Discussing same sex relationships should not be treated as a sensitive or controversial issue.

***N.B This is a draft post of some musings. I will  be refining it further following twitter discussions and masters submission, but publishing now as I need to link to it in my masters reflection!***

For a while now I have agreed with Simon Blake’s (CEO of Brook Charity) assertion that non heterosexuality should not be treated as a sensitive issue in education.  I’d also add in we need to stop treating such topics as “controversial”. To do so causes teachers to worry and tiptoe around such conversations and only reinforces stigma.

Remember same sex marriage is now legal, and the Equality Act (2010) supports equal rights for those who are LGBT.  Whilst there maybe religious perspectives against non-heterosexuality, all religions promote tolerance and respect, and many people within different religions either are LGBT or support LGBT equality. Also the vast majority of parents want their children to learn about sexual orientation as part of sex education (Morgan, 2000, Mumsnet, 2012). Therefore allowing the views of vocal minorities to skew the provision of such education about something so simple as the actual existence of people who are LGBT to children and young people, is morally wrong in my opinion.

Since writing up my masters dissertation exploring the evidence base for challenging homophobia in schools I have been considering this “moral debate” in more detail so I thought I would share some of the academic perspectives here (Partly because word count means I need to cut them out of my dissertation – sob)

On one side of the debate are arguments like Archard (1998),  Petrovic ( 2002) White (1991), Jones  (2011a and b) argue for a liberal approach to sexuality education giving overt support to the view that non-heterosexuality is morally legitimate or unproblematic. On the counter argument side academics such as Halstead and  Lewicka (1998), Reiss (1997) (there are more but no time to add them all!) who argue non-heterosexuality must always be positioned as a controversial issue.

Hand (2007) explores some of these arguments about how issues can be defined as “controversial” using behavioural, epistemic, political or moral criterion, and argues that the only educational defensible criterion for defining non-heterosexuality as controversial is the epistemic one- where a view can only be controversial if contrary views are held upon it and where the disagreement is reasonable and rationally defensible.  The paper explores many of the differing viewpoints and concludes there are no rational credible objections to non-heterosexuality and therefore we should be “unapologetic in our commitment to promoting this view in the moral education of children and young people”(Hand, 2007 page 85). Funnily enough I agree with him.

The counterarguments from Halstead and Lewicka, (1998), Reiss, (1997) include arguments that teaching about such issues must only ever be treated as a sensitive controversial issue as teaching about sexual orientation requires specialist teacher skills,  and to not teach it sensitively including a balanced exploration of perspectives on non-heterosexuality, may inflame rather than inform students. i.e. it could make homophobia worse.

However I’d argue that these positions are insufficient as teaching an issue sensitively (as one would with any aspect of PSHE or SRE as it is good practice) is different to treating it sensitively which actually translates into ignoring it as an issue wherever possible for fear of backlash.  The former is very important and the latter is inhibitory.  While in some cases it maybe appropriate to explore different opinions on non-heterosexuality, teachers do not need to try and sit on the fence and provide perfect balance in all cases. We are role models who can be clear that we uphold the value of equality for all according to the laws of the land, doing so can change perspectives (simple peer pressure and social norming!).

(Of course there are a minority of teachers who are homophobic – such teachers do need to be very careful in how they decide to address this topic remembering that that teachers working in schools have have a legal duty to advance equality and cannot discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.)

Therefore whilst I acknowledge  teachers may need specialist support and training to discuss such issues confidently (and sensitively where need arises), they should try to avoid treating nonheterosexuality as a special,  sensitive or controversial issue, as to do so continues to allows bigotry to prevail.

Happy Educating.


7 thoughts on “Discussing same sex relationships should not be treated as a sensitive or controversial issue.

    • Hmmm I disagree that same sex marriage is such a problem for schools and education (they don’t even teach about heterosexual marriage as much as they are supposed to according to the SRE guidance!) but one thing my post does lack is an exploration of hegemony and freedom and whether it is ever acceptable to fight power with power. Teaching children and young people about freedom whilst also teaching them about power structures in place in our society including heteronormativity is essential for them to be able to consider their effects and how their own behaviour contributes and impacts. That is another post in itself and one I will come to when I have finished this masters!

      • …in which case you disagree with something that wasn’t really my central argument. Main point is about freedom – we’re already witnessing a censoriousness that inhibits academic and intellectual freedom for students from faith backgrounds, giving them the sense that they must meekly conform since (perfectly orthodox – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Sikh and Hindu) views on sexual ethics are being deemed by some as beyond the pale. The logic and arguments in your post demonstrate this same edge – not only might a student be marked down for expressing the non-conventional (but orthodox) view, but that student might also bring intervention upon herself for having done so (with words like bigot ringing in her ears). Surely the area for agreement between us is that this would be an undesirable outcome? And the rational consequences, which you already begin to point to, begin to look like a modern incarnation of the Test Acts and would raise really rather large issues, especially for students but also teachers, about freedom of religion and the liberty to just generally disagree with the zeitgeist on sexual ethics. Which goes way beyond just this issue and strikes me as being contrary to the spirit of education.

      • Firstly in PSHE (where discussions of sexual orientation and homophobia are most likely to be held) is not marked in the same way as other subjects. Therefore nobody is going to get “marked down” for holding contrary beliefs (this maybe different in other subjects such as RE but I can’t comment on that as I am not an RE teacher- but would imagine similar principles would apply- students don’t get marked down for holding contrary views to a teacher).

        Secondly freedom is a central tenet to PSHE but a recognition that freedom comes with rights and responsibilities. Exploration of “freedom” and how no-one can ever be truly free given the power structures in society such as hegemonic masculinity, heteronormativity, cisexism etc is a large part of doing this work. Supporting students to recognise and question and ultimately live true to their own values and attitudes is crucial.

  1. Thanks for the response.

    Re: para 1) the point I made in the blog is that this has legs – if we define disagreement as rooted in bigotry (as some clearly do), and if we decide schools should challenge bigotry, then it is obvious where this is leading. This would initially be self-censorship, but also links into what is considered suitable comment for exam marks – if one rejects the entire infrastructure of thought that might lead to a particular view [hence it being beyond the pale, bigoted etc.], then one is unlikely to award marks on the basis of that view being well argued. This, clearly, is not so simplistic as ‘you disagree with teacher, you bad.’

    Re: para 2) sounds kind of encouraging, if by it you mean that you would see your role as supporting the embattled student who holds a faith, who holds to orthodox views on sexual ethics, who questions the hegemonic power of the secular zeitgeist, who wishes to remain true to their own attitudes and values, and you would seek to help her develop her expression of those attitudes and values. If that be the case, then power to your elbow. Though I’m sure you’ll understand why some might be doubtful that this would be a widespread approach (especially in light of some of the issues pointed to in both this post and these comments).

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