Birmingham schools row is not a clash of religious and LGBT equality

By Savi Hensman
May 22, 2019

A heated row continues over teaching in Birmingham schools which encourages lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) inclusion. Some opponents claim to be defending religion. Yet the idea that this involves a clash of equalities is misleading. Meanwhile others are making efforts to heal rifts while promoting justice and kindness for all.

Some protestors allegedly threw eggs at pro-equality activists and threatened a head teacher. Others are non-violent but believe that the children are too young and that their own rights, as parents, have been undermined.

As part of a wider commitment to treat all children fairly, some primary schools have held (or are planning) lessons to equip pupils to live in a diverse society. This includes preparing them for varied family patterns and that some boys and girls may not fit gender stereotypes. But this has been angrily opposed, in part because of ill-founded rumours.

‘Say no to sexualisation of children’ states one placard – but pupils are not being taught about sex. What is more, good age-appropriate education on relationships and,when older, sexuality, can help to reduce the risk of going too far when too young or of being exploited.

It is possible that more parental involvement at an early stage in looking at how schools might address equality might have lessened the scale of the conflict. If caregivers and communities were more aware of how widespread and harmful prejudice of all kinds was, even among young children, and invited to join in tackling this, attitudes might change. However negativity can be deeply ingrained.

Many of those protesting claim to be acting in defence of Islam, though other Muslims have spoken out in favour of equality for all  and some, of course, are LGBTI themselves. Some Christians too have joined in protests, though a sizeable majority accept same-sex partnerships as morally valid.

However, some people of faith think it is sinful for people attracted to the same sex to act on these feelings. They may have similar views on those who strongly feel that their gender does not match that usually connected with their sex at birth. I regard this as a wrong view (ancient texts condemning male rape and sexual exploitation cannot simply be applied to love between equals) but understandable and lawful, unless it veers into hate speech.

People are protected from being discriminated against on grounds of belief, as well as sexual orientation and gender reassignment, under the Equality Act 2010. Some think this means that their religious objections to same-sex relationships or to varieties of gender expression or identity mean that they should be able to block inclusive teaching.

But this might also imply that it would be unlawful to encourage respect for Muslims, since tenets of Islam might be at odds with the views of certain atheists or evangelical Christians. Teaching children about diversity does not require agreement, rather recognising that others may look, speak or act in varying ways but are still fellow-humans, with gifts to be thankful for and feelings that can be hurt.

At the most basic level, this will equip youth for the workplace and life in general in a society with equality legislation. Many people though would go further, seeing such learning as a vital aspect of social and moral education.

Sometimes people feeling disempowered in other aspects of life may be drawn to causes that are ultimately unhelpful. Racism and Islamophobia seem to be on the rise – ironically sometimes from people who themselves feel they have little control over the changes around them.

Other leaders (or people aspiring to this status) will be drawn to ‘causes’ which may bolster their own social standing or ego, sometimes based on exaggerating the threat from an ‘other’. Those sucked into the orbit of such movements may feel part of a greater whole, listened to for once.

However if dialogue can replace angry confrontation at least some of the time, and those who are marginalised in different ways can get better at uniting, there is more chance of tackling the most pressing social problems.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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