Time to celebrate LGBT history – Tony Fenwick speaks to Socialist Review

Time to celebrate LGBT history

Schools OUT was founded 40 years ago to campaign on lesbian, gay and bisexual issues in education. Sue Caldwell spoke to Tony Fenwick, a co-founder, about the fight against homophobia and transphobia.Can you tell us about the circumstances in which Schools OUT was launched in 1974 and the challenges you faced?
Schools OUT started as the Gay Teachers’ Group after John Warburton was sacked from his school and banned from working for the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) for telling the truth.
Some students in his class had seen him coming out of a gay bar and they asked him if he was gay. He said that he was. That was it. It was enough to finish his teaching career in London.
We have a book that we intend to re-launch next year documenting the exact circumstances in detail. But that as the straw that broke the camel’s back. Staff room banter involves talking about your families and your weekends.
How could you talk about your same sex partner in an environment where ‘coming out’ and revealing yourself as being gay or lesbian would make people assume that you had entered the profession to abuse children?
Make no mistake, that was the orthodoxy at the time. The unions actively supported that view. Not only did they fail to support lesbian and gay teachers; they actively attacked us. In that environment we realised we had to set up our own support network.
From these acorns oak trees grew, as they say, and the Gay Teachers Group took on trans people and bisexuals than changed its name to Schools OUT. The challenges were enormous.
You could be sacked just for being an LG or B teacher until 2003. Trans teachers were given protection under the Sex Discrimination Act protected them in 2000, but in reality it was tacitly noted that a teacher who sought gender reassignment would have to find a new career.
Shirley Pearce was a science teacher who was bullied out of the profession for being perceived as a lesbian the 1990s when I joined Schools OUT. She sued her school for failing in its duty of care. She lost her case because there was no protection for LGB people. The school incidentally was represented by Cherie Blair QC.
Only last year a teacher had to go to court because she had gender reassignment whilst in post.
The Head at the time defended her totally but moved on. The new head simply told her she couldn’t. I’m happy to say that case had a good outcome and she remains in post.
Over the years there has been a host of Employment Tribunal cases and other legal battles over discrimination cases. Where they are won there is invariably a gagging clause included as part of the settlement so we never hear about them and they never happened.
A biggie when I joined – now often forgotten – was male teachers offered contracts that were then quashed by the local authority because they had committed an ‘indecency’ in their youth i.e. they had been caught in a sexual act where they or someone else was under 21. Where they had been under 21 they were perceived as the victim and sacking was unlikely. Otherwise dismissal was a real and present danger.
One of the most difficult periods must have been when Margaret Thatcher introduced Clause 28 banning the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by local councils. What impact did this have and how was it countered?
You had to be there! The right wing media: particularly the Mail, the Express and the Sun were rabidly racist, homophobic and sexist on a scale that is much worse than today and of course there was very little legislation over the use of language or incitement to hatred.
Winston Silcott was framed, Blair Peach was murdered, Bernie Grant was portrayed as a black terrorist and Linda Bellos typified the loony left according to these rags. T
he Bermondsey by-election, where Peter Tatchell stood for Labour and had to suffer a relentless homophobic campaign led by Simon Hughes for the Liberal Democrats while being abused by his own party and its leader Neil Kinnock left us in no doubt as to where we stood in the pecking order.
This followed the systematic demolition of Maureen Colquhoun’s personality and career after she was outed as a lesbian Labour MP in the late seventies. It wasn’t getting better; if anything it was getting worse. The Thatcher administrations were driving a neo-conservative monetarist agenda and the press was with them all the way. Equal opportunities were trampled on and local authorities were perceived as the enemies of the state.
Meanwhile some local authorities, including the ILEA with the support of the leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) Ken Livingstone, were actively trying to address discrimination on the grounds of race, gender and homosexuality and introduce books and educational materials that challenged prejudice.
Schools OUT had a manifesto that made the same demands that we are making as LGBT activists today: we were ahead of our time. The state and the press hated us. Lies about banning black bin liners and proscribing the singing of Baa Baa Black Sheep in London schools were being promulgated daily on the front pages of the tabloids and they were waiting for just the right moment to kick the LGBT movement into touch.
