‘Growing up queer in a rural part of Norfolk with no role models and no one talking about being LGBTQ+ was lonely. I spent most of my teenage years just wishing I was like everyone else.’
Evie Cryer knew she was gay by the age of 15. Although she had a girlfriend, she also felt she had to have a ‘boyfriend’ to cover up her secret.
‘There was never any talk of any relationship other than straight – like that was the only option,’ Evie tells Metro.co.uk.
‘And there was no one I could talk to. I was outed in Year 12 in front of teachers, who – when I then ran off and cried – told me I needed to think about my life choices.
‘They said it wasn’t an appropriate topic to talk about at school.’
Now 37 and an experienced primary school teacher of more than 15 years, Evie defines herself as lesbian and queer, and advocates for comprehensive LGBTQ+ education in her school and online.
She says she remembers ‘very clearly’ having a sex education lesson where she practised putting condoms on cucumbers.
‘I sat there thinking, “I am never going to need this, I’m never going to do this, I don’t like this,”‘ she adds.
Although Evie’s experience dates back to more than 20 years ago when Section 28 was still in place in the UK – legislation which prevented the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools – many pupils still think there is much to be desired where their education about sex and relationships is concerned today.
Only one third of teenagers think they have had good education on sex and relationships
A survey of 1,002 young people aged 16 to 17 in England, carried out by Censuswide at the end of last year and commissioned by the Sex Education Forum, found only just over one third (35%) of young people rated the quality of their relationships and sex education (RSE) lessons as ‘good’ or ‘very good’. Researchers noted this was down 6 percentage points on the same rating in 2019.
More than one in five (22%) rated the quality of RSE as ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ – an increase of 4 percentage points since 2019.
A similar study of more than 2,000 teenagers aged 14 to 17 in the UK, called ‘Digital Romance’ and published by sexual health and wellbeing charity Brook in 2017, found just 14% of LGBTQ+ young people surveyed reported a good experience of RSE.
Some 28% of LGBTQ+ teenagers in this study judged their education on positive and equal relationships to be ‘not great’, in comparison to only 15% of straight young people asked. And almost 30% of LGBTQ+ teens say they didn’t receive any support in this area at all.
Evie, who teaches in North Lincolnshire, says she thinks one of the main issues in schools currently is LGBTQ+ topics are ‘just not taught’, because it’s not specifically mandated as part of the curriculum.
‘It’s not expected to be taught by the Department for Education (DfE) so, unless you have a strong-willed queer or an open-minded, forward-thinking member of the school leadership team, it just doesn’t get taught,’ she says.
‘It is shied away from, in primary at least. I “teach” about LGBTQ+ identities and families because I talk about me, my family and my friends, but I’ve not once taught an actual LGBTQ+ themed lesson.’
What was Section 28?
Section 28 of the Equality Act was legislation which prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by the local authorities, teaching or publishing material.
It was introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, and was in effect from 1988 to 2000 in Scotland, and until 2003 in England and Wales.
It caused many organisations, like lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender student support groups, to close, limit their activities or self-censor.
But Kent County Council created its own version of Section 28 to keep the effect of the legislation in its schools after it was repealed.
This was replaced in 2004 with a statement saying heterosexual marriage and family relationships are the ‘only firm foundations for society’. This was eventually quashed by the Equality Act 2010.
Schools are free to decide how they deliver LGBTQ+ content
Guidance on the government’s DfE website states schools must comply with the Equality Act 2010, explaining: ‘Schools should ensure that all of their teaching is sensitive and age appropriate in approach and content.
‘At the point at which schools consider it appropriate to teach their pupils about LGBTQ+, they should ensure that this content is fully integrated into their programmes of study for this area of the curriculum rather than delivered as a stand-alone unit or lesson.
‘Schools are free to determine how they do this, and we expect all pupils to have been taught LGBTQ+ content at a timely point as part of this area of the curriculum.’
A spokesperson from the DfE also tells Metro.co.uk: ‘RSE continues to play an important role in teaching young people about topics such as consent and respect.
‘All schools are required to teach pupils about LGBTQ+ content and should ensure that content is incorporated into the wider curriculum. It is for schools to decide how to do this and what resources to use to support their teaching.’
So although the DfE says it expects LGBTQ+ content – such as same-sex relationships and gender dysphoria – to have been taught when it is ‘timely’, it is down to schools to decide when this is appropriate and there is no specification of what this means in practice.
This means the education pupils receive around queer topics can vary wildly from school to school as there is no precise guidance. It may also be avoided entirely at primary age.
Nick Dunne, who works for Brook, which operates a number of sexual health and wellbeing services across the UK for people under 25, tells Metro.co.uk about what he’s experienced during his last 20 years of working with youth services across the country.
