28 January 2010

On Tolerating Tolerance

The release of the British Social Attitudes Survey - and particular the increased levels of 'tolerance' (i.e. the fact that fewer people are willing to admit to homophobia) has been the subject of much debate recently, and Jeff's post, unsurprisingly, caught my eye. Now, as regular readers of one or both blogs will probably have realised by now, the specific aspect of tolerance that's got people talking - the LGBT question - is one of very few where he and I don't entirely see things from a unified perspective.

That said, in this case, there's a great deal he's said which I find thoroughly commendable: his point that tolerance isn't quite the same as what we should be aiming for - i.e. acceptance; the idea that if we're going to tolerate one outlook on life (the equality agenda), then we should be tolerant of others (more traditional, conservative ways of thinking); that the phrase 'gay community' is somewhat clumsy - I'm guilty of using this one and he has a point: there's enough diversity and distinct ways of approaching life within that community for it to actually be considered as the 'gay communities'. Let's be honest, the differing personal stories, experiences and attitudes of gay people across the world suggest that there's only really one point that unifies us. You could essentially argue that the LGBT movement is at its best when it's working for solidarity: mutual identification is never going to happen, just as heterosexual man and women don't necessarily form understandings with others simply because they too are heterosexual.

But I digress. What I particularly appreciate is his summation: "I prefer just getting along, with its omission of a better or a lesser side."

However (sorry, Jeff). What I don't particularly appreciate is this bit before it, which I fear undermines the noble and fair sentiments he expresses in that last sentence:

"While we're on the subject, it would be interesting to know what any British-wide survey concluded with regard teaching same sex relationships in schools. Yes, it would improve understanding and hopefully reduce unwarranted discrimination but I still think the majority of Brits would prefer primary school is an LGBT-free zone. Some things are for parents to teach and we should free up teachers to crack on with Science, English, Maths and Languages."

Now, again, I think there's scope for agreement. I'd be interested to see what Jeff (and indeed, the survey respondents) think about any sex and relationship education in primary schools. I'd suspect (though I can't say for sure) that he and the respondents would be wary. What I can say for sure is that I'd be wary too. Firstly, I think that there's merit in letting kids be kids for a while, and not making them worry about adult concerns. Let them enjoy their innocence, and their youth. Secondly, the amount of hand-wringing about STIs and teenage pregnancies shows that in an area where parents need 100% confidence in what is being taught, that confidence isn't there. The sex education approach currently in operation clearly isn't working, and simply bringing the same ham-fisted ways of doing things forward by a couple of years will do no one any good.

And yet. As I said, the current ways aren't working, so we need new approaches. better ways of thinking - if that involves teaching kids about sex and relationships sooner, then that's what it involves. Plus which, we live in a highly sexualised society: whether on TV, online (especially online), in films, in pop music, or even the clothes rack, sex is everywhere, and unless you keep kids locked in a darkened room for the first eleven years of their life, children are going to be subject to, at the very least, references which will provoke awkward questions to mortified parents. So from a utilitarian perspective, it might be better to find a way that it can be discussed in primary schools. I don't like the idea, but I'm not sure what choice we have: better they learn about sex from a textbook than a T-shirt.

So why the dissent? Fairly obviously, I think that same sex relationships have to be a part of that education, if it's to happen.

Firstly, there's the principle of diversity: religious education, for example, need not be about your own religion anymore - certainly mine included discussions of morality in the different major faiths and that's a good basis. Let's face it, a generation of young people from different backgrounds who learn and understand about each other's culture, faith and principles is something we should aim for - it would be the best way of achieving lasting, positive progress. That should be the same for the sexual orientation barrier: a cohort of school pupils who understand what being LGBT means for someone will do more for equality and acceptance than a thousand Russell T. Davies screenplays.

Secondly, this comes back to Jeff's point about equality. If the point about sex education is to give children the facts (and it should be: "Just don't do it" is not a successful message), then homosexuality, as a fact, has to be included in that. Moreover, if sex education plays a part in reducing teenage pregnancies and STIs (and if it's done well, it will), then of course LGBT relationships need to be discussed for the sake of the pupils who go on in later life to have a same-sex experience. Obviously, pregnancy isn't going to be an issue in that case, but STIs most definitely are and by arming young people with information and education, we prevent their spread. By not discussing what could literally be vital information for some of the pupils in the future, we hinder their chances of knowing what they need to know before it's too late. In so doing, we give homosexuality a lesser status. Again, from the utilitarian standpoint, if early, robust sex education prevents people from having to visit the GUM clinic in later life, then all aspects of the subject need to be covered.

Third, I have a kind of "walk a mile in my moccasins" approach to this. Now, it seems that being a gay young person in 2010 is easier than it was in 2000, which in turn was easier than in 1990. My experiences of it centre around the middle of those: as I was coming to terms with myself, Graham Norton was gaining fame, Queer as Folk was on the telly and the late Stephen Gately had just been dragged kicking and screaming out the closet by the News International paparazzi. But I didn't really identify with any of those - I have only the one unifying point in common with Norton, QAF was set in cosmopolitan Manchester whereas I was stuck on the arse-end of nowhere so couldn't exactly sneak off to Canal Street for a night (incidentally, if you recall the plot of that, being taken advantage of by a guy twice my age wasn't an idea that resonated with me, and it still isn't), and while I can sing, I wouldn't exactly be a successful Gately tribute act (plus which, to be blunt, Boyzone has never been on any of my playlists).

So in the media, there was nothing for me to latch onto in terms of role models. And locally? Well, how can I put this? If I were to discuss the upcoming election with some of my neighbours, and suggest that it was time for a change of government after 13 years, many of them would agree wholeheartedly, as it was time to give Harold Wilson a crack of the whip. And obviously, there was nowhere to ask or talk about it at school, particularly as Section 28 was still on the statute books then. So no role models, no advice, no support network. Just, by then, the understanding that I was different, how I was different and what that meant. But no way of expressing that, of discussing it. So I internalised it, I kept it to myself. That can't have been good for me and I cannot have been the only one.

That's not something that any young person should ever have to go through, and even though there are more role models (Gareth Thomas is the best thing that's ever happened to young gay people: all we need is for a footballer to be de-closeted and exorcise the demons left by Justin Fashanu's horrendous experience), even though being gay is seen as more tolerable in society, just a little teaching on the subject could provide support and re-assurance to a young person going through a traditionally difficult transition period in life, made all the more confusing by being, in effect, the odd one out. Particularly as Russell T. Davies still can't write a gay lead for toffee: Captain Jack Harkness, with his "if it moves, shag it" credo, is not who I'd like to see in anyone's first brush with homosexuality in popular culture.

So the sentiments expressed by Jeff are 100% right, but to turn them into a reality, homosexuality needs to be discussed as part of any sex education syllabus, whenever it's taught. If we want to build a community - and by that I mean the community of society as a whole, not an LGBT community - of well-adjusted, functioning people at ease with themselves and with others, that's inevitably going to be a part of how we do it.

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