Following MPs voting in favour of focused education in schools in the UK, we speak to LGBTQ+ staff at Dazed who grew up without it
Last week, in a landmark ruling – 538 votes for, only 21 against – the House of Commons voted in favour of bringing LGBTQ+ education into schools. Pending approval from the House of Lords, from September 2020, primary school students will be taught about different family models, while secondary students will learn about sexual orientation and gender identity.
Following on from Scotland – which was the first country to introduce LGBTQ+ specific sex ed at the end of last year – the importance of this passing is paramount. For the most part, we may see the UK as more accepting than elsewhere in the world – Brunei shockingly introduced stoning by death as a punishment for gay sex recently, while in Brazil, far right President Jair Bolsonaro has already erased LGBTQ+ history from the education system, after being elected at the end of last year. But the lack of specific sex education our schools provide for LGBTQ+ people and allies alike is nonsensical. Surely a natural step after passing the same-sex marriage law back five years ago would have been to educate the next generation on what this means?
Whether you’re LGBTQ+ or not, going through puberty is a confusing time, likely exacerbated for queer youth without any proper education about sexuality. For myself, all of my sexual education came from watching porn which mainly featured muscly, white men – I am neither. It’s unsurprising then that in the UK alone, LGBTQ+ people are four times more likely to self-harm and half of us experience depression.
While the ruling won’t eradicate all of young LGBTQ+ people’s problems, the long term damage that the lack of education creates could be avoided. Here, we speak with ten LGBTQ+ members of Dazed Media on their personal experiences of queer-focused school sex ed (or lack thereof), and how this law could have helped them when they were growing up.
EMMA HOPE ALLWOOD – HEAD OF FASHION, DAZED DIGITAL
“I vaguely remember some sex ed at secondary school, but certainly nothing inclusive. Visibility was non-existent – there was one rumoured gay teacher, a few obviously closeted guys, and that was it (until my last year of sixth form, when there was a lesbian couple in year nine, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever). Instead, there was an enormous amount of shaming around female sexuality of any kind, the word ’gay’ was very much an insult, and girls getting off with each other was framed as something done exclusively for male titillation.
“It’s a very emotional question – how might my life have unfolded if, as an 11-year-old finding myself extremely transfixed by Christina Aguilera or wanting to steal glances at Page 3 of my dad’s copies of The Sun, I had known that those feelings weren’t freakish or to be suppressed at all costs? If I had been told it was completely normal to be attracted to both boys and girls (and people who don’t consider themselves a particular gender at all)? Had there been a more tolerant atmosphere at school – and, to be honest, better mainstream representations of bisexuality in the media – maybe I would have had a decade more of feeling free to understand myself. Maybe I would have worked it all out sooner. It’s hard not to feel like I was robbed of that somehow. I just hope that young, queer people are growing up into a more accepting, tolerant world.”
“Outside of school, on TV and in movies, and later the internet, I knew that open queer identity existed, but at school I faced total silence. Silence fosters shame, and teachers were complicit in that – they watched on as gay kids like myself were bullied by their peers daily, and said nothing”
JACK MOSS – DIGITAL FEATURES EDITOR, ANOTHER & ANOTHER MAN
“We touched on gay and lesbian identity very briefly within the context of sex education lessons (few and far between in themselves), but there was certainly no discussion of bisexual, queer or trans identity when I was at school. The only time I remember gay identity being discussed to any extent was in GCSE religious education, in the context of which religions accepted gay relationships and which didn’t (spoiler: not many).
“I can barely quantify how much as a gay teenager, trying to hide yourself from those around you – like I did until I was 16 – was exhausting, mentally and physically. Outside of school, on TV and in movies, and later the internet, I knew that open queer identity existed, but at school I faced total silence. Silence fosters shame, and teachers were complicit in that – they watched on as gay kids like myself were bullied by their peers daily, and said nothing. I think that this silence continues to foster enormous amounts of shame within my contemporaries. So many gay people who went to school at the same time as myself suffer enormous problems with self-esteem, and still do not feel in a place to talk about it because admitting you were bullied is a sign of weakness in itself.
“I would imagine that nearly every LGBTQ+ teenager suffered at least some amount of bullying, yet it is only now – over ten years later – that myself and my friends have even begun talking about our experiences at school. How different it could have been if schools were a safe space, where children and teenagers felt they could speak out: or, at least, be armed with some of the information they need to survive in the world. It would have changed my own life immeasurably.”
EVA NAZAROVA – DESIGNER, DAZED
“Having an LGBTQ+ focused education would have obviously been great. It could have prevented me from doubting myself and then hating myself as much. Society definitely needs to be ready for it and here in the UK, it probably is. Unfortunately, where I come from (Latvia) I can’t imagine something like this passing anytime soon. If it did, young people in classes would just make a joke out of it.”
