I attended a standard state comprehensive secondary school in a reasonably nice area – somewhere my parents hoped I would thrive and fit in. However, while academically this was the case, in many other areas the school fell short of expectations. Sex education in particular was pretty awful (and often simply non-existent) despite the school being required to follow the government’s guidelines and curriculum – and although here I’m focusing on an LGBT+ standpoint, its failings were certainly not limited to LGBT+ related issues.
I cannot ever recall having a proper LGBT+ sex education class. The only time LGBT+ issues were mentioned was in relation to a ‘how masculine or feminine is your brain’ quiz, which left half a class of year 8 kids petrified that the quiz had ‘told’ them they were gay. The teacher simply used this activity to explain that most people were ‘normal’ while others were ‘gay’ – and then quickly moved on. For me, at an age where I was only just starting to question my sexuality, the suggestion that I was ‘weird’ or not supported by the school was incredibly distressing.
Plenty of LGBT+ related topics that should be discussed in schools are often neglected; respecting others regardless of sexuality or gender, the importance of contraception for preventing STIs in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships, the concepts of sexualities and genders besides just ‘normal’ or ‘gay’, and the list goes on. Looking at the UK governmental guidance, though it is clear why sex and relationship education is often taught with such a bias towards heterosexual relationships. Significantly, “pupils should be taught about the nature and importance of marriage for family life and bringing up children” (this was first written in 2000 – at a time before equal marriage legislation). In addition, “parents have the right to withdraw their children” from all sex and relationships education except that provided within the science curriculum – presumably, an option of particular concern for certain parents who may wish to prevent their child learning about LGBT+ relationships. Furthermore, schools are not actually required to follow a prescribed curriculum, just to have an “up-to-date policy” available for inspection by officials or parents. This obviously enabled my school to avoid teaching topics they did not consider appropriate, which to me is incredibly concerning.
LGBT+ relationships are explicitly mentioned in only one section of this document, in which it is stated that it is “up to schools” to meet the needs of students and that “young people, whatever their developing sexuality, need to feel that sex and relationship education is relevant to them and sensitive to their needs”. This, as I myself have experienced, is simply not enough to ensure that schools will actually teach LGBT+ sex education in an appropriate and detailed manner. Indeed, LGBT+ sex education is something the document appears to quickly brush over, and is never directly mentioned in the ‘key points’ summaries throughout the report.
In addition to my school’s complete lack of relevant sex education, we also until recently had no anti-homophobic bullying policy – despite the governmental requirement that “schools need to be able to deal with homophobic bullying” – leading to several incidents of homophobic bullying as well as a general pejorative use of words such as ‘gay’ and ‘queer’. There was also a lack of LGBT+ role models or support groups. Despite being purportedly non-denominational, school assemblies repeatedly highlighted the importance of ‘traditional Christian values’, further reinforcing the idea that LGBT+ relationships were unacceptable.
Another factor discriminating against LGBT+ students within the school was the ridiculously strict uniform policy; in particular, the insistence that all girls wore skirts and all boys wore trousers or shorts. Although most of the complaints about the uniform were linked to the complete impracticality of skirts in winter, it would also have prevented many LGBT+ students (in particular trans students) from expressing themselves, as well as reinforcing the idea that pupils should conform to standard gender stereotypes.
Although many of these issues improved when I moved to sixth form college, we still suffered from a lack of proper sex education. Yes, we saw the first LGBT+ representative on the student union, could better express ourselves due to the absence of school uniform, had a few support groups and role models, and bullying seemed to be less of an issue – but there was still a long way to go until the school could properly represent the interests and requirements of LGBT+ students.
Having first ‘come out’ at Cambridge, I was initially very nervous about other people’s reactions and how well I would fit in. I was surprised to find that Cambridge really has such a supportive environment for LGBT+ students – helped in particular by the presence of LGBT+ representatives in each college and the CUSU LGBT+ parenting scheme. However, sex education is still something that needs improving – for example LGBT+ relationships and sex where not mentioned in our compulsory JCR-run welfare event in my Freshers’ Week and there is a general lack of information on where to go for advice.