As everyone will no doubt be aware by now, especially through the Independent’s front page on Tuesday, 45 schools stood accused of reintroducing the homophobic Section 28 through their sex and relationship education policies. Whether it’s through deliberate malice or lazy copy-and-pasting of outdated advice – and I’m strongly inclined to believe it’s the latter in most cases – it couldn’t come at a more opportune time, especially when eyes are on Russia for their similar (but much more enforced) law on “homosexual propaganda” and in the wake of a protracted marriage equality debate where several reactionaries were claiming, above NUT advice, that teachers were in danger of being forced to teach about homosexuality!
Of course, as with the whole nonsense over people in danger of being sacked for their opposition to same-sex marriage (where the only verified case of dismissal that was directly due to their beliefs on marriage was Olly Neville, who was sacked as leader of UKIP’s youth wing for supporting it), this again has a massive disconnect from the reality; as teacher Peter Smith noted on Twitter, he faced instant dismissal if he said that being homosexual was okay.
There is some prejudice within certain activist communities that if you aren’t involved in direct personal action, your activism is somewhat less important. Of course, this doesn’t factor in such obstacles such as physical or mental ability, lack of disposable income, precarious employment status, or fear of police brutality, that could preclude such activism; indeed, my own mental illnesses make it hard for me to engage in traditional protest. Caroline Lucas can afford to get arrested at Balcombe, and her status as an MP – as she freely admits – prevented her from most of the police response that the man on her left was shown to receive.
Twitter is really effective at opening up activism to the wider public. As we saw over the Jane Austen banknotes campaign, it allows activism to be taken from often-ineffective lobbying groups to a much more tireless an uncompromising campaign base. While the majority of good activism via social media comes from places such as the Middle East and North Africa, where the public are using that voice to dissent from their autocratic leaders, that doesn’t mean it can’t, or doesn’t, happen here.
The Section 28 issue was something that came to my attention through the twitter user Jon Bradfield — who probably found out from Benali Hamdache — when he highlighted Colston Girls’ School in Bristol having such a policy in mid-June. Through the use of the Freedom of Information Act — which is a valuable tool in any activist’s pocket — and talking to the local MP, Stephen Williams, we were able to get said policy overturned rather quickly.
Over the several weeks that followed, more schools came to my attention that had these policies, and sadly while LGBT activists were busy pushing for the Lords to pass the marriage bill they were going to pass anyway, it didn’t get much attention (although I did keep the NUS LGBT Campaign up-to-date, in case either Sky or Finn noticed it on the Facebook group). As I kept doing some research, I found several faith schools that also had similar policies.
This, of course, is where the British Humanist Association comes in. As a supporter of the BHA, I thought they would be helpful in clearing up what the law was regarding faith school curricula. The information was a mess, hinting that Ed Balls, as Education Secretary, had tried to include an opt-out in the Children, Families, and Schools Act 2010, which had failed (through lack of parliamentary time) to pass into law. I had surmised that the public sector equality duty would still apply, and make these policies tenuous at best.
Massive thanks must be given to Richy Thompson and the team who worked on this issue. Over the past six weeks, they’ve been working hard alongside me to bring nearly all of the 45 named schools to light. This couldn’t have been the story it was without them.
And then, in the wee hours of Saturday morning, something happened that I didn’t expect. I was discussing the idea of “homosexual propaganda”, and whether its use as a homophobic political card could have its own use on Wikipedia – between Russia, Tennessee, and Section 28, there definitely is a pattern of said use. I lazily searched Google, again, for the phrase that has become so infamous over the past few days, “The governing body will not permit the promotion of homosexuality.” After finding said phrase, I sent in a FOI request, informed the NUS LGBT Facebook group and went to bed.
By the time I woke up that afternoon, the news had spread like wildfire, as Gay Star News and Pink News started covering it. By early Sunday morning, the estimate had jumped to at least eight schools, and on Sunday afternoon, after having just finished the research themselves, the BHA raised that number to 45. By Tuesday, it was on the front page of the Independent, and the DfE and Welsh Government made it their top priority. And no-one more than me is surprised at how massive this story has become, even battling David Miranda’s detention (which, I think, is a bigger story) for coverage and discussion. It’s a massive source of pride to know that something you had directly been involved in had made the front page of a national newspaper.
I don’t know what else to say but thanks to all the people who helped bring this to light over the past few weeks and especially over the past few days, to Jon and Benali, to Richy and the BHA, to Alice Hoyle of the Sex Education Forum, to Wes Streeting and Stonewall (although my criticism of them as a trans activist still stands, and I’m rather concerned with how one of their poster “School Champions” is on the list) and to everyone else I’ve forgotten to mention. And I totally support efforts to make SRE compulsory part of the National Curriculum, despite the disappointing failure of the Government to include it in the Children and Families Bill, because we desperately, desperately need it.