We are grateful to writer Paul Magrs for letting us share this essay on the importance of LGBT visibility and equality in schools.
Stop ‘No Outsiders’!
I had a good education. I went to a Comprehensive School in the 1980s and we were taught to think for ourselves. I grew up with a healthy disrespect for received wisdom, dogma and cant. A lot of the stuff I learned at school was a waste of time, naturally. Too much learning by rote, perhaps, too much stuff about arable farming and crop rotation. I could have done with more time for reading, of course.
One thing missing from my education was any acknowledgement that LGBTQ people existed anywhere in the world. It was a huge absence in every lesson, every school assembly, every form of communication sent out by this mostly progressive, modern establishment. It was a great big Queer elephant in the room.
At the time it was illegal, of course, for a school or its teachers to say or present anything that normalized homosexuality or anything that wasn’t hetero. Any utterance suggesting that queers of any stripe were in any way normal was deemed to be ‘promoting’ homosexuality and therefore forbidden in our schools.
This was a big thing to grow up with in those years and it was all thanks to Mrs Thatcher and her government’s pernicious and weirdly puritanical commands. And it lasted all the way until the early 2000s, this strange state of affairs: thou shalt not speak of Queers in the classroom.
It meant that, when we were all taught about relationships, sex, bodies, feelings – all that stuff – it was always, only, about what mummies and daddies did to make babies. That was the kind of cursory and rudimentary attention that the breadth and complexity of human sexuality and emotions received. All of that glorious stuff was something that could be taught – clinically, quickly – during one Tuesday afternoon.
Elsewhere… in discussions of art and literature and history, queers were routinely swerved round, or their kinks were straightened out. Michelangelo daubed muscle men’s bottoms and willies over the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but you could never really talked about why. Oscar Wilde went to prison but, even in the 1980s, we got to discuss the ins and outs even less than did maiden aunts reading the news back in the day.
The only time queers got mentioned via horrendous schoolyard bullying and braying. Oh, and of course, our primate PE teachers screaming at us on the playing fields, calling us puffs and nancies. Curious, the unerring gaydar of the PE teacher. While other teachers turned a blind eye to the whole topic, their primitive, lumbering track-suited fellows always seemed to know just who to shout their homophobic abuse at. It might almost make you think that the official silence about Queers encouraged and licensed the abuse and the bullying outside the classroom. Funny that, isn’t it?
And the Eighties was such a tricky time for queers anyway. The Sunday papers we got at home were horrible tabloid ones, full of salacious stuff about vicars and tarts – and also queers and AIDS. Really vicious, nasty stuff about gay men. I read it all and grew up completely terrified at the thought of growing up gay and the horrors it would entail.
And the Eighties pop charts were full of queers and what were then called ‘gender benders.’ Some in the closet, some out of the closet. Some hugely brave and successful and lauded. Other sneered at and disparaged. Many of them dying, dead, gone forever.
A complicated, terrible time in many, many ways.
I feel I must repeat this: our schools were wonderful. But they did nothing. Absolutely nothing to help us understand. They did absolutely zero about enabling LGBTQ youngsters to orient ourselves and operate in the adult world.
Nothing about safe sex, even.
Nothing about asking for help.
Nothing about fitting into the world, or finding your tribe, or finding someone to talk to, or even that such a thing was possible.
Nothing. They really did nothing.
Some of us were lucky enough to go into further education. But only a very small proportion. We got to move away from our little town and go and living in a city or a campus. There, things were a bit different. You could learn at a lot at college. There were GaySocs and Nightlines and all kinds of ways to start learning. But there were a lot of peers who had grown up in the same ignorant set of circumstances that we had. We had a lot of the internalized homophobia to deal with, because of the cockeyed way we’d been brought up and educated.
Still, there were adventures to be had and mistakes to be made.
I always felt, as a gay man who came out at twenty that I was years behind my straight friends. It’s a running joke amongst my friends that gay men in their early twenties run around like girls do in their teenage years. They’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
We can be shouty, brilliant, gorgeous, arrogant, silly, bullish, proud, angry, joyful, depressed, manic, crazy, addled, unwise, confused, messy, destructive, superficial, wild, marvelous.
Sometimes all in the space of one night.
But what queers of this particular generation are – the ones who grew up in the shadow of things like Clause 28 and all that weighty, embarrassed silence – is neglected. That’s what I think we are. We grew up and we had to figure out everything for ourselves.
By the time a LGBTQ person finds their first significant lover and has those big conversations and shares their backstory with each other… there is a lot of backstory to share. They are the product of a culture that has willfully ignored them. A culture predominantly straight, and a culture that saturates all available space with explicit heterosexual imagery everywhere you look. (Strange, all this brainwashing. You’d think the predominance of heterosexual stuff would turn us, wouldn’t you? All that aggressive promotion, eh? Surely it’s going to turn our heads and turn us straight..? Is that how this stuff works, hmm?)
So I always think: hurray. Good for you. Especially for the LGBTQ adults who grew up in those dark years when their schools didn’t teach them anything and wouldn’t listen to them. Good for you. You dragged yourself up and you got into the world and survived.
This kind of neglect can destroy lives and foster homophobia.
And there can be no going back.
We must never let bigots, homophobes and their dopey, backward ideas creep back into education. They can do terrible damage to people’s lives.
There’s nothing wrong or shameful or dirty about the L or the G or the B or the T or the Q or any of the other stripes we’ve added to the flag we’re waving. We’re equivalent and we’re equal to everyone else.
Hearing bigots spouting off about education sends shivers through me. The very thought that the government or local councils or schools might cave in and kowtow to ignorant people’s ideas about what should be taught brings back awful memories of the things we had to put up with.
I love the fact that there is a course called ‘No Outsiders’ in that Birmingham school, and it places everyone on equal footing, and that pupils will learn that human nature is more complex and wonderful than religious bigots would like them to think. It sounds such a kind and thoughtful course, too.
I think it’s important to demystify these things. We grew up in such fear of the unknown. As LGBTQ kids of the 1980s we felt we were part of the terrifying unknown ourselves.
We can’t go backwards into this ignorant stuff. We can’t indulge bigotry. People must be told: no. This is the curriculum now, in any civilized society.
I had a great education – in terms of thinking for myself, and being trained to question authority, cant, dogma and received wisdom. But there were huge things missing from it. The great big Queer elephant in the room sat there waiting. All that has been addressed and sorted out since, thank goodness and we have courses called things like ‘No Outsiders’.
No matter how shrill or fervent the bullies are, we really, really can’t go backwards.
Copyright Paul Magrs 2019
Read more from Paul Magrs on his blog HERE