Right-wing press continues witch-hunt on ‘woke’ Derbyshire school

The deliberately provocative reporting comes as a new report shows that anti-drag sentiment is becoming mainstream in the UK, as US-style culture wars escalate.

If the right-wing media is one thing, it’s consistent. Just as it was getting over being the focus of a recent media circus for planning a ‘Drag and Rainbows’ Pride event, a secondary school in the High Peak, Derbyshire, found itself back in the culture war-stoking media spotlight this week.

‘BIZARRE’ Woke school blasted after admission form asks kids to choose from 42 different gender pronouns,’ was the headline in The Sun on June 21. The article cites one disgruntled parent who objected to an admission form for 11-year-olds which allowed them to select from a number of different pronouns.

It is not until the last sentence of The Sun’s report that it says “bosses” – we assume at the school – said the form is standard and used by “thousands of schools.”

Predictably the Express launched an equally scathing and sensationalist attack, claiming ‘New Mills School in Derbyshire sparked outrage amongst concerned parents after asking 11-year-old kids to pick from 42 different pronouns before they joined.’

Like the Sun’s report, the Express referred to the earlier backlash over the same school’s planned Pride event. A non-school uniform, which had been organised by students at the school, was set to feature award-winning LGBTQ+ children’s author Seb Samuel, who runs Drag Queen Story, which aims to introduce children to diverse role models and LGBTQ+ people. The children’s author was going to explore issues around homophobia and mental health in literacy for the school’s Year 9 and 10 students. Following the high-profile backlash peddled by the national right-wing press, the event was cancelled, much to the disappointment of many of the students, staff, parents and the LBTGQ+ community.

‘Earlier this month, the school was forced to ditch a Pride event called “Drag ‘n’ Rainbows,”’ wrote the Express.

In their sensationalist, biased reporting, the named newspapers conveniently ignore why gender pronouns are used and the benefits they bring. As the National Institutes of Health states, using appropriate pronouns is a first step toward respecting gender identity and creating a more welcoming space for people of all genders.

Even at a school level, using gender pronouns is regarded as important. The National Education Association (NEA) says, pronouns ‘affirm gender identities and create safe spaces for students, while misgendering results in marginalisation and communicates that a person’s identity is not seen as important.’

One parent, whose child will be starting New Mills School in September, said they did not think the number of pronouns mentioned on the application form was excessive. “Ultimately, if this makes the child’s school transition easier then that can only be beneficial to all parties,” they told Left Foot Forward.

The right-wing media assault on the Derbyshire school for fostering an environment of inclusivity and equality, concerningly echoes the culture wars taking place the US, where right-wing groups continue to disrupt family-friendly drag events and lawmakers have introduced record numbers of anti-LGBTQ laws this year.

A new report shows that how a similar anti-drag sentiment is becoming mainstream in the UK. A study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) shows that between June 1, 2022 and May 27, 2023,  there were 57 cases of all-ages drag events which were targeted by extremist groups. A loose coalition of white nationalists, anti-vaxxers, 5G conspiracy theorists, and so-called ‘child protection’ advocates, have been coming together to protest against events like Drag Story Hour — where drag performers read books to children — claiming to protect youngsters.

Additionally, the report shows how Conservative politicians have contributed to hostility towards drag events. “In February 2023, the Conservative Party’s Deputy Chairman Lee Anderson discussed a strategy of leaning in to “culture wars” in the next election, signifying further political emphasis being put on exploiting these issues,” the report notes.

With reports like this one highlighting the scale of far-right mobilisation against all-age drag shows in the UK, and the deliberate stoking of the culture wars, the backlash against the Derbyshire school for striving to be inclusive comes as little surprise.  

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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