content warning: homophobia, biphobia, transphobia. take care of yourself this pride month, please.
I was 8 years old when I told a close, childhood friend that I thought a girl in my class at school was pretty when she asked me if I wanted a boyfriend. She and her older sister told me that that meant I was gay and that that was wrong and bad.
I am 21 years old now and I think about it often.
This is not an uncommon scenario for LGBTQ+ people. The attitudes we are shown, and the opinions we are fed as children will massively affect our perception of the world growing up. If we are not told about the very existence of 1.2 million plus gay, lesbian and bisexual people and over 500,000 trans people in the UK, they will be perceived as alien, a group of people who have no place and do not belong.
This was the view held by many of my childhood peers. Gay was an insult, lesbian was even worse, and when you pushed into adolescence with the strength to share that you were bisexual, with an attraction to both men and women, you were a greedy ‘slut’. We sat in classrooms learning the history of our countries, learning about great artists, novelists, musicians and scientists, and much of the time, LGBTQ+ people were left out of the picture. Their gayness, their queerness only mattered if they were persecuted or imprisoned, like Oscar Wilde. We did not learn about the mass persecution of gay people, death sentences, criminalisation of gay people in psychology, murders of homosexuals in Nazi Germany, imported colonial homophobia across Africa, Asia and The Caribbean. The only gay education we received was on individual incidences of persecution. Where was our education on Stonewall? Where was our education on the AIDS pandemic? Margaret Thatcher brought in Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, that schools should not “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”, leading to Sir Ian McKellan coming out on BBC Radio.
Until recently, I didn’t even realise these histories existed, I hadn’t even considered that these things were this important, being gay was just someone choosing to be with someone of the same sex, it was something we didn’t talk about, and being trans wasn’t even in my field of vision until I met trans people aged 17.
As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I wanted to speak to some other members of the community to see how education and their schooling affected their perception of their sexuality or identity. I asked Bella Norris, who identifies as gay, what she thought:
“My first recollection of the word gay was it being used as an insult by kids at primary school. I don’t specifically remember using it myself, I was quite a goody two shoes, but I definitely didn’t know any better about why it was wrong. I went to Catholic schools and I remember debating in secondary school if the ‘man shall not lie with another man’ quote in the bible meant that homosexuality was a sin. I remember never thinking anything in the bible should be taken literally.
I don’t remember any kind of LGBTQ+ history education at school. Sex education was pretty rubbish even for heterosexual sex, I don’t think I ever even put a condom on a banana. I learnt about the biology of making a baby and maybe vaguely touched on STIs. I started questioning my sexuality at about 16/17 and I put it down to the TV show Orphan Black. This sounds kind of ridiculous but I have a letter I wrote to myself where I explain that I think I am gay or at least not straight because of how much I fancied and identified with the lesbian couple in the show.
Representation in the media changed my life. Youtubers Rose and Rosie showed me real life same sex female couples exist and can be happy and that coming out is scary but worth it. Stevie Boebi educated me about lesbian sex better than I was every educated about any kind of sex by a school teacher. The L Word blew my mind. I saw representation because I actively sought after it as I know many queer people do. I felt like I was uncovering this secret within myself that nobody had really told me was possible, and the only reason I could think no one told me is because it was a bad thing.
So I consumed all this new knowledge in private and didn’t tell anyone until I was at university over a year later. I sometimes imagine what it would have been like if I had been shown and educated on LGBTQ+ people and history at school and the inner turmoil it would have saved me. Education is so powerful and important. You aren’t born homophobic you learn it. You learn it when the first time you hear the word gay, it’s being used as an insult instead of your teacher using it when explaining that people can love whoever they chose. Or when your sex education lesson is exclusively about cis heterosexual baby making intercourse and omits safe sex practises for same sex couples or transgender partners. The omission of LGBTQ+ education is education in itself, it teaches children that LGBTQ+ people aren’t worth learning about, that they themselves aren’t worth educating about a community they may be a part of.”