‘Due to a lack of mandatory curriculums and guidance over the years, it’s meant people have received really different levels of RSE,’ he explains.
‘Some have had little, others have received quite comprehensive education, it just depends on the school and the teachers within that school.’
He warns part of this may be due to a ‘lasting impact’ of Section 28 on education, which Evie echoes an agreement with.
‘It’s only those who are 25 and under who have been through their entire schooling now without Section 28,’ Nick explains. ‘Anyone over that age would have been in school at some point where it was still in place.
Section 28 has had a lasting impact on education
‘But of course, the effects of it didn’t just disappear in 2003 – it means generations of teachers and other professionals were trained after its abolition, but were still educated under its reach.’
He adds this has had a positive impact in some ways by making some teachers ‘more determined’ to ensure their teaching is queer inclusive, but for others there is still an ‘element of fear’ in discussing these topics.
‘During Section 28, openly LGBTQ+ teachers faced losing their jobs, or they were told not to come out,’ Nick says, stressing how it is important to recognise the challenges school staff face.
‘Even after abolition, there wasn’t a culture in schools that wasn’t accepting of LGBTQ+ staff, which means a lot of young people won’t have had representation in their schools and seeing LGBTQ+ teachers within their school environment.’
Six in 10 of LGBTQ+ teachers have experienced discrimination
Recent research from NASUWT, the teachers’ union, found nearly six in 10 of its LGBTQ+ members had personally experienced homophobia, biphobia, transphobia or related forms of discrimination in their workplace.
Nick warns fear from teachers also extends to parents, who were likely also educated under Section 28: ‘This means when their children come home to them [after school] they’re not always comfortable with or aware of how to approach the subject with their kids.
‘Section 28 had a larger effect of othering LGBTQ+ people as well, and coupled with the HIV and AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s and the marginalisation of LGBTQ+ people, we can see how it has echoed on through.
‘It has now made teaching and education around it feel more radical than what it actually should be, because it was banned 20 years ago – but actually it isn’t that radical.’
He adds as a result of this a lot of pupils ‘haven’t had access to factual RSE’ and ‘young people still say they don’t find schools to be safe spaces’.
The world is on fire for LGBTQ+ young people at the moment
A concerning lack of education aside, young LGBTQ+ people not feeling their schools are safe is potentially a bigger worry for teachers and educators.
Nick, who is head of business development at Brook, claims ‘the world feels like it’s on fire’ for queer teens at the moment.
‘A lot of the young people that we’re speaking to sort of feel like things have taken a little bit of a step backwards for them in terms of how people are viewing them,’ he warns.
‘They don’t necessarily feel safe walking down the road with their boyfriends or girlfriends, so there’s still work to be done.
‘If you ask young people what they want – what is most important to them is they don’t want to open their phone and feel like they’re being attacked, or walk down the street and get beaten up for being LGBTQ+.’
Research carried out by LGBTQ+ young people’s charity Just Like Us, of 2,934 pupils aged between 11 and 18 last year, found queer school pupils are twice as likely to have been bullied and 91% have heard negative language about being LGBTQ+.
The same study found only 58% of LGBTQ+ young people had felt safe at school on a daily basis in the previous 12 months, compared to 73% of pupils who identified as straight and cisgender.
The word ‘gay’ was thrown around the playground as a funny insult no one wanted to be called
Milly Evans, a 22-year-old sex educator who is based in Brighton, tells Metro.co.uk a similar story about hearing negative language at school while they were growing up queer.
They were also educated in Kent, where a version of Section 28 was upheld for years after the national legislation was abolished.
‘Throughout primary school I’d heard the word “gay” being thrown around the playground, used as the butt of the joke and shouted across the classroom as a funny insult no one wanted to be called,’ Milly says.
‘Schools need to do a better job at protecting their queer young people and creating an environment where all of their students feel comfortable exploring their identity and coming out if they want to.
‘They need to tackle homophobia, biphobia and transphobia not just after incidents happen, but by creating an ethos of inclusion and respect.
‘I’d also love to see more visibility, with LGBTQ+ speakers invited in to talk, not just about LGBTQ+ issues but whatever their area of expertise, just to normalise different identities students might otherwise not encounter until later on.’
Nick expresses similar thoughts, saying there is ‘still an oversexualisation’ of queer people.
‘It always just goes straight to the sex rather than talking about relationships and power dynamics,’ he says. ‘And that’s where we see a lot of the bias come through.
‘We wouldn’t go into a primary school and start talking about sex to year four. It’s more about respect, and families and friends, and how people are different in society.
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‘Some schools see it as a tick box – a 20-minute assembly and that’s done – but the guidance from the DfE does state it should be fully intertwined through the curriculum.
