This May sees the thirtieth anniversary of Stonewall, the LGBT charity which has done so much over the years to campaign for LGBT+ rights.
It’s impossible to say whether, without their relentless campaigning, we would have seen so many advances in the battle for LGBT+ equality.
These advances include a widespread acceptance of LGBT people serving in our armed forces, equal marriage, an equal age of consent, less stigma around HIV and AIDS and, in general, a far more accepting and less homophobic Britain. Perhaps all this would have happened anyway – who knows? – but it is undeniable that Stonewall, with its hard-working, dedicated and committed staffers and volunteers, has made an incalculably significant contribution. Anyone who cares a jot about building a fairer, more equal society should be grateful for everything this quite wonderful charity has achieved.
Stonewall was established chiefly as a protest against Section 28, a particularly nasty piece of legislation brought in by Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative administration which prohibited the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools and elsewhere. In effect, this meant that young people, often confused, ostracised and bullied for their sexuality, had nowhere to turn for help, advice and reassurance. When Colin Russell, the character played by Stonewall founder Michael (now Lord) Cashman kissed his partner in EastEnders, the Daily Mail and The Sun ran stories which nowadays would probably constitute hate crimes.
I remember the anger, the sense of injustice and – yes – the fear for the future which underpinned Stonewall in the early days, tempered by a quite wonderful sense of camaraderie and solidarity. If you weren’t there, the movie Pride, about the support given to striking Welsh miners by a cohort of gay men and lesbians, goes a long way to encapsulate the vibe of the time.
So, it was with no small degree of disappointment that I read Stonewall’s anodyne response to the decision by Birmingham’s Parkfield School to remove any LGBT references from their sex and relationships education syllabus in the face of sustained protests by a significant number of parents. I do not blame the school – they have been put in an impossible position.
The parents of Parkfield, chiefly Muslim, believe that educating their children about gay and lesbian relationships contravenes their religious values. It is now being reported that groups of fundamentalist Christians and orthodox Jews are joining the protest.
Whether people who adhere to certain religious views should be able to let their children duck out of certain aspects of SRE is an argument for another time (for the record, I believe the law of the land should always supersede religious bigotry) but surely, when it happens, Stonewall should be first to the barricades. Instead, the charity said this on their website (our italics):
‘It’s vital children learn about and celebrate diversity at all ages, and we work closely with schools, providing training and support to help them do this.
‘Schools that strive to create inclusive environments do so because they know the benefits this has for the whole school community. Not only do children feel able to talk about who they are and who their families are, this approach also teaches children the invaluable lesson of acceptance, reducing the likelihood of bullying in the long run.
‘We work closely with many faith schools and faith communities around the country to help them deliver LGBT-inclusive education to children and young people.
‘We’re pleased Parkfield Community School has reaffirmed its commitment to creating an inclusive environment for all its pupils and we’re also pleased that it’s planning more conversations with parents and the wider community to resolve concerns, because the support of the community is essential in creating this inclusive approach.’
Stonewall, I’m delighted you exist. I’ve worked closely with you in the past and was even a Stonewall Ambassador for a while. For me, it is undeniable that you have been a considerable force for good over the past three decades.
And yet, where is the outrage? Where is the fury over a group of religious zealots trying to get away with imposing their own Section 28? Your statement smacks of the worst kind of politics: bland, self-serving and, I am sorry to say, a little feeble. Outgoing Stonewall CEO Ruth Hunt has tweeted (l) her sadness at what she rightly calls “narrow vitriol” and written at length on the Stonewall website about Muslim LGBT allies and Stonewall’s commitment to “building bridges”. Her statement, while well intentioned, appears to focus more on praising those in the Muslim community who stand up for LGBT rights while also warning against fanning the flames of Islamophobia. Both laudable sentiments, but no condemnation, even in the mildest terms, of the in-your-face homophobic bigotry of the parents.
I understand the need to be diplomatic and measured, but sometimes prejudice and hate need to be called out. Sadly, on this occasion, they have not.