I've been thinking a lot over the past few weeks about the outcry that has ensued over some aspects of the new Relationships and Sex Education guidance that has just been approved by the UK parliament. From September 2020 all primary schools will have to teach children about different families, including LGBT families, as part of mandatory Relationships Education. And all secondary schools will have to teach children about sexual orientation and gender identity, as part of Relationships and Sex Education. This has caused outrage among some parents, with protests outside Parkfield Community School in Birmingham, where some of the parents are furious that the No Outsiders programme has been delivered there. This programme teaches children about the equalities act, and includes picture books that depict same sex families, and some parents have been concerned that 'exposing' children to LGBT issues with 'sexualise them'. Ofsted, meanwhile, have no such concerns, and after a recent visit they praised its record on promoting “tolerance, acceptance and mutual respect” and confirmed the school's Ofsted rating of “outstanding".
I do have concerns though, about the increasing amount of homophobia and lack of tolerance that I have seen in the media in the last few months. Just last week the BBC show Question Time aired a question from an audience member which asked whether it is "morally right for 5 year old children to learn about LGBT issues in school?" I absolutely know that if you replaced "LGBT issues" with "religion" or "mixed-race relationships" in that question that it would not have been given air-time. And rightly so. Because of course children should learn about religion, and mixed-race relationships, and disability, and all the other aspects of the world that they live in. And likewise, they should learn about LGBT issues, because LGBT people exist, and live in this world, and have parents and children and relatives, and a right to live their lives with tolerance and respect from those around them.
I am in a unique position to comment on this - as not only am I a sexual health doctor and a sex education consultant, but I am also a parent in a same-sex relationship, with children currently aged 11, 9 and 6 who have a right to understand how their family is made up and how they were conceived. From my clinical experience, I know first-hand how important it is that children and young people can be free to be themselves as they go through puberty and develop sexual feelings.
I will never forget one particular patient that I saw in clinic when I was training to be a Sexual Health and HIV consultant. He was 82 years old, and had been attending the clinic for about 6 years, turning up for STI screens a few weeks after episodes of unprotected sex with casual male partners. On that particular occasion he had managed to contract genital herpes. He was shocked by the diagnosis, and we had a long chat both about that, and about his own inability to come to terms with his sexuality. He felt disgusted by his own attraction to men and saddened that he wasn't ever able to have a 'normal family life'. He did get married to a woman and they had children but he hadn't felt able to stay with her as he couldn't bring himself to have sex with her. For the most part he ignored his 'urges' (his term), but every so often he felt the need to go and find a casual partner, then felt overwhelming guilt and shame. No one else knew about this aspect of himself - the only place he had ever been honest and open about his sexuality was in the sexual health clinic. He had no friends he could confide in. He rejected my offer of referral for counselling as he had 'tried that before' and they weren't able to 'make me normal' so he didn't see the point. He cried quite a lot during the encounter and I just felt terribly sad for him that he was going through this self-hatred on his own. Sadly I don't know if he was ever able to come to terms with his sexuality, but that consultation stayed with me for a long time, and I reflected that I had never been more grateful to have grown up in a time where Section 28 had been repealed, and that I was living in a society where my right to express my sexuality was enshrined in law, and where I could be openly out at work and to my friends and family.
I consider myself to be very lucky. My children are at a fabulous primary school which celebrates diversity and teaches the children about all kinds of relationships. My family have always accepted who I am and have been unfailingly supportive of me. I am out at work, and to my friends, and I have the very great privilege in my career to be able to use the knowledge and skills that I have gained from being a Sexual Health doctor to train other professionals to teach children about relationships and sex. If, in my professional life, I can help even one teacher to teach about LGBT issues in a more tolerant and inclusive way then I will feel that all my work has been worth doing. And if, in turn, even one young person learns that they will be accepted for who they are, then my work really will be done.
And yet, seeing seemingly liberal people saying that teaching young children about same-sex relationships will result in them becoming sexualised, is very discomfiting. And clearly not the case. If young children can be 'sexualised' by learning about a same-sex relationship then surely they can also be 'sexualised' by learning about straight relationships? And don't get me started on what might happen to children who learn about the way that Henry VIII treated his six wives. And what about the children who read the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, in which the prince finds a 16-year-old child in a coma, kisses her on the lips (which brings her back to life), and then immediately marries her. If one of my children ever has the misfortune to be that unwell, I sincerely hope that they are not then kissed on the lips by a stranger and expected to marry them. Books about a man marrying a man, or a woman falling in love with a woman, will not cause small children to have sex with each other. All it will do is let them see the real world represented in the stories they are reading.
I don't want my children to grow up in a world where all the characters in the books they read are straight, white and able-bodied. I want them to be aware of the diversity that is out there in the world, and for that to be the case they need to be taught about those things, both at home and at school. My children have grown up knowing that they have two mums, and it has never been confusing to them. I realise that some of the commentators out there would rather I had not had my children in what they believe to be an 'unnatural relationship', but given that I did, what would they have me do now? Should I have lied to them about their parentage? Should myself and their other mum have pretended that one of us was the live-in nanny? When they asked me about how they were conceived should I have pretended that the stork brought them?
Of course, I did none of those things. Instead, I did what I always advise other parents to do when asked questions by their children - I answered them, honestly, and in an age-appropriate way. And so my children have understood what a sperm and an egg is from about the age of 5, and they know how babies are made. They ask me fascinating questions about relationships, and sex, and how conception works. And I answer them. And I sincerely hope that they grow up knowing that they will be accepted by society no matter who they end up falling in love with when they are older.
If, after reading this blog, you would like to get some LGBT-inclusive books for your home or school, I have put together a list of children's picture books that could be helpful.