By Pam Currie, member of the EIS LGBT Sub-Committee
Switching to school teaching in 2019 after two decades in Further Education, I felt excited – ready for a change of direction – although a little trepidatious. After all, I left school in 1993 with no real idea of what I wanted to do, but a firm promise to myself that I would never ever set foot in a Secondary school again. I’d had an inkling since Primary (discovering that blowing kisses sent girls screaming in the opposite direction) that I was gay, but survival instincts kept the closet doors firmly bolted. I certainly had no desire to put myself back in that environment.
Like many in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Asexual (LGBTQIA+) community, I’d grown complacent in the 2010s. I attended the STUC LGBT Workers’ Conference, supported the EIS affiliation to the TIE campaign and was aware of the challenges many LGBT young people still faced at school (not to mention the oppression of queer communities around the world) but the forward march of progress seemed unstoppable. I’d come out in 1995 and the Blair government, followed by devolution, had undone many of the legislative wrongs of the past.
We should have listened to our older queer friends, those who lived through the decriminalisation of gay male sex, the Gay Liberation Front and the social changes of the 1970s, only to be crushed by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the brutal homophobia of Thatcher’s 1980s. They knew only too well the pain of the backlash, and that progress is never linear.
In Scotland and around the Western world, the lash is back… This time, the focus is specifically on the trans community – including the growing We were silenced before – we cannot be silenced again numbers of people exploring identities which those of us growing up in the 1980s and 90s in the UK, had no language for – non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid. The reality that an increasing number of young people appear to feel confident, safe and articulate enough to come out, while still at school is in itself testament to the progress we have made. But visibility today, comes at a huge price as they then step into the frontline of public and media scrutiny that again threatens their health, wellbeing and rights.
While the phenomenal work of the TIE (Time for Inclusive Education) campaign has given Scotland a world leading commitment to an LGBT inclusive curriculum and young people at all stages of the school system access to appropriate and inclusive Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood (RSHP) education, the reality on the ground is more mixed. The toxic discourse propelled by social media is seeping into our classrooms more than before, whether it’s the misogyny of Andrew Tate or rehashing harmful tropes of fringe groups, intentionally misusing ‘grooming’ to cast doubt on the role of LGBT teachers and school staff, as they did during the anti-LGBT era of Section 28.
Teachers, schools and charities who challenge misinformation and advocate for the rights of minoritized groups such as trans youth, have come under attack by anonymous keyboard warriors who claim to be acting in the interest of children. A recent example – a Primary school in Inverness which had included entirely appropriate questions on queerphobic bullying in a pupil questionnaire – was quietly defended by just one local MSP.
LGBTQIA+ teachers were silenced, schools shut down debate and pupils were left in the dark
Should we be worried? After all, if these are fringe groups, surely neither Holyrood nor Westminster would seek to resurrect Section 28 in Florida-style “don’t say gay” legislation? Reading two excellent books published recently about the Section 28 era – Paul Baker’s ‘Outrageous!’ and Kestral Gaian’s ‘Twenty Eight’ – made me realise that it wasn’t so much the blunt legislative instrument that caused so much ignorance, isolation and pain in education in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s as much as the moral panic and self-censorship that surrounded it. Thatcher’s government and the tabloid press created an environment in which LGBT teachers were silenced, schools shut down debate and pupils were left in the dark – many, as Gaian’s book explored, unaware that there was even a legal ban on the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, believing instead that such things were simply too wicked to mention.
We should have listened to our older queer friends…They knew only too well the pain of the backlash and that progress is never linear
We have recently witnessed the debate shift from the fringe to the respectable centre, however, particularly where support for the trans community is concerned. Newspaper headlines increasingly echo the hysteria of the 1980s, the Westminster Labour leader pontificates about whether 16 year olds can be aware of their gender identity (while expressing no such concerns about their ability to join the army) and an increasingly vicious debate swirls online and in classrooms about the Scottish Government’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill. The fringe groups are coalescing and growing in number – including, heartbreakingly – some of the very LGB activists who stood against Section 28 in the first place.
Another potentially worrying development is the launch of the Scottish Union for Education (https://scottishunionforeducation.substack.com/), a group campaigning under the slogan ‘education not indoctrination’. The group’s website is concerning, adopting a scattergun attack on all things ‘woke’ and heavily paraphrasing the language of Section 28. In a direct nod to Thatcher’s 1987 speech, the group broadens the complaint from LGBT inclusive education to anti-racist work in the classroom and that Daily Mail favourite, “anti racist mathematics”.
What is it about maths which invariably attracts the attentions of the “political-correctness-gone-mad” brigade? Our subject seems to be the beacon of “proper” education to which they are attracted, moth-like, to bask in the glow of the certainty of numbers. What could possibly be contentious or ‘woke’ in a spot of algebra or some good old fashioned geometry? But maths, like all knowledge, is socially constructed and culturally situated – while much of our established human knowledge of mathematics – Pythagoras’ theorem, for example – is shared across time and space, but how we teach it and how our pupils experience it is not. It is as important to be an explicitly, actively anti-racist and LGBT inclusive teacher in a maths classroom as in any other subject – and maths is one of the glaring shortfalls of the Scottish education system when it comes to gender and the poverty related attainment gap.
There is work to be done, then, as teachers – of maths and of every other subject – in the Scottish education system. After successive years of progress our challenge now is to stand firm against the backlash – to stand up as LGBT teachers and as allies of the LGBT community, to create and to hold that safe space for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids, to report and to demand action on LGBT discriminatory bullying, harassment and attacks (starting with a box on SEEMIS and in our incident forms to even acknowledge that these take place) and above all, to defend the right of LGBT kids to exist. We were silenced before – we cannot be silenced again.
After successive years of progress our challenge now is to stand firm against the backlash