The threat of AIDS and the state’s immediate reaction with its ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign backed up by the red-tops’ insistence on describing it as a ‘gay plague’ fuelled prejudice on a massive scale.
Then they got their target: an English publication of a Danish children’s book called ‘Jenny lives with Eric and Martin’. It was a charming tale about a little fair haired girl with two dads – one of whom had been in a straight relationship with her mum who was okay about everything.
One day they were out walking and a homophobic neighbour had a go at them in the street. They had to explain to Jenny that some people had old fashioned attitudes and couldn’t understand their relationship.
It’s a simple story for carpet time. But at one point Jenny is bored and makes her two dads breakfast in bed. They are naked (top halves only) and Jenny joins them in bed while they eat their breakfasts and discuss their plans for the day.
The press went ballistic, publishing these pictures and implying that the two adult men were having a ‘sex romp’ with the child (paradoxically, given her gender). There was now a popular movement to ban ‘these’ books from our schools.
Thatcher introduced Section 28 with a speech at the Tory Conference where she said: ‘Children in our schools are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.’ So there we were. It’s a life-style choice.
The prime minister says so. Local Authorities were not allowed to publish materials for schools promoting homosexuality or putting forward pretend families. It’s a life-style choice and pretence.
The ILEA and the GLC were closed by Thatcher. Some have said to me that she didn’t really have a problem with homosexuality (some of her best friends were etc.) and that she had to do something because of the media hysteria. I believe it was classic authoritarian populism as is being repeated today in Russia by Vladimir Putin.
Section 28 had a massive impact. It was wrongly believed that homosexuality couldn’t be mentioned in schools and that any teacher who brought the subject up would be on a disciplinary. This was absolute rubbish: only local authorities were liable.
But why let the truth get in the way of a good yarn? The absolute injustice of it was that it perpetuated homophobia by perpetuating the silence. ‘We mustn’t tell the children’.
We were erased from the curriculum; erased from history; erased from life. LGB teachers – who could still be sacked for their ‘life-style choices’ – had to stay in the closet and shut up, while LGB students were to be deprived of their identities by the total invisibility of LGBT people from their everyday existence.
And this has a legacy. Even today there is still no statutory training for teacher in dealing with homophobia and transphobia (there is for police officers) because the walls come up when you mention sexual orientation in schools.
That said, there was a great counter-reaction. Stonewall formed with the specific intention of campaigning to repeal Section 28. Seeking the advice and good counsel of Schools OUT among other organisations, they grew in number and popularity and are a powerful lobbying group today. Schools OUT led the counter demonstrations in the early days and never stopped campaigning until its repeal in 2003.
But what I find most interesting is the way the world moved on. Section 28 alerted the left as to our dilemma and they took it on. The unions shifted their position – with the continued support I might add of the SWP.
The media made us visible in soaps and current affairs programmes and we were so often immortalised in music!
We set up LGBT History Month in 2005 out of the frustration we felt at the lack of change in schools following the repeal of section 28.
In general there is much greater acceptance of gay and lesbian people in society today, yet homophobia is far from being eradicated – why do you think this is?
Well first there’s the legacy left by the British Empire. The laws being re-enacted in Nigeria, beefed up in Uganda and re-introduced in India are all related to the laws against homosexuality that were imposed by the British colonialists.
These nations are also being encouraged in their new found anti-gay rhetoric by evangelical groups and missionaries from the US among others.
We talk of Jamaica being perhaps the most dangerous place in the world for gays and lesbians. But Jamaica has more churches per head of population than anywhere else in the world. And most preach the pains of hell and purgatory: it’s Christianity that’s been re-hashed to justify slavery.
Religion has a lot to do with it. Since Thomas Aquinas created his natural order of things Catholicism has been bound to the idea of homosexuality and gender variance being ‘disordered’. There isn’t time to go into detail but all the monotheistic religions have homophobia written into their scriptures – or the interpretation of those scriptures.
