No More Outsiders

Two hands, the left is holding a pencil.

This was originally a Twitter thread in response to the protests in Birmingham about kids participating in inclusivity lessons. I’ve edited and expanded it slightly here. I frequently use the term “gay” as shorthand for LGBT+ because I am gay and I find it easier to write from personal experience.

When my dad was at school in the 1950s, he was forced to write with his right hand. He was told not to use his left hand even though that’s what felt “right” to him. He should just choose to use his right hand instead. Basically, the message was that using your right hand is normal, using your left is weird, abnormal, wrong.

We now know it’s not possible to “choose” which hand you prefer to use, it’s just accepted that a certain percentage of people are left handed, and some are actually ambidextrous, with no particular preference for using either hand. Of course, you can make yourself learn to use a different hand, but it doesn’t feel natural. You prefer what you prefer.

Imagine now that those poor concerned parents and associated groups in Birmingham and elsewhere are arguing that their kids shouldn’t be told that some people are left handed.

Even though most of these kids are right-handed themselves and it makes no difference to them whatsoever.

They argue that their religion says it’s wrong to be left-handed. It’s not enough to trust that their religion will protect their kids from left-handedness, they would rather just pretend that left handed people didn’t exist, or were just a distasteful consequence of (or perhaps punishment for) not being a good muslim/christian/pastafarian. They don’t want their kids to know that it’s even possible to use your left hand. If their kids don’t know it’s possible to use their left hand, they will never want to.

Even if their child would already secretly prefer to use their left hand and feels totally isolated because absolutely everyone they know pretends nobody else uses their left hand. Or worse, they talk about left-handed people as if there is something wrong with them. They are lesser. They are dirty. They are to be ridiculed and derided.

Can you imagine being that kid? Feeling immense shame about the fact that they are left-handed, feeling like they did something wrong, they didn’t pray hard enough, they can just pretend not to be left-handed if they try hard enough. The fear that someone might be able to tell they are left-handed even if they try to hide it. The fear of rejection by their loved ones if they find out.

Why would you do this to your kid? It’s crazy, right?

I’m sure you’re all smart enough to have realised by now that I’m using non-right-handedness as a clumsy oversimplified allegory of queerness. Non-straightness. (Except when I was talking about my dad, he is straight, as far as I know. And left-handed.)

When I was at school in the 80s and 90s, I knew I was gay. I didn’t tell anyone. I suspected some of my friends were too, but they never said. The only time gay people were mentioned by anyone, it was as an insult, a form of derision. Making people feel bad, or describing something as rubbish.

I sincerely believe that this is in large part due to Section 28, which prevented schools from teaching us about homosexuality. It just wasn’t discussed. I’m not talking about sex education, because that was woefully inadequate for even straight sex, but even just everyday, normal, boring life. There was no representation of “other” types of healthy, normal relationships. Even on TV, gay people were only ever subjects of ridicule or dying from AIDS. I had nobody I could look at and say “they’re like me”.

Given all that, given the way my peers talked about being gay, why on earth would I “choose” to be gay? To be ridiculed and reviled? The answer is… I didn’t. I just am. I always was.

You don’t “learn” to be gay, you realise that’s what you are.

Kids are never too young to know that some people are not straight, because they might not be straight. Straight is more common but it’s not the default setting. Even without a “role model”, even without anyone telling me about how some boys fall in love with other boys, I still knew I was gay. So where’s the harm in telling kids that it’s not weird if they happen to feel that way too? Why not show them that it’s normal, it’s valid, it’s ok, by not making a big deal out of it at all?

The good news is, this is exactly what’s happening. There is still work to be done, but Section 28 was repealed, marriage equality has been introduced, and there is much better representation of non-straight people and relationships and families in all sorts of places, including schools.

As a result, more and more young people feel comfortable coming out while they’re still at school rather than pretending and hiding and repressing for years and years, no doubt because they feel included and protected instead of excluded and reviled. This doesn’t mean that there are more non-straight people nowadays, it just means they are more visible, they don’t feel the need to hide themselves while they are going through such important formative years.

A muslim man on the back of a truck addressing a crowd outside Parkfield school in Birmingham. The signs on the truck say "our children, our choice". He is being filmed by another man.
Photo from the Birmingham Mail

It’s ridiculous that these parents are claiming their kids are being “indoctrinated” by schools telling them stuff that goes against the teachings of their religion, when actually the kids have already been indoctrinated by their parents. They didn’t choose their religion, they were assigned it by their parents. They are told “this is the way things are” and are not being allowed to hear anything that might contradict those “facts”.

The parents (and various hangers-on with loudhailers) say that they aren’t homophobic, they just don’t “believe” in homosexuality, they don’t accept it, and they don’t want their kids to be taught any different. Well, pretending gay people don’t exist is pretty homophobic. All muslims are people, and some people are gay, and that means some muslims are gay. That is the reality.

The children of these parents are the very ones who need to be shown that there is nothing wrong with being not-straight, that their friends are just normal people like them, that it’s OK if they aren’t straight, because their parents certainly aren’t telling them this.

This is not indoctrination. This is education. It’s about giving kids the information they need to form a better picture of the world and their place in it. These lessons are not going to “turn kids gay”, that’s simply not possible. Straight kids are not negatively affected by learning that some people are not like them. What these lessons do is make school a better place for kids who aren’t straight, or have family members who aren’t straight. They reassure them, make them feel included.

Again, I’m not talking about sex. I’m talking about people. Kids know that their parents are in love. My nieces and nephews know I am in love with my husband and it makes no difference to them; they haven’t been damaged by that knowledge. 

By only acknowledging heterosexual relationships, you reinforce that those relationships are “normal”, that they are more valid. When you exclude same-sex relationships, it sends a message. The message that there is something wrong with same-sex relationships and by extension the people who are in them. That kids aren’t supposed to know about them, they aren’t supposed to talk about them and heaven forbid… be one of them? This is incredibly harmful. We can’t allow this to become the norm again.

In the newest episode of Schitt’s Creek, one of the characters came out to his parents. He was worried that his parents would react badly, even though he had no real reason to be worried. It turned out well and it was a lovely, touching scene.

But watching it, I was thinking of all the non-straight kids watching the protests outside their schools, being encouraged to participate even, hearing their friends shouting “shame, shame, shame!” at their teachers. I can’t help but worry about what will happen to them if they decide to tell their parents they are left-handed.

Posted on March 22, 2019 in Uncategorized

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