The importance of tackling LGBTQ+ stigma in the classroom

Teaching students about LGBTQ+ history is more important than ever before

Founded by Schools OUT in 2004, LGBT+ History Month is an important celebration of the LGBTQ+ community’s history. This year’s theme encourages us to celebrate LGBTQ+ peoples’ contribution in film and television from #BehindTheLens, to reflect on LGBTQ+ experiences and explore progress towards true equality.

LGBTQ+ history

LGBTQ+ history is often underrepresented in the curriculum and ways the UK’s wider history is represented. It certainly did not feature in my education, with most of my secondary school years happening during the Thatcher government and under the long shadow cast by Section 28.

While many students now will have heard about the Stonewall Riots or Alan Turing, significant people and events in the history of the LGBTQ+ rights movement remain unacknowledged in schools, and LGBTQ+ experiences can be marginalised from the mainstream narrative.

Much of the responsibility for this still lies with Section 28 of the Local Government Act, introduced in May 1988, which stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

Generational impact

Schools self-censored, and student support groups shut down. Homophobic bullying was rife in the very place in which young people should feel nurtured and protected. Teachers were, in effect, being prevented by law from stepping in to address such situations.

While Section 28 was repealed in 2000 in Scotland and across the UK by 2003, the repercussions continue to be felt today. The detrimental impacts on a generation of adolescents questioning their sexuality and gender identity cannot be underestimated. Nor can its enduring legacy as sanctioned othering of a minority community, which legitimised discrimination and prejudice.

The latest hate crime statistics continue to speak to this legacy, with increased incidents of violence and abuse against the LGBTQ+ community being reported. While there were annual increases in all five strands of hate crime in the year to the end of March 2022, sexual orientation hate crimes increased by 41% and transgender identity hate crimes by 56%, both much higher than in recent years.

Toxic discourse

The growth of social media since Section 28’s repeal has been a huge advance in alleviating the sense of isolation felt by many young LGBTQ+ people, normalising LGBTQ+ experiences and making LGBTQ+ histories more accessible. However, it is also a space where disinformation and harmful discourse circulates.

The huge jump in transgender identity hate crimes comes against the backdrop of increased online hostility to the transgender community and anti-trans sentiments that are validated and platformed by some mainstream news organisations.

Yet, More in Common’s recent survey of over 5,000 people found the public was not polarised over trans equality, further highlighting the toxicity of social media discourse in spurring such hatred. It is essential to equip young people with media literacy and historical analysis skills to identify misinformation, evaluate differing perspectives and analyse the reliability of the information they consume, and formulate their own opinions in their search for belonging.

Prejudice and discrimination

In a Censuswide survey of 2,000 young people between the ages of 14 and 17 years, which Facing History commissioned in March 2021, just over two-thirds (67%) reported having experienced prejudice or discrimination, with over a quarter (26%) having experienced it towards themselves. 22% of respondents had personally experienced homophobic prejudice.

Incorporating the voices and stories of the LGBTQ+ community is one way to counteract the ignorance accompanying such prejudice. Reading, seeing or hearing about how it felt to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community when Section 28 was law, for example, can open up opportunities for young people’s empathy and understanding about others and their own, experiences of prejudice and discrimination, as well as consider their agency in challenging it.

A sense of belonging and inclusion

When we encourage students to consider whose experiences are included in the history taught in our schools and whose are often left out, we are acknowledging that the curriculum has perpetuated the study of majority experiences and “in” groups at the expense of marginalised “out” groups. By doing this, we can create belonging, inclusion and cohesion rather than segregation, discrimination and othering.

It is powerful for students to recognise that there is always ‘work to be done’ to include other voices and perspectives and look beyond heteronormativity. In creating a more inclusive, representative curriculum, we can acknowledge the complexity of our identities beyond binaries and normalise gender and sexual diversity.

Beyond basic sex education

Sexual orientation and gender reassignment are protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, which schools must comply with. Also, the Government’s Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education guidance for England states that pupils should be taught the facts and the law about sex, sexuality, sexual health and gender identity in an age-appropriate and inclusive way that is integrated into the RSE programme.

This is a positive step forward –  and many young people are better educated in this matter than the adults around them – but there is work to do to ensure LGBTQ+ history and experiences are incorporated across our curricula.

It is vitally important to have these conversations at school and to do so in an environment that feels safe, supportive and reflective. We can’t expect everyone to have the same level of confidence and sensitivity in discussing emotional, identity-based issues in the classroom. It is critically important we provide support and training to educators to do this work, not just as part of specific RSE lessons but throughout their curriculum delivery.

Support and education

Equally, we need to support our students to develop critical thinking and media literacy skills so that they feel better prepared and equipped to navigate social media, the language and tropes they will encounter and not be drawn in by misinformation and propaganda.

LGBT+ History Month offers us all an opportunity to pause and reflect on the achievements of a historically persecuted, sidelined and silenced community. Just as Black British history is British history – so too is LGBTQ+ history.

If we do not tell the stories of contribution and oppression, we are giving our young people a distorted understanding of our society and humanity.

Beki Martin, Executive Director of Facing History and Ourselves.

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