Now I understand that most people who believe there’s a God use religion to bring peace and understanding into their lives, but there are also those who abuse religion to justify their bigotry. And I have to say each of those religions has something that will provide succour to bigots. Often it remains dormant but it can be brought out at any time, in any generation or in any century.
Then there’s scapegoating in an economic crisis. When the bankers and the politicians fuck up there has to be someone to blame. AIDS research and treatment costs a lot of money. We allegedly have expensive life-styles.
We’re spendthrift and wasteful while real families have to scrimp and save. These stereotypes can be positive – it was awareness of the pink pound that increased our popularity in the west in the 80s and 90s – but they can easily be turned against us in a crisis.
In countries and cultures where arranged marriages are the norm gays and lesbians can be a major economic problem because they are not available for marriage if they are out of the closet. Plus they ‘devalue’ their siblings in the marriage market: ‘You don’t want her; her brother’s a homosexual’.
At its extreme this leads to honour killings and the like. We need to be careful here not to generalize: there are traditional societies where LG and T people have a strong role in the community. I think economic factors always have a detrimental effect.
Finally I need to say something about Vladimir Putin. He’s been around for longer than any other politician I can easily think of. He fiddled the constitution so he could stand for a third term.
He’s rejuvenating himself with Botox and goodness knows what else so he seems to have immortality in mind. He rigged the presidential election so he could win it and the people took to the streets in protest. So he took an ambiguous old law – hooliganism – revived it and beefed it up so he could ban all resistance.
Then he said to himself: ‘I know they hate me but they hate homosexuals even more’ and fuelled the fires of homophobia that were already sweeping his nation. It’s authoritarian populism again.
Thatcher did it, Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini did it. What worries me about Putin is that, like so many dictators before him, he may start to believe his own ridiculous rhetoric. That’s what breeds the kind of insanity that leads to people signing bits of paper that authorises mass murder. Seriously, I think we underestimate what’s going on in Russia at our peril.
Can you tell us something about Schools OUT’s work today – how do you advise tackling homophobic bullying in schools, for example?
After the repeal of Section 28, the Amsterdam Treaty’s protection of LGB people at work, the levelling of the age of consent, the removal of so many forms of discrimination brought about by the Equality Act, LGBT adoption rights and the introduction of Civil partnerships and now civil marriage, you might ask what the problem is for LGBT folk these days. Step into many a school and the answers will soon become clear.
The use of ‘gay’ to mean dysfunctional in everyday banter is still all too common. Teenagers are coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual and as trans at a much earlier age, with mixed receptions. Same sex parents are confronting discrimination and their children are often bullied.
Teachers are still in the closet in many schools and many would be teachers eschew the profession because of their memories of entrenched homophobia in their schools. And if bad attitudes are not challenged at school we are sending homophobes and transphobes into the adult world to spread and disseminate prejudice, discrimination and hate.
So what are we doing about it? I said before that we launched LGBT History Month in 2005. This has had a marked effect in many schools where the opportunity to celebrate diversity is welcomed. Stoke Newington School in Hackney is a remarkable example and homophobia has been eradicated there thanks to the hard work and dedication of Elly Barnes.
We have also launched The Classroom, a one-stop-shop of lessons and resources for teachers and trainers who want to visibilise and usualise LGBT people in our schools and colleges. Yes I know those two words have red squiggles under them when you type them in Word but we have invented them as part of the Classroom method.
The word ‘visibilise’ stresses that we have to unearth our history because it was systematically hidden by the state and its apparatus.
The word ‘usualise’ is rather better than ‘normalise’ and the value-laden baggage that accompanies it. And the word ‘generalise’ suggests sloppy thinking in most people’s minds. ‘Usualise’ means weaving LGBT people into the tapestry of society.
The Classroom offers lessons at all key stages in all the curricular subjects that make us visible and raise our profile. It’s a web based resource which is also accessible through the TES in the UK, India and Australia, as well as Guardian Education.
Schools OUT also houses a training arm: Educate and Celebrate, which is led by Elly Barnes. Educate and celebrate promotes the Classroom and demonstrates how to use it effectively, as well as offering training to teachers and schools in tackling homophobia and transphobia through celebrating diversity.
