Tristram Hunt’s zero-tolerance approach to homophobia makes perfect sense

Why are gay relationships considered more explicit than straight ones?

School inspectorate Ofsted and the shadow education Secretary Tristram Hunt have both found themselves in hot water with faith schools and parents recently.

Last month there was uproar when inspectors allegedly asked ten-year-old pupils at a handful of schools, mainly Christian ones, whether they knew anybody who was gay, or if they knew what a lesbian was.

This week Tristram Hunt has promised a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to homophobia in schools, saying that age-appropriate sex and relationships education should be compulsory in all schools. The plans have been greeted with derision:

Tory MP Philip Davies said :

“It’s taking childhood away from kids. My kids are 11 and 9 and I don’t like the idea of them having sex education, let alone at age five.”

In the Daily Mail, Stephen Glover wrote:

“Bullying of any sort is obviously undesirable. But does Mr Hunt really think the cure is to indoctrinate five and six-year-olds?”

Well, no. Indoctrination was never suggested. Apart from the fact that the idea that children can be ‘indoctrinated’ into being gay is ridiculous, Glover’s question completely misses the point. Hunt has simply alighted on the very important fact that homosexuality needs to be introduced to children as something completely normal from as early an age as possible.

This week Stonewall published research which found that eighty six per cent of secondary school and 45 per cent of primary school teachers say that pupils in their school experience homophobic bullying. They found that 52,000 gay, lesbian and bisexual pupils will miss school because of homophobic bullying.

Two-thirds of secondary school teachers and a third of primary school teachers have heard pupils use words like ‘poof’, ‘faggot’, ‘dyke’ and ‘queer’. Homosexuality is being used as a derogatory idea among young children, and once this has taken root, it is very hard to shake off.

What is so horrible about the backlash from concerned people calling for the ‘protection’ of children is that is demonstrates the notion that gay relationships are inherently more explicit, more sexual, less about love than straight ones. The ‘let children be children’ brigade are implying that learning about homosexuality will be somehow traumatising for children because there is something more ‘adult’ about it.

If there are children whose parents think they need to be protected from homosexuality, then the sooner they are exposed to a different viewpoint, the better.

Hunt has consistently used the phrase ‘age-appropriate’ when describing his new education plans. This is not going to be explicit material. It is simply going to ensure that children see homosexuality as a perfectly legitimate lifestyle, not something outside of societal norms.

Likewise, when Ofsted questioned children about their knowledge of LGBT in schools, I doubt they were looking for an explanation of gay sex.

Chris Gray, head of Grindon Hall Christian School, said:

“I heard reports of primary school children being asked if they knew of any boys or girls who thought they were in the wrong body and others if they knew what gay and lesbians did”, as though this was the bluest thing in the world.

The intention is clearly to get children to understand kissing, holding hands, marriage as things that same-sex couples can also do. Homosexuality can be taught in a childhood context, just as children understand that men and women love each other, fancy each other, marry each other, long before they know what sex means.

This is not designed as a way to catch children out, as has been claimed, but as a way of assessing the scope of the problem, of understanding what children think about homosexuality at the moment.

Parents and teachers who find the discussion of homosexuality insensitive are going to have to get over it. We wouldn’t tolerate racist bullying or racist language in a playground; why should homophobia be any different? Differentiation based on prejudice should be broken down as early as possible.

Faith schools cannot be allowed to fall outside of this rule – tolerance must be taught everywhere. In fact, it shouldn’t even be presented as an issue to tolerate, but simply as one of several sexualities a person can have, all of equal value. For children to truly view homosexuality in this way, they need to be ‘exposed’ to it as early as possible.

Denying homosexuality and trying to ‘protect’ children from it is only going to instil the idea that it is something strange and unsavoury; those who deride Tristram Hunt’s plans are simply revealing their own distaste for it.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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