TED STANSFIELD – DIGITAL EDITOR, ANOTHER & ANOTHER MAN
“I didn’t have any LGBTQ+ education at school. None. Nothing about sex, nothing about relationships, nothing about the LGBTQ+ community’s experience – or even our existence! I sometimes feel angry about it. Being at an all-boys public school, homophobia was really rife and I think some education would not only have helped LGBTQ+ people like me feel more accepted and for our experiences to be more normalised/less shamed, but it would also have helped the heterosexual students to be more accepting. I sometimes wonder what things are like in schools now and hope things have improved for the young queens coming of age there.”
“I’m sure if today’s children grew up in an environment where there was adequate representation for LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom, there would be more children who felt they could live a life true to themselves, confident that they have a place in the world”
MATTHEW JOHNSTON – CREATIVE PARTNERSHIPS & STRATEGY DIRECTOR, NOWNESS
“There was no LGBTQ+ education in either my primary or secondary schools in Ireland. Even on occasions where LGBTQ+ classmates were bullied so badly they had to leave school, the conversation was never addressed. This created an environment where to be LGBTQ+ was to be othered, which in those formative years meant the closet was preferable.
“I’m sure if today’s children grew up in an environment where there was adequate representation for LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom, there would be more children who felt they could live a life true to themselves, confident that they have a place in the world. This is something that is increasingly needed – LGBTQ+ youth have higher levels of anxiety and depression and are four times more likely to self-harm than their heterosexual peers.”
NICOLA NERI – FASHION ASSISTANT, ANOTHER
“I went to high school in a small city in the North of Italy and being just gay wasn’t an option, I didn’t have a real understanding of what it meant to be gay until I was 17. I definitely could have benefitted from it, it would have helped me to accept who I was earlier; growing up I thought liking boys was just a phase. I was so embarrassed and couldn’t accept it, that I pushed myself to date girls until I was 18.”
MIKEY WOMACK – FRONT OF HOUSE COORDINATOR
“The only thing we were taught was that homosexuality was considered a sin in the Bible. I assume being taught properly about LGBTQ+ culture would have helped my straight peers see being gay as normal. I would have felt safer and more accepted, for sure. Despite being seen as different to everybody else I wouldn’t say I was bullied – I was lucky. If anything, the oppressed, toxic, Catholic teachers were my main issue!”
“If there was more education and conversations on this topic in schools, kids like me wouldn’t feel ashamed or work so hard to hide who they are”
BENJAMIN HAMMOND – FRONT OF HOUSE COORDINATOR
“Growing up in coastal Devon, I think the first time I heard the term ‘gay’ was in the playground. Sex ed classes usually consisted of periods and how to apply condoms. We didn’t learn anything about sexual health care services, the risks of contracting HIV and other STIs, or even about different gender identities. Everything was so black and white, male and female, and heterosexual.”
“It’s long overdue, but thank God we’ve finally arrived. Growing up queer in a seaside town, it was so easy to feel othered. LGBTQ+ education would have enabled me to have a new perspective growing up. To understand that it’s normal to be different and that it really doesn’t matter who you decide to bed after a night out.”
AHMAD SWAID – HEAD OF SOCIAL, DAZED
“If I had (had LGBTQ+ education), I would have had an earlier understanding that would have saved me years of confusion, emotional pain and self-inflicted homophobia that has taken me years to get over.
“I didn’t grow up knowing what being gay was. The first time I was aware of the term was being ridiculed by it in school, so I ended up growing up with a very negative association with the term. Had I had LGBTQ+ specific education at school, despite my cultural and religious background (Afro/Arab/Muslim) it would have given me a perspective I really would have needed and benefitted from as opposed to the negative connotation that has taken me years to unravel.”
MARC MACDONALD – COMMUNICATION EXECUTIVE
“There was no LGBTQ+ specific education in my school. I don’t know if that’s just because it was a primary school consisted of 20 (yes, really!) students on the west coast of Scotland. I knew I was different all the way back then, but I didn’t even know the name for the way I felt. I didn’t even know if it was something; there was nobody connecting the dots for me. By the time I knew what it was – i.e. that I was ’gay’ – it was something that would get you bullied for, so I hid it for as long as I could! I really believe this was down to having no education on the subject for both myself and those who tormented me. When I moved to the Highlands, my high school only had 350 students and classes were limited to the basics – there wasn’t even drama. I can’t think of a single class that spoke about LGBTQ+ topics – I got everything from TV and a book on puberty my mum got me.
“If there was more education and conversations on this topic in schools, kids like me wouldn’t feel ashamed or work so hard to hide who they are. I would have been able to share this side of my life with my family sooner, rather than distancing myself from them. I would have felt more supported by the adults around me and there would have been more of a positive understanding of what being gay actually means by others around me if it came from a senior voice. Specifically, I’m thinking about the bullies who thought I was going to come onto them, backing themselves against the wall when I walked down the corridor, in fear I would ‘bum’ them. It was all very exhausting for me.”