Which takes us to the second part of the question. First, schools have to have a whole school approach if they mean to eradicate homophobia/transphobia. It is incredibly frustrating for a teacher who challenges prejudice based language in a classroom if it goes unchallenged in the classroom nextdoor. And if teachers don’t challenge it they will be perceived to be tacitly approving it.
There must be a whole school policy based approach where everybody can simply say ‘We don’t use that language here’. Having dealt with that we have set the foundations to positively encourage difference. Adolescence is an incredibly challenging period in everyone’s life.
We seek to be different but we also want to be perceived as ‘normal’. This is magnified several times if we are in the process of realising that we are emotionally and physically attracted to the same sex or that we cannot accept the gender roles that are being assigned to us. Teachers – who are the grown-ups in this situation – have a duty to promote diversity and create a safe environment where difference is not only okay but is actively encouraged.
We worked with several European countries to create a DVD and classroom resource: Rights Against Intolerance; Building an open Minded World (Rainbow) to challenge homophobia and transphobia by challenging stereotypes. This groundbreaking resource is still available for free from our website.
We have a number of Schools based competitions to raise the importance of equality in the classroom that we will launch during LGBT History Month. Schools OUT is a grass roots organisation, currently becoming a charity, which is proud to work with the trades unions, in particular the teaching unions, to share knowledge and best practice. Schools OUT also works with the criminal Justice System and the Probation Service to promote best practice.
We are sometimes consulted on Government Policy – though less often with this Government than the last. We have consulted with OFSTED over the successful implementation of The Equality Act Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) in schools.
Now I am well aware that dealing with OFSTED for many teachers is tantamount to supping with the Devil. But the crucial point is that this Government has abolished Equality Impact Assessments, weakened the local education authorities and weakened the Equality and Human Rights Commission so that OFSTED is the only body that monitors schools in promoting equal opportunities. So we have to ensure that it is doing this. Homophobia and Transphobia cost lives. Challenging it is saving lives. It really is that simple.
What I’d like to see next is a nation where there isn’t a closeted teacher in any school because every school is safe. That would be the benchmark in terms of knowing that we are eradicating discrimination.
Michael Gove has been driving the shift towards Academies – started under Labour – much further and has encouraged the setting up of ‘Free schools’. What issues do these raise for LGBT students and staff?
Well with academies I must say there’s an elephant in the room. Whatever anybody says, the central purpose of academies is to wrest control of state schools from local authorities, because they negotiate with the unions to maintain teachers’ pay and conditions as they currently stand, as well as providing facilities time for union officers to carry out their casework and defend teachers.
The academisation of schools is part of a process which will lead to local pay bargaining, the disempowerment of unions and teachers being forced to work whatever hours and however many hours a school commands.
It’s neo-conservatism and it’s currently Labour policy as well as Tory. Any other effects are ‘fringe benefits’. But one of those fringe benefits is that local authorities are keen to meet the demands of the PESD and to prove that they are doing so.
Birmingham employs Elly Barnes to promote LGBT equality in its schools. Every school that comes out of that system loses the opportunity to adopt the good practice that Birmingham is providing through Elly. With academies, organisations like ourselves have to deal on an individual basis rather than through the local authorities.
Some academies are run by federations which have their own ethos and are very unaccountable compared to LEA schools. OASIS has been forced to adapt its Sex and Relationships policy over its rule that homosexuality was only to be mentioned in connection with STDs.
Furthermore, recent investigations have revealed that many academies are trying to introduce their own individual Section 28s, inspired by the unnerving Department of Education SRE guidance that schools shouldn’t ‘promote’ any sexual orientation.
Another issue is that teachers in academies are outside the local union’s remit and have to seek support, if they need it, from their region. If a teacher is being harassed or bullied, or wants to come out and has been told not to, they have to rely on the support of a regional office which may be dozens of miles away and cannot provide the lay support which could usually resolve matters quickly and peacefully.
As for free schools, they are tax-payer funded independent schools. They have their own curriculum, can be faith based or not. Only OFSTED can prevent them from promoting homophobia and transphobia if they so wish and that is a major step back in time.