‘So we’re not just talking about sex education lessons, we’re thinking famous mathematicians, poets, and representation across all of the curriculum. It’s not just a bolt on.’
He adds helping young people navigate gender norms – the social roles of how men and women are traditionally expected to act – can be useful as this is sometimes conflated with sexuality and gender.
Things like Pride groups really help in schools
Daniel, a pupil at Netherthorpe School in Derbyshire, stresses to Metro.co.uk it is ‘important schools are making being LGBTQ+ a more normal thing’.
‘Going through secondary school can be a challenging time for any student, and it is especially important for those who are uncertain about their identity to have a safe place to talk about the issues they might be facing,’ says the 18-year-old.
‘Having more LGBTQ+ education within schools would further help these students to feel confident in being able to approach a teacher regarding an issue, without the feeling a stigma has been attached to them and their actions from that point on.’
He said the education extends to teachers, and says he finds his experience of being gay at school has ‘at times been awkward’ if staff are ‘unaware of the students within the community’.
‘Often it is the younger teachers in school who are more approachable and understanding of LGBTQ+ issues, as they have grown up with it being more openly spoken about and represented in films, television and books,’ he explains.
He is currently the leader of his school’s Pride group, which he feels has ‘helped students to have a safe place to meet, discuss issues and learn about the history of LGBTQ+ and its icons’.
The group has worked with staff to include a more diverse range of books in the school library, ensured pupils know who they can go to for advice, and have set up mentoring for queer students who might be having a tough time.
Young LGBTQ+ people’s charity Just Like Us has helped Netherthorpe School, and many others across the country, set up its Pride group by providing resources and training for both teachers and student leaders.
The charity runs an annual School Diversity Week – this year taking place from tomorrow until Friday – where it encourages UK-wide celebration of LGBTQ+ equality in primary schools, secondary schools and colleges, providing lesson plans and assemblies to help staff achieve this.
Chief executive Dominic Arnall tells Metro.co.uk: ‘School Diversity Week is a vital opportunity to show young people that it’s okay to be LGBTQ+.
‘It might sound like a simple message but it’s more needed than ever – LGBTQ+ school pupils are twice as likely as their peers to be bullied, contemplate suicide, have depression, be lonely and struggle with anxiety.
‘However, research shows there is a link between LGBTQ+ inclusive education and pupils having better mental health, whether they’re LGBTQ+ or not. So LGBTQ+ inclusion is good for everybody.’
Educators at wellbeing charity Brook also run online lessons for schools, parents, teachers and pupils to tune in to, for example by exploring LGBTQ+ history or other topics.
‘There are some positives – schools are really encouraging us to come in and train their staff around it, and are embracing inclusivity and how they can do better,’ Brook worker Nick adds.
Things are moving, but there’s still room to grow
‘Schools are having quite a few young people who are coming out now, and they want to support them but some teachers can be worried or nervous around getting things wrong, or how they’ll be viewed by parents.
‘We do a lot of work around how to engage the parents around it and get them involved in the conversations, too. It isn’t all doom and gloom – things are moving, but there’s still room to grow.’
Educator Milly, who has just released their new book Honest about sex, relationships and bodies, hopes in the future ‘inclusive education is the standard, not the exception’.
‘Idealistically I want sex education and LGBTQ+ inclusion to stop being sensationalised and treated as a terrifying, shocking thing,’ they explain.
‘I want inclusive, comprehensive sex education to be valued and treated like an essential part of our education, not just one which equips us for life but as one which helps us to understand and protect our human rights.
‘That would make a huge difference to the lives of LGBTQ+ students, and benefit all of us.
‘I’d love for sex education to be its own subject on school curriculums across the country because it isn’t given the amount of time needed to cover even the basics.’
Teacher Evie also hopes the government will mandate comprehensive LGBTQ+ education – but fears that is ‘entirely unrealistic’.
‘Instead, I just hope for enough queer teachers and staff to be out and proud in their settings that the tables tip, and fewer teachers worry about getting it wrong or offending – and just teach and talk about people, lives, families and relationships like none is “better” or more expected than another,’ she adds.
‘I hope for an education system where I don’t have to come out to each new class, but where my sexuality isn’t presumed by anyone.’
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Metro.co.uk celebrates 50 years of Pride
This year marks 50 years of Pride, so it seems only fitting that Metro.co.uk goes above and beyond in our ongoing LGBTQ+ support, through a wealth of content that not only celebrates all things Pride, but also share stories, take time to reflect and raises awareness for the community this Pride Month.
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During Pride Month, which runs from 1 – 30 June, Metro.co.uk will also be supporting Kyiv Pride, a Ukrainian charity forced to work harder than ever to protect the rights of the LGBTQ+ community during times of conflict, and youth homelessness charity AKT. To find out more about their work, and what you can do to support them, click here.