The row in Birmingham over LGBT sex education for primary school has moved into its fourth month. The school gates at Parkfield Community School and Anderson Park School have seen weekly protests after the school piloted the ‘No Outsiders’ programme, which some parents claim promotes gay and transgender lifestyles and undermines their rights to determine what ideas their children are exposed to.
Despite being relatively small in scale, these protests have been framed as a uniquely grave threat to LGBT children nationwide, with the media spectacle engendering a moral panic. Good Morning Britain jumped at the chance to platform homophobic parents, while the liberal media has uniformly condemned the protestors. The media coverage has helped the protests to attract the attention of various opportunists who have become incendiary spokespeople delivering homophobic sound bites to eager journalists.
A media spectacle.
On social media, hundreds of LGBT people have shared their own stories of playground gay-bashing and the years of difficult work undoing the shame instilled by homophobic bullying. In these narratives the spectre of Section 28, a law introduced by Thatcher in 1988 which stopped local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality’, looms large, with some suggesting these protests signal a return to those dark days for young LGBT people, this time apparently spearheaded by homophobic Muslims. The sight of parents holding homophobic placards is certainly disturbing, but we must not mistake the media spectacle for real political power.
History has shown us that moral panics always have a political function, simplifying complex social problems into a form that can be more easily managed by the state. Therefore, to reckon with what is happening now - and why - we need to understand the political dynamics of Britain today.
In this case, in the midst of the interminable Brexit impasse, the floundering Tory government was able to pass some feel-good legislation backing LGBT inclusive sex and relationship education and has continued to benefit from the distraction provided by these protests, particularly when the images help to secure their own Islamophobic agenda.
Gay rights have been explicitly drafted into the War on Terror’s civilisationist rhetoric, which posits that gay rights are a metric of a modern society, while Islam is uniquely defined by sexual repression. Liberal and left-wing media have attempted to counter this view of homosexuality and Islam as mutually exclusive by promoting the voices of LGBT Muslims. But this approach, however ‘intersectional’ it appears, is highly individualising, assuming identity can stand in for political commitment. Those who claim to speak for a wider community do not necessarily espouse a progressive or antiracist politic, as this article by Asifa Lahore shows. In it, Lahore echoes the right-wing media’s claims that “the Birmingham area is at risk of Islamification.”
The conflict over sex education needs to be seen in the context of Prevent, the widely discredited New Labour programme, enshrined in law in 2015, when the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act was passed. This draconian legislation mandates public sector workers to report anyone they suspect to be at ‘risk of radicalisation’. The mandate can only be interpreted along the grain of its Islamophobic intention, the consequences of which are as absurd as they are damaging. In 2016, a 4 year old was referred to the government’s ‘de-radicalisation programme’ after he drew pictures which his teacher thought showed his father making a ‘cooker bomb’ – he was, in fact, cutting a cucumber.
The No Outsiders project taught at Parkfield Community has, as the protestors have noted, an explicit link to Prevent – a power–point presented to the government on how the school was fulfilling its Prevent duty showed the project was an essential part of the school’s strategy to “reduce radicalisation” which they believe they can achieve through the teaching of gay rights. When LGBT rights have become part of the policy through which Muslim children are criminalised, is it any wonder that some of their parents regard this project with suspicion? Allowing LGBT education to become intertwined with Prevent – and to give some meaning to the empty signifier of ‘British values’ – divests queer politics of its capacity to form antiracist alliances.
Education under threat.
Responses from the LGBT community have failed to engage with the changing climate of primary education. Academisation has weakened the ties between schools and local authorities under the rubric of parental control over education, strengthening precisely the ‘parental rights’ discourse on which the protestors stake their claim.
Huge cuts to school budgets also erode parents’ trust in the education system. In 2018, Anderton Park School in Birmingham began to close early on Wednesday afternoons because dwindling funds meant the school couldn’t afford to run for a full five days per week. As a result, pupils were deprived of lessons, and parents had to arrange for extra childcare.
When music and religious studies are cut due to lack of funds while money is found for LGBT education, to inculcate children in the ‘fundamental British values’ Muslims are assumed to lack, it seems inevitable that some parents would object to the school’s priorities. The homophobia evident in the protests must be seen in the context of this cynical deployment of gay rights at a time of biting austerity. If they are to be credible, our response to these protests must consider these wider threats to education.
In the throes of this moral panic, many on the left have echoed liberal pleas for ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect’, but these terms have been drained of any political content. To take back the narrative of LGBT liberation from the homo-nationalist state, we must articulate a more radical set of demands, beginning with a refusal to cooperate with Prevent, which poses a bigger threat to us all than a handful of protesting parents.