Bella’s experience was not exclusive to her. The media often has to pick up where education fails the LGBTQ+ community. And this is worrying, because representation is still problematic in the mainstream media. Much LGBTQ+ media representation is focussed on troubling coming out stories, family problems, or societal injustice. There is little focus on normal people living their lives as members of the queer community. I know that a part of my understanding of my sexuality was through the presentation of gay women in Orange is The New Black, but this was in a setting so far from anything within my experience and was often highly sexualised.
Sexualisation and fetishisation of the LGBTQ+ community is hugely problematic. With the presentation of gay and bisexual women, and members of the trans community in pornography, some LGBTQ+ people are only seen in that context and are therefore subject to sexualisation or discrimination in real life, because they are seen as a sexual object and not a real human having real experiences. I experienced homophobic harassment of this kind recently as I put my arm around my girlfriend in public, and a man shouted crassly to us “Ooooh I love a bit of lesbian!”, leered and wolf whistled with his friends. This kind of sexualisation may seem surface level, but due to a lack of education and understanding, something far more sinister can sit below the surface of this kind of harassment. If people are reduced to objects of sexual desire and not human beings, it is far more likely that violence and assault can happen.
Sexual education for ALL children is imperative, and it not taken seriously enough. In my opinion, the more sexual education and conversation children have with their schools and families, the more likely they are to have happy and healthy sexual relationships later in life. If queer sex education is just reduced down to preventing AIDS and HIV, which it often has been, this reinforces the stigma attached to the AIDS pandemic and homosexuality, particularly in men (which is still enforced today, where many countries will not allow gay men to give blood without sexual abstention). Although not always legally barred, sexual education on LGBTQ+ issues for children and teenagers is not readily available. This means most young people who may be questioning their sexuality, or not understand their sexuality or identity, are taking to the internet or to their peers to find out more about these issues, which is great, sure, but we all know that the internet is a black hole of confusion and misinformation. Equally, there was a kid in my school who believed you could get pregnant by engaging only in oral sex, and I’m sure you have a similar story. Kids should not be educating other kids about any kind of sex or sexuality education just because the system and the dialogue between parents and children is inadequate.
I spoke to a pansexual friend of mine now working in the education system to hear her thoughts on sexuality and education. She shared her thoughts with me:
“I think that education of children on LGBTQ+ people is a long old road and “priorities” are sort of set by what is important at that time, for example education on gender identity is prioritised at the minute because it is unbelievably important and more of a core teaching issue.
As someone who is pansexual and polyamorous I think it will take a while for education to get to the point where we are teaching kids about all these different elements of sexuality. I would love to see a thorough education of all different orientations and identities once we have destigmatised the umbrella terms of “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” but it all has to come from the ground up.
Pansexual was not a term I really knew existed until 2 years ago and suddenly everything clicked in to place – but for quite a “common” sexual orientation to only be learnt about when I was 20 seems crazy. Outside of my own experiences of not being educated, but becoming an educator, I see so many kids who are becoming more and more passionate about LGBTQ+ issues but a huge stigma still.
In fact, whilst a colleague of mine was giving a presentation to Year 7s about the LGBTQ+ community and the hate they receive, a group of boys were calling a kid gay – during the presentation on using it as hate speech being inexcusable. These kids are 11/12 and it seems crazy that things that were kicking about when I was a child (like calling kids gay – which I absolutely did do) are still around. But it’s just because of the lack of education for the children on the subject, but equally the lack of teachers being passionate about teaching acceptance. In a middle class state boarding school in Surrey there are 2 members of staff who speak out about it.
There needs to be curriculum teaching on LGBTQ+ people to A. teach kids acceptance (not tolerance) from a young age, B. demonstrate to struggling kids that they are normal and C. to force teachers to start speaking openly about it. It does give me hope when I see and hear a small fraction of the kids talking about this, a lot of them want to learn. The only way to handle those who don’t want to learn is to make them learn and understand.”
When there are so few LGBTQ+ people in education as it is, who are open about their sexuality in classrooms. When you combine this with teachers who haven’t got a curriculum that helps to put their existence and their life into context, it can be so difficult to feel as though there is a place for you as an LGBTQ+ educator, but so many, so admirably are continuing to push for a change in the curriculum. As I mentioned, despite being a vocal member of the LGBTQ+ community since I was 14, when I chose to start using the label ‘bisexual’, I did not fully understand the difficulty trans and non-binary people face in the education system, in fact, until then, I wasn’t even totally sure they existed.
