Fifty years ago this month, the Sexual Offences Act decriminalising homosexuality was passed in the UK. The bill was less a triumph for gay rights as a grudging admission of the failure of criminalisation. It turned out there were other ways of humiliating homosexuals than sending them to prison.
As Roy Jenkins, Home Secretary at the time said: “Those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of shame all their lives.”
Fifty years later, over 250,000 pupils across the UK are today taking part in School Diversity Week, run by the charity Just Like Us, to celebrate LGBT equality in education. A long way from the “weight of shame”, or even from Clause 28, the 1988 Act that prohibited councils spending money on anything deemed to “promote homosexuality”.
Yet equality charity Stonewall’s newly published 2017 School Report, which canvassed over 3,700 LGBT pupils across Britain, tells a less rosy story. Almost half of all gay, lesbian, bi and transsexual pupils are bullied at school. Nearly one in ten receive death threats. As a result, more than 60 per cent of these young people self-harm, and 40 per cent of trans pupils have tried to take their own life. Shame, it would seem, is still in plentiful supply.
Adolescence can be a cruel time, when anyone who is different is vulnerable. So are these statistics really indicative of persistent homophobia? Are “gay” insults just one of many – weight, race, gender, physical characteristics – that young people throw about as the inevitable Lord of the Flies of growing up?
Bullying based on sexual orientation seems to differ in one significant way. Where teachers are more inclined to challenge racism and sexism in the classroom, Stonewall’s report highlights that little more than one teacher in every ten who witnesses LGBT bullying will intervene in any way.
Various voluntary organisations are working in UK schools to change this. Stonewall partners with local authorities and schools to help thousands of teachers find ways of accepting diversity and protecting LGBT rights, while a new charity called Just Like Us is training LGBT university students to share their own stories with secondary school pupils: busting stereotypes and putting a confident human face to a pejorative label. These programs are making a difference. School bullying of LGBT has dropped by almost a third in the last decade.
Without these kind of programmes, early and unchecked prejudice can lead down very dangerous paths indeed. Twenty years after homosexuality was no longer a crime, it was still deemed sinful enough to explain the AIDS epidemic for many. The lives of thousands of men, women and children were lost before some of the world’s decision makers accepted that HIV was a virus, not a moral punishment.
The UK’s response to its HIV epidemic, which largely affected gay men at its start, was characteristically pragmatic and, ultimately, compassionate. The late Princess Diana’s public handshake of a gay man living with AIDS spoke volumes. Today, age of consent, voting rights, even marriage is guaranteed to LGBT by law. One in 12 adoptive parents are same-sex couples.
Yet as the Stonewall report highlights, there is a rainbow ceiling from tolerance to acceptance that has yet to be broken. Tolerance says it’s appropriate to acknowledge someone’s sexuality, as long as it’s not on display, when it becomes unnecessarily “promoting homosexuality”. Tolerance says it’s OK to talk to young children about racism and sexism, but not LGBT prejudice until the age of 15. Tolerance sees gay rights as “the fashions of a particular time”, as Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, noted, rather than something true and everlasting.
For us, this ignores a fundamental truth. Human beings don’t choose their sexuality any more than their eye colour. If they did, given the statistics above, surely heterosexuality would be every adolescent’s safe choice? The veneer of tolerance is where playground bullying passes for teasing and the silence of a teacher goes unchecked. It is an echo of that shame 50 years ago.
As gay men, LGBT rights will always be a central issue for us. As parents, the notion of acceptance takes on a much broader dimension. How you see the world, what you care about, who you love... these are at the core of who you are as a human being. We want to raise children who accept our choices and feel completely free to make their own, trusting us with the precious truth of who they are.
As we mark School Diversity Week, while celebrating our gains, perhaps we should aim for a different measure. When every child, not just 40 per cent of young people, feel they can talk to an adult at home about being LGBT, perhaps we can celebrate having crossed over from tolerance to acceptance.
Read the original article in The Daily Telegraph.