching children to respect their peers for their differences and value the person for who they are inside.
A BBC article last year exposed how some parents at Parkfield Community School in Birmingham believe teaching children about sexual orientation from a young age defies their religious principles. However, the government has provided guidance on how to deal with religious sensitivities such as these, by claiming the religious background of all pupils must be taken into account in how certain topics are taught. Although this does not exempt schools from educating on LGBT issues, the Department of Education says schools are at liberty to reflect religious beliefs in their teaching.
Most importantly, these educational changes will allow children to see that school and the general community are there to support those who are struggling to understand their identity. We can only hope that this will reduce the taboo that surrounds gender and sexuality by breaking the stereotypes and encouraging young people to know that being different to those around you and wider social norms is more than okay.