These stories from LGBTQ+ young people prove schools let down a generation of queer students
‘My school taught me gay sex was a sin’
CW: Homophobia, sexual assault, harassment and abuse
Schools failed LGBTQ+ students. We have always existed in the classroom, whether we were closeted or not. In the aftermath of Section 28 our schools refused to teach about our sexualities, our community, our history, queer sex and relationships.
Section 28 was a law put in place which affected our generation of LGBTQ+ students massively. From the years 1988-2003, our schools were stopped from “promoting” and teaching the acceptance of homosexuality. And because of this, millions of queer children faced homophobia, prejudice, harrassment and absue in the classroom and on the playground every single day.
Just because they put an end to Section 28 in 2003, doesn’t mean we were taught about LGBTQ+ issues. Our schools still treated our sexualities like a taboo, some even shaming us for being homosexuals. It’s been 18 years since the law was repealed, but new research, commissioned by LGBT+ young people’s charity Just Like Us, found one in five of the UK’s teachers say they’re uncomfortable discussing LGBT+ topics with pupils – and less than a third are “completely comfortable” with it.
The Tab spoke to queer young people about their experiences in the education system. Here’s what they had to say:
Section 28 restricted what we could learn
Not everywhere in the UK stopped enforcing Section 28 in 2003. Kent kept its own version up until as late as 2010. 22-year-old Izzy went to school in Kent and says she can’t remember a time when gay people were mentioned even once at her school.
Our schools’ lack of teaching meant we had to learn about the history of our community by ourselves. We had to research, watched TV shows and tried to grasp some sort of historical education we missed out on. But as Izzy agrees, this really shouldn’t be the case and “we shouldn’t be left to just figure things out on our own.”
Izzy told The Tab: “In one way I’m glad we didn’t get anything that was actively negative or homophobic, like some of my friends at religious schools did, but it’s fucking appalling that this is the bare minimum we can hope for.”
Whilst it’s important to avoid homophobia in the classroom, LGBTQ+ students deserve to be taught positively about our queerness and the history of the community we are part of. Izzy says with the right support and queer education, it would be so much easier for us to feel like we can come out and accept oursevles. We shouldn’t be left to figure everything out on our own.
Isabelle is a 24-year-old queer woman who grew up in a very white, heterosexual, heteronormaitve environment. She believes the lack of queer education she had at school resulted in her feeling “completely unequipped” to deal with her feelings and who she was. She told The Tab that even now, years after leaving school, she still struggles with the fact she isn’t attracted to men.
Isabelle’s lack of education meant she didn’t realise she was experiencing attraction to women until she reached 19 even though she says she’d had these feelings since she was 12.
Our schools failed to teach us about queer sex
When I was at school, we were never taught about same-sex couples having sex or how to do it. It was never a topic that was brought into the classroom and I think that is one of the ways how my school failed me. If they would’ve taught us about queer sex, it would’ve normalised a lot of my feelings and maybe I wouldn’t have stayed in the closet for over 20 years. It wasn’t until September 2020 when LGBTQ+ inclusive sex ed was made compulsory in schools across the UK.
In the aftermath of Section 28, schools failed to promote safe queer sex which meant we had to learn about it off our own backs. 22-year-old Alexander recalls being taught in detail about the biology of reproduction but says he wasn’t given any kind of education on gay sex, HIV, how to stay safe during sex, or whether he should be using a condom or not.
Schools failed so many LGBTQ+ students, the majority of young queer people like Alexander have to learn the basics online, which can be a really dangerous way of learning about sex. Alexander told The Tab: “Things might have changed since I was at school but it seems to me that Section 28 has been repealed, but its legacy is still very much active.”
Tom was at a Catholic school when he was told the only correct sex to have is procreative sex and any other type of sex which used contraception was sinful. He was also taught LGBTQ+ sex was a sin. “My school tried to be a bit modern on it by saying it’s not homosexuals themselves that are sinful, but it’s just the way they perform sex and that in theory a gay couple could be happy and sin free with a life of celibacy,” Tom said.
It’s no secret that religious schools often shy away from the details of LGBTQ+ sex but it’s damaging to teach it in such an one-sided way that really affects queer students and how we see ourselves. “It also perpetuates negative connotations around being LGBTQ+ in a way that enables the already rampant bullying of gay young people in schools,” Tom said.
Isabelle had one sexual health class during her time at school which covered a few STDs but never mentioned HIV or AIDS. There was nothing about queer sex and she didn’t learn anything about multi gender attraction.
When we were subject to homophobia, our schools did nothing
Ethan says his school failed him when they did nothing to stop the homophobic students who harassed him for being openly gay. “One student sexually assaulted me in front of me the entire year after. Another group of students spread a rumour that I had a crush on the most homophobic boy in our year, making me the target of a lot more abuse,” Ethan told The Tab.
He thinks schools need to be more proactive in putting in punishments for people who have been homophobic and transphobic. Ethan was called different slurs and says he was made to feel worthless by his bullies and abusers. However, when he reported it to the school, he says he was met with being told to just ignore it because “boys will be boys”.
Luckily since leaving school Ethan says he has grown from these experiences and as a result is much stronger now. But he admits he’d have felt a lot safer going to school if he had a supporting community and any kind of pastoral care to help him.
It’s wrong that we were never allowed to be ourselves at school and those of us who were, were met with abuse. 21-year-old Tyler recalls the first time he faced prejudice at school, he was aged 10 and the dinner ladies labelled him as “the camp one”. Just 10 years old, not even old enough to understand the meaning of the word “camp” but he knew it wasn’t meant in a positive way.
Friends and other staff at the school told Tyler not to tell his mum about what happened and Tyler listened to them. “It wasn’t until much later I understood it was because the staff wanted to hide and brush what had happened under the carpet.
“I completely get it’s not exactly a homophobic insult, but to have this said to a 10 year old child doesn’t sit right with me, along with the teachers trying to prevent me from telling my mum about what had been said,” Tyler said.
Schools failed their LGBTQ+ students, not only in educating us but also in creating an environment which made us feel safe and accepted. Our schools’ have such a long way to go before we can see any kind of progress. Every queer child has the right to walk into school every morning, learn about the history of their community and get treated the same as any other heterosexual student.
Some names have been changed to allow people to speak freely
The Tab’s Pride reporting series is putting a focus on highlighting LGBTQ+ issues and celebrating queer voices across UK campuses.
If you’ve got a story you’d like to tell us – whether it’s an incident of homophobia on campus, an experience you’d like to share, or anything you think we should hear, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected]