Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Happy National Coming Out Day!

National Coming Out Day

I originally wrote this piece for my university / fandom blog in like 2008/9, and when I found it on an old memory stick it really made me think about how much things have changed over the last few years. There's still a long way to go, for sure, but these days coming out isn't the whole story - or worse, coming out followed by depression and inevitable suicide - and schools don't habitually ask if people want to leave the room at the first mention of homosexuality, lest it prove catching. (Though don't get too complacent; sex ed still isn't compulsory, even with super scary figures like a 76% jump in syphilis cases since 2012.)

Children are much more aware of the huge diversity of the family unit, and there are dozens of new kids' books and other media released each year with LGBT+ themes, even if you're not finding it on the shelves of WHSmith or whatever. Kids' TV is still lagging way behind though, afraid to just come out and say what they've been hinting at for decades. I personally think a big part of the problem is the over-reliance on US programming for the 6+ bracket, which is always going to be more socially conservative. But, hey, even Nickelodeon featured a married gay couple in a cartoon earlier this year.

It's moving in the right direction.


Ur So Gay

It’s official, it’s the insult of choice for the under 14s. (And those with the mentality of the under-14s.) 85% of teachers hear homophobic insults in our schools on a daily basis according to recent research. Think of how little your teachers really knew about what you and your classmates were up to – that figure represents just the tip of the iceberg. 

'Who cares?' I hear you cry. 'This is Cambridge; over 85% of us were called a speccy four eyed swot every day for seven years. It never did us any harm.' The stark truth is that it is doing harm. Those who argue that 'gay' is simply being used as a synonym for 'naff', not as a homophobic slur are missing the point. We are allowing children to grow up equating homosexuality with being 'rubbish'. Spare a thought for the psychological impact that is having on the 6% (at least) of school children who do, or will, self-identify as LGB.

Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin
The English translation of Danish story book, Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin, was the source of national outrage in 1986 when it was revealed that the 'loony left' Inner London Education Authority had purchased a copy for the Isledon Teachers Centre. The frurore is credited with greasing the wheels for the passage of Section 28 in 1988 - a young David Miliband's first published pamphlet was the co-authored 'Publish and still not be damned: a guide for voluntary groups on the provisions of the 1986 and 1988 Local Government Acts regarding political publicity and the promotion of homosexuality' in 1989. The leading figure of the future front bench of the opposite side of the House was otherwise precoccupied, if Michael Ashcroft is to be believed... 

Back in the day, of course, schools had a handy get-out-free clause when it came to tackling homophobic bullying on the premises. The infamous Section 28 stated that local authorities should not 'promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality…' This finally came off the statute books in 2003, meaning that whilst Tracy Harrison and her gang got away, with little more than a raised eyebrow, for operating their own form of tribal ostracisation on you back in year eight for being a right 'lezzer', they wouldn’t today.

Theoretically, at least.

In practice little has changed. Not only is so called 'low level' homophobia happening every day, in schools up and down the country, explicit homophobic bullying targeted at LGB – and those perceived to be LGB – students continues to be nothing unusual. A 2006 study found that almost 40% of boys would not be friends with somebody who was gay. One explained that it was 'not because of prejudices but because of the social ramifications.' I don’t know about you, but the fact that, in the 21st century, British school pupils are so afraid of being bullied they cannot even make conversation with children who exhibit non-heteronormative gender behaviour, well, it makes me tear up worse than Titanic.

Ignorance is the cause, argue those in the know. Yet, what is being done to combat it? Not enough. Take the BBC, an institution that has received heavy criticism from Stonewall for its inadequate and, predominantly, negative portrayal of homosexuality. (This is in spite of the estimated £190 million per annum being contributed by LGB licence payers.) Its children’s department – CBBC – catering to 6-12 year olds claims that sexuality isn’t really in their remit, given the age-range. Are they stark raving bonkers? Well, yes. This is the age group where positive, normalizing portrayals will be most successful in tackling schoolyard homophobia. Not to mention the fact that 1/3 of people who identify as LGB were sure of their sexuality by the time they were twelve.

Mr Brisley, Grange HillByker Grove
Somewhat ironically, CBBC actually introduced the first explicitly gay character on children's TV in 1993, when the kids at Grange Hill discovered the rumours circulating about art teacher Mr. Brisley were true. The following year CITV (Children's ITV) dealt with the first teenage coming out story, with Noddy Fishwick of Byker Grove screwing up the courage to kiss his best mate on the cheek at the cinema.

CBBC, along with readers of the Daily Mail, seem to think that introducing sexuality to six-year-olds will mean an explicit portrayal of homosexual sex. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think we’re suggesting we sit year two down to watch Glory Hole: Gang Bang. ('Today, children, Jens ‘Turboslut’ Hammer is going to show us all a novel use for Vaseline…') No, what is being suggested is more along the lines of John being invited to Janet’s for tea where, afterwards, they go outside and play football with Janet’s dads, a smashing time being had by all. It is accepted that single parent and other variants on the nuclear family need to be portrayed in children’s television, is it really such a stretch to extend this to homosexual families?

Seemingly so.

For CBBC LGB issues simply do not exist. On Newsround message boards the word 'gay' is screened – as both an insult and as a descriptive label. Remember that figure from the beginning, 85% of teachers hear homophobic language every day. Bear in mind that over half of LGB pupils have admitted to skipping school to avoid homophobic bullying. Yet, Newsround’s bullying guide has absolutely no mention of homophobic bullying – although sizism, racism and elitism are all recognized as issues bullies might target. By ignoring the problem we tell children suffering from it that they do not matter. By treating it as taboo we reinforce the idea that they deserve to be bullied. 

Back at school, children aren’t even being taught the basics. In 2006 research suggested that over half of year 11 pupils (i.e. 15 and 16-year-olds) did not know the age of consent for homosexual sex. Less than 2% knew what a dental dam was. Let’s take a moment to think about this. Rampant hormones and ignorance do not mix well when it comes to sex. And if you think it doesn’t affect you, what about that cute Fresher you picked up at the beginning of term? They may well have been doing their teenage experimentation without the proper protection. Is it any wonder that instances of teenage STD cases continues to grow, year on year?

We’re letting children down from every angle on this issue. Homophobic language is being routinely dismissed as 'harmless banter'. Basic education on how homosexual sex works, and how to do it safely is simply not being passed on. In the media children continue to be bombarded with the message that those who do not conform to the 'norm' will be left friendless and alone. Worse, they’re being told that it’ll be their own fault for not having tried harder to fit in.

Take a stand. Next time you want to use those three little words, and you’re not about to congratulate someone on their lifestyle choices; Think before you speak.

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