But they did, and they always have and always will, and the stigma and connotations attached to being trans won’t change fully until children are educated on trans history, sexual health, and what it means to be trans. I spoke to two friends of mine who are trans about their experiences.
On media representation and experiences in school as an afab trans person, Jamie shared:
“Honestly as much as the show was terrible, I think people I knew started actually thinking about what it meant when glee started airing!! As a trans person though I didn’t really hear as many like slurs and such, nobody every got called a tr***y as an insult, but people did get made fun of if they broke gender norms, especially if amab (assigned male at birth) people acted in a feminine way… I started questioning my gender before I started questioning my sexuality. I came out as bi to my friends when I was about 17 and that was relatively easy because all of my friends were drama nerds and they’re all bi now anyway. I was probably about 13 when I first found out trans people existed, and at the time I thought it was ONLY trans women.
There were lots of programs about ‘ladyboys’ in Thailand and I saw a program once where cis women and trans women would come out onto a stage and a massive audience had to hold up signs to say whether they thought she was ‘real’ or not. Suffice to say I buried a lot of gender stuff pretty deep. I found out about trans men and non-binary people through tumblr when some of the people I followed came out. This really resonated with me and gave me the opportunity to question my own gender, now that I knew it was possible. Most of the representation I have seen has been over social media. Again, popular media-wise I can only think of 2 explicitly trans male characters, both played by cis women (Tony from Orphan Black and Coach Bieste from Glee). Whenever I got super dysphoric growing up I would tell myself that I was probably non-binary, but that it was personal and I could just wear a few items of ‘men’s’ clothing and nobody would need to know about it. Now I tell people that I’m a trans man, even that isn’t always super accurate, but it’s much easier for me personally to explain a binary trans identity than a more complex and fluid one. I’m much happier and far less repressed now!”.
It’s clear therefore that there is a need for greater and broader media representation of trans characters living their lives, because otherwise young people will have a thousand questions about gender and nothing to look too. However, if they were educated properly the media wouldn’t have to fill that gap. On education and sex education, I spoke to Elliot about their experience.
“Sex education in any form pretty much terrified me cause I had so many thoughts and feelings I couldn’t explain, especially around gender! I would’ve loved to have been exposed to some kind of experiences and opinions regarding gender beyond the binary – I’m convinced it would’ve helped avoid a lot of my mental health issues.
I started questioning my gender Identity, without knowing I was, in primary school, and sexuality during secondary school, though a lot of those feelings were quashed and repressed very early on. I only started to see representation in the media especially once I had gotten to my last year in college. I still struggle with it day to day, but the idea that I am allowed to just be me, whether one day I am allowed to feel more masculine and the other feminine, that’s okay. That wasn’t something I was aware of until VERY recently.”
The disconnect between emotional, sexual and social education when it comes to LGBTQ+ students or even those who may be questioning their sexuality has serious consequences. Mental health issues are more prevalent among LGBTQ+ people, and from the accounts of those I have spoken to, and from my own experiences all the way back to that memorable day when I was only 8, of course mental health issues are a problem. Of course, when kids aren’t educated on the histories of people they identify with, if safe sex practices, or sex practices at all, of what it is to be a member of a growing community of people who face hate crimes and prejudice; of course that impacts people’s mental health. Levels of suicidal ideation are much higher in LGBTQ+ youths, and this is not acceptable.
I firmly believe that with better education from a young age of the normal lives, the history, of sexual safety among LGBTQ+ people and children who can grow up to be allies, we would see a far lower level of hate crimes, suicide, mental health problems and societal attitudes will shift.
I felt pain, discomfort and confusion about who I was for a long time after that day. Imagine if the next year, in school, I had been educated on the existence of LGBTQ+ people, imagine how quickly I could have grown to understand, or at least felt like I was able to talk openly about it, like I wasn’t cursed. There are more reasons to educate children on LGBTQ+ issues than there are not to, I can’t see any reasons not to, so please, parents, talk to your kids, and please LGBTQ+ friends, family and allies, keep educating yourselves on these issues and encourage those around you to do the same.