It’s a major concern that we have a government that pushes the envelope on same sex marriage and pays so much lip-service to equalities and LGBT rights while it lets discrimination enter through the back door: in this case into schools and into children’s minds.
The media often attempt to portray Islam as a particularly homophobic religion, yet opposition to the implementation of the 2010 Equalities Act has come from Christian schools. What is your experience of fighting homophobia in faith schools?
One has to be careful not to generalise. St George’s School in Harpenden is a Christian faith school that has won accolades for its work challenging homophobia. But as I said previously some people use religion to justify their own bigotry and that can create challenges.
No school should want its children to be bullied or harassed on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation or anything else. Faith schools have anti-bullying policies and will generally adopt measures to prevent homophobia and transphobia with at least as much rigour as secular schools. Mind you; what is a secular school? Remember most schools in England are C of E unless otherwise stated.
Where the difficulty arises is in addressing the promotion of diversity and introducing LGBT role models, which we think is an essential step on the path to equality. If a school subscribes to the view that same sex physical activity is sinful, it will not welcome positive images of LGB people.
And if it subscribes to the view that gender reaffirmation is a sin because it defects from the natural order of things, it will not accept positive images of transgendered people.
We at Schools OUT have long campaigned, together with the National Union of Teachers, to make it illegal to tell pupils in a school that gay or lesbian sex is sinful. It is illegal to say that being gay or lesbian is sinful.
DofE guidance proscribes ‘promoting’ a sexual orientation, which effectively rules out saying that gay or lesbian sex is sinful, but it is not imposed by law. There’s a conundrum here and successive government legislation has not resolved some fundamental issues.
Factor in that faith schools can interpret rules over Sex and Relationships Education and you can see there has been fudging and that faith schools have been allocated freedoms to be different that effectively allow them to discriminate.
This means that children who are growing up lesbian, gay, bisexual, on the trans spectrum or questioning do not have the guaranteed safety that children in non-denominational schools have. And most children and parents who come to us with cases of prejudice based bullying come from faith based schools.
Some faith based schools use their ethos to dictate what behaviours are acceptable – including social behaviours outside the school – to ‘threaten’ staff who might wish to come out or even to go to a gay venue. This is taking us back to where we started and the case of John Warburton.
How did LGBT History Month become established and what would you like to see trade unions in particular do to support it?
After the repeal of Section 28 there was no significant change in schools regarding discussing LGBT people or raising their visibility, so – inspired by Black History Month and GLBT History Month in the US – Schools OUT launched LGBT History Month with the slogan: Claiming our History, Celebrating our present, Creating our Future. LGBT History Month is every February and I believe it has made a significant impact throughout the state sector.
LGBT History Month began in Congress House at the TUC LGBT Workers Conference when I asked the then minister for Women and Equality Jacqui Smith if she thought the Government would support such an initiative. She said yes, and off we went.
The launch, which takes place every November, was held in the TUC’s headquarters in 2005. The Public and Commercial Services union produced the first LGBT timeline.
We have a different theme every year and, following two years of sport and one of STEM (Science, technology, engineering and maths) we are dedicating this one to music.
We are in our comfort zone now. Having worked for three years in areas where LGBT people are chronically under-represented we are in a place where LGBT people have been crucial. We have chosen Benjamin Britten, Ethel Smyth, Bessie Smith and Angela Morley as our respective L, G, B and T heroes.
Everyone can support us by visiting our website, looking at our interactive calendar and deciding which events they are going to attend. They can tell their friends too.
If they organise events of their own, they can order our free logo from our website and promote their event on our calendar for free.
Unions can: Promote us in the workplace; Organise events within and without their workplace; Promote events nearby; Ask us to come and talk to their members about what we do and why it’s important; Promote and come to our musical showcase at Morley college on the 7th of the month; Affiliate to Schools OUT as a local union branch/association; Prepare a motion committing their union nationally to support us at their Conference; Donate to us; Buy our badges; Tell everyone that it’s LGBT History Month.