Friday, 18 March 2011

Defending diversity: teaching LGBT awareness in schools

When Toby Young, founder of one of the new "free schools", launched an attack on the "loony" excesses of state schools, he chose to focus on LGBT awareness activities at one east London comprehensive. Parents and teachers spoke to Hsiao-Hung Pai:
It’s not easy to be a minority in Britain these days – and I don’t only mean ethnically. Within the context of the current attacks on diversity, even raising awareness about rights of a minority (be it ethnic or sexual) has been condemned as “political correctness gone mad” or “loony left”, in the words of Toby Young, the wealthy Tory columnist and the founder of West London free school.

Toby Young singled out one of the most ethnically diverse comprehensives in Hackney, Stoke Newington School, for its “crazy excesses of contemporary state education”, that is, the school’s LGBT awareness-raising activities – the year 8 students creating banners and displaying their messages around a local park; (They said, “No matter who we are, we are all human”. “Some people are gay. Get over it.”) A Year 7 student explaining how they had been working on Alan Turing, who was arrested for being gay in 1952, forced to take hormone tablets and committed suicide in 1954; The Head of PE presenting six members of the girls’ Rugby team and talking about how the school’s first LGBT week had led him to challenge stereotypes in sport.

Local Schools Network comments that this was a local community school at its absolute best. “It was a call to support all our students for who they are, and for all of us to be proud of who we are.” But it was all too much for Young, who compares the role of the PE teacher to that of a Chinese intellectual during the Cultural Revolution “who confessed in order to avoid being carted off to re-education camps”.

The fact that Toby Young was able to make such a caricature (in the right-wing press: and of all those involved in promoting diversity at Stoke Newington School, without actually ever visiting the school, experienced the curricular and extra-curricular activities of LGBT, spoken to staff or students, is the evidence of how the privileged who are able to form public opinions and shape policies are actually totally out of touch. They do so with experience completely detached from the tradition of diversity in our working-class communities.

Annie Gammon, Headteacher of Stoke Newington School said: “I am proud that the students and staff and parents and governors at Stoke Newington School are standing up for diversity…Morally, every member of society has a responsibility to tackle unfair discrimination: the students at Stoke Newington are learning to do exactly that. They are learning, alongside and through all the National Curriculum subjects, why discrimination is wrong and how to tackle it.”

“One way in which we tackle prejudice is to celebrate achievements of people from groups who have faced discrimination and misjudgements in the past. At Stoke Newington School we do this for several groups including women, black, Turkish, disabled and LGBT groups.”

The school organises several creative days each year – this year these include a maths and science day, a black history and art and textiles day, a media day and our LGBT/art day. Gail Bristow, a parent, said that it’s been the school policy for years to raise awareness of diversity. “This is very much what we’re used to in Hackney. Toby Young lives in a different community. I wonder why he hasn’t moved on from his “how to lose friends and alienate people” ethos...Our community in Hackney is an ethnically and sexually diverse community. Our children don’t grow up bigoted…My seven-year-old has many gay friends.”

Another parent, Caroline Millar, said: “It’s great that the children are learning to recognise and appreciate differences. It is fantastic that my teenage daughters are being taught in a place that values diversity. I’m in favour having some themed teaching…and awareness-raising integrated into the curriculum…Children need to be made aware of diversity, including sexual differences and need to learn to respect these differences. How can you really understand what you are studying if you can’t discuss the fact that an artist is gay or a musician is Chinese?”

Allan Beavis, a parent, said: “The day of the LGBT learning was spent informing children of experiences, personalities and ideas directly relevant to the understanding of those subjects Toby singles out – French, English Literature, History. The work is integrated into lessons…As a parent of a child at Stoke Newington School, I am confident that our children will not be excluded because of their class, race, sexuality and ability.”

“The school has therefore encouraged children’s minds to the possibilities and diversities of life outside the confines of their parents’ or carers’ examples and expectations… State schools are helping to raise a generation of kids to become broadminded and less accepting of any type of prejudice…”

Toby Young’s offensive comments mean that “his suitability to be involved at the highest level in the education of children has to be called into question”, say the parents. Beavis said: “None of this would be particularly important if he were just a media whore or a poster boy for the Tory Party but he is someone who is leading the mission to set up a school and, as such, will have moral and legal responsibilities towards children.”

