To understand the controversy about LGBT lessons in schools, we need to understand the experiences of both LGBT people and the Muslim community, writes Colin Wilson.
In the last few weeks the media has been full of condemnation of parents campaigning against LGBT lessons in primary schools. Protests which began at Parkfield School in Birmingham spread to other schools in the city and now to Manchester. Reports typically mention in passing that most of the parents involved are Muslim, but seldom consider what the lives of Muslim people are actually like in Britain, and how the protests might be understood in that context. I want to take a different approach: to try to understand how these events have played out in the context of a society where Islamophobia, homophobia and transphobia are all rife – and in which socialists can only organise effectively if we oppose all these oppressions.
At the centre of the controversy are No Outsiders lessons, which stress that people live in different ways and different kinds of families – they don’t just discuss LGBT issues. They do this in an age-appropriate way – teachers are not talking about gay sex to primary school kids. Almost half of LGBT pupils are bullied at school for being LGBT, according to Stonewall research in 2017, and almost two thirds of trans students face bullying. Almost half of them never tell anyone about it. One in eleven trans students has been subjected to death threats at school. Schools have a responsibility to be a safe place for all pupils and to address this. If parents are concerned that talking about LGBT issues will make their kids gay or trans, all I can say is that homosexuality was barely mentioned in my school, and I still ended up gay. And anyone who thinks that teachers shouldn’t mention being gay, lesbian or bi to 6-year-olds needs to realise that straight people talk about their relationships, marriages and home life all the time, and can’t expect LGBT people to keep silent about ours. Indeed, while some people think it inappropriate to mention LGBT people’s lives in the hearing of young children, they see no problem in asking a little boy with a female friend ‘is she your girlfriend?’ when he’s barely four.
All these points have been made in tweets and memes, in moving opinion pieces and carefully argued reports. It is moving for me, a white gay man, to feel that other people are on our side and we’ve won some level of acceptance. It is scary to think that we might go back to the days of officially sanctioned homophobia and Section 28. But if we’re to talk about the oppression of LGBT people, we also need to talk about the oppression of Muslims. The Guardian reports on Friday 22 March that in the week since the Christchurch attacks, anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked by 593%. Most of these incidents referred to Christchurch – for example, racists mimicked a gun being fired. The day before, five mosques in Birmingham were attacked with sledgehammers.
Attacks on Muslims don’t just come from racists and fascists. It’s only a few weeks since Home Secretary Sajid Javid attempted to remove British citizenship from Shamima Begum, who wanted to travel to this country with her new born baby, who has since died. There has been widespread speculation that Javid, himself from a Muslim background, and with aspirations to win the Tory leadership, needs to show the racist Tory members who will elect the leader that he is not ‘soft’ on his fellow Muslims. And Javid is part of a government with a consistent track record of whipping up racism – whether it’s Theresa May as Home Secretary with her ‘hostile environment’ and ‘go home’ vans, or Amber Rudd, who presided over the Windrush scandal, which affected thousands of people.
In particular, the government has attacked Muslims through its Prevent strategy. It was reported in January that a Muslim 13-year old who mentioned ‘eco-terrorists’ in a French lesson was interviewed under Prevent. A teacher in Tower Hamlets stated that a Muslim pupil was scared to practise his religion in school or he would be referred to Prevent. Amnesty International calls Prevent ‘highly dubious’, and two weeks ago courts ruled that Prevent guidelines on speakers in universities were unlawful because they violated freedom of speech. A friend of mine, a white gay man giving a talk at a university about Israeli pinkwashing, found an official sitting at the back of the room throughout – and this is only one of many attacks on campaigning around Palestine.
Prevent is also an issue in Parkfield School in Birmingham – the BBC reports that Andrew Moffat, the teacher at the school who developed No Outsiders, linked the programme to Prevent and its aim of ‘de-radicalising children’. This is not the first controversy about Muslims in Birmingham schools – the ‘Trojan horse’ controversy in 2013 involved false claims that attempts were being made to Islamise schools in the city. No Outsiders is being taught in Muslim-majority schools in Birmingham, suggesting that homophobia is a particularly Muslim problem and implying an almost colonial attitude, that racialised people need to be ‘civilised’. Finally, there has been no consultation with parents about No Outsiders for several years.
Taking all this together – parents were not consulted, not informed about the content of lessons, and those lessons were linked to Prevent – the school created a potential disaster, where the LGBT and Muslim communities came to see each other as the problem. There is no denying that some of the parents have said homophobic things – but if you take a look at Facebook comments on LGBT media posts about the controversy, you regularly find racist comments about Muslims and Islam, so all too many LGBT people are hardly free from prejudice either. There’s also a general common sense in the LGBT media that the government supports us and we should demand the authorities act – which ignores the racist nature of just those official structures, as well as the fact that you can’t trust the Tories in any case, as shown when Andrea Leadsom commented that parents should choose when kids are ‘exposed’ to LGBT issues. The last thing we should do, then, is to try to take sides for one community or the other. Apart from anything else, there are people who are members of both. What needs to happen is dialogue between the parents and the LGBT community.
The good news is that those discussions, which won’t be easy or quickly resolved, have begun. Activist and former Respect councillor Salma Yaqoob reported on her Facebook page on Monday 18 March that on the initiative of local Stand Up to Racism activists some Parkfield parents had met with people from the LGBT community over curry, had discussed discrimination against both Muslim and LGBT people, and parents had agreed to teaching about the Equality Act, including tackling anti-LGBT discrimination. It’s unfortunate the school itself didn’t initiate such a dialogue some time ago.
And there are two reasons to be hopeful. First, because past experience in East London shows it is possible to build links between Muslim and LGBT communities even when things look very bad. In early 2011, a tiny number of Muslims stuck up leaflets in Whitechapel declaring the area a ‘gay free zone’. Soon after, some people claiming to be gay activists, though no one locally had met them before, announced that an ‘East End Pride’ march would take place. Local trade unionists exposed them as members of the far-right EDL aiming to increase tensions between LGBT and Muslim communities, and the march was cancelled. That autumn, after meetings between the local LGBT Forum and East London Mosque, and after LGBT participation in an anti-EDL protest to defend the mosque, a different march was held – a multicultural pride march. At the rally at the march’s end, Muslim mayor Lutfur Rahman was photographed with his arm around a drag queen. (The drag queen had chosen to wear a dress covered in sequins in the shape of the Union Jack – two steps forward, one step back, as they say.)
The second positive development is the emergence of books, music and campaigning groups, created mostly by Muslims and people from Muslim majority countries, examining issues around the history and present day reality of the relationship between sexuality and Islam. I’m thinking of books like Desiring Arabs by Joseph Massad, Before Homosexuality in the Arab Islamic World by Khaled El-Rouayheb and Sexual Politics in Modern Iran by Janet Afary. Saleem Haddad’s novel Guapa blows away simplistic racist stereotypes about Arab countries, as does the music of Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band, recently profiled in The Guardian, with an openly gay lead singer. In the Middle East there exist groups including Al Qaws and Aswat in Palestine, and Helem in Lebanon. In Britain, Imaan organises LGBT Muslims. From Birmingham to globally, a practice and an understanding is being pieced together based on fighting against racism and for sexual liberation.