“One therefore wonders how safe LGBT children or staff can possibly feel at his West London Free School now that he has gone on record with these opinions and distortions… It is worrying because this founder of West London Free School ridiculed the purpose of LGBT at Stoke Newington School, seemingly unaware that, by law, schools (including his own) must ensure that they deliver a rounded and varied education including not just the academic curriculum but the PSHCE topics such as LGBT awareness.”

Despite the attacks, the tradition of diversity will carry on. Henry Stewart, the Chair of Governors at Stoke Newington School, said: “The LGBT awareness-raising has contributed to challenging prejudices and stopping bullying at schools. I have read that as many as 98% of children in this country use the word ‘gay’ as an insult. My kids tell me it doesn’t happen at Stoke Newington School. It’s also important to recognise the legal responsibilities of a school and I don’t know if Toby Young has thought that through yet.”

--- Hsiao-Hung Pai works as a freelance journalist, writing for the Guardian and the British-Chinese press. She has also written for Feminist Review and Open Democracy, among others.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

The liberal bigot: when racism and gay pride collide

The recently cancelled East End Gay Pride’s links with the EDL is no surprise – the marriage of gay rights and racism is a dangerous trend

“Paki-bashing” and “queer-bashing” are shameful facts of British history. So shameful that you’d hardly believe the two could be capable of bashing each other. Shockingly, this isn’t as outlandish as it may seem.

You may remember Judith Butler taking to a stage during Berlin Pride 2010 only to refuse their prestigious Civil Courage Award. Rendering Pride organisers shame-faced and blubbering, Butler explained that her refusal was to protest against the racism that occasionally comes hand in hand with queer movements:

“Some of the organisers explicitly made racist statements or did not dissociate themselves from them. The host organisations refuse to understand antiracist politics as an essential part of their work. Having said this, I must distance myself from this complicity with racism, including anti-Muslim racism.”

In doing so, Butler drew public attention to a grave and often overlooked problem.

The liberalism of gay rights movements and the right wing politics of racism, anti-immigration and Islamophobia may, at a glance, seem to be the strangest of bedfellows, but a closer look shows that the two aren’t actually that incompatible.

The recent controversy surrounding the East End Gay Pride, which various groups—most notably Imaan—condemned for its ties with the notoriously jingoistic English Defence League (EDL), is a testament to the prevalence of this odd couple.

The East End Pride—spearheaded by Raymond Berry, a self proclaimed proponent and founding member of the EDL—actively refused to liaise with ethnic and religious minorities in the community.

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but the EDL’s involvement in the East End Pride—and there are others in addition to Berry— smacks of a concerted effort to rile an already racially fraught community. It is most likely an attempt to gain the liberal vote; by excluding Muslims and other ethnic minorities from Pride, the hope is to pit them as homophobic, thereby promoting the (false) idea that sexual liberalism and multiculturalism are mutually exclusive.

It is all too tempting to campaign against immigrants and ethnic minorities who may themselves hold homophobic attitudes. Just as Butler said in her refusal speech, “many European governments claim that our gay, lesbian and queer rights must be protected and we are made to believe that the new hatred of immigrants is necessary to protect us,” there is a danger of couching Western society’s acceptance and assimilation of gays in terms of white, European progressiveness. In doing so, we exclude cultural, ethnic and religious difference.

Although the dubious Pride has now thankfully been cancelled due to furious campaigning by Imaan and other groups, the racist sentiment is still inevitably present.

But we must remember that it is often ethnic and religious minorities that are in dire need of gay rights. Queer members of these groups are minorities on two accounts and also often face greater levels of homophobia within their community. Butler recognised this and passed on her jilted award to queer groups that work specifically with ethnic minorities.

Instead of excluding them, we must reach out. Ethnic communities should be fully engaged with in order to bring about mutual respect, Not only will it help family and friends of queers to be more sympathetic, but more importantly, in the true spirit of liberalism, they will be welcomed into a diverse multicultural queer community.

Words: Iman Qureshi