This podcast is a documentary first aired on CamFM, Cambridge University’s radio station. It addresses an important question of LGBT politics – when to introduce children to the idea of alternative sexualities. Does it rob primary school children of their innocence to introduce them to the idea that some people fall in love with members of the same sex? Might it even be important to do so?
The podcast, presented by Ben Weisz, features sex education expert Fred Kaeser of New York University, members of Cambridge’s LGBT community, teachers at St Matthew’s primary school in Cambridge, Dr Lucy Blake of the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University and Simon Darby of the BNP.
Ben begins by exploring why the issue has become controversial. He takes as his starting point Clause 28 of the Local Government Act, which banned discussion of homosexuality in UK schools. Not repealed until 2003, it meant that if you were born before 1993, it was illegal for your primary school teachers to even tell you what the word ‘gay’ meant.
But, he suggests, the idea of introducing children to homosexuality has, if anything, become more controversial in recent months……
‘One daddy, one mummy, don’t lie to the children’ chanted hundreds of thousands of
Parisians in January, protesting gay marriage and adoption. At the heart of their message, the idea that telling children that same sex couples could parent was lying to them.
And in Russia, too, activists support recent legislation in cities like St Petersburg which bans ‘homosexual propaganda’ – in practice, any public discussion of homosexuality, including in schools.
In the US it is highly contested and here in the UK, we’re not necessarily more comfortable introducing small children to homosexuality. In January this year, Conservative cabinet minister David Jones expressed his doubts over the ability of gay people to raise children.
And who can forget BNP leader Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time in 2010?
Clearly, there’s a great deal of opposition to the idea of teaching young children about gay relationships. But it takes two sides to make an argument. Who wants alternative sexualities to be included in primary school-aged children’s education?
As a starting point, I looked at how the taboo on talking about homosexuality with small children had affected LGBT students here in Cambridge. Growing up in the shadow of Section 28, with no example of age-appropriate discussion from their schooldays, how had they dealt with coming out to younger relatives, and how had they found out what ‘gay’ was?
In one of Cambridge’s busy coffee shops, I caught up with Kate Champion, Ben Vincent, Emma Clement and Kim Millard:
KATE: As far as introducing children to it, I remember actually, like, I actually had a book as a child which was called ‘Heather has two Mommies’. I think things like that, where it’s just a book, and it’s just telling someone ‘this actually exists’
BEN: In my experience, I think it’s interesting that people would often assume that a kid hearing this would go ‘am I gay? Oh my god! What if I am? Then terrible things…’ and they have this sort of existential crisis. I haven’t seen any of that. They sort of go ‘I dunno…what’s for tea?’
EMMA: My grandmother’s gay, and she’s been in a relationship with her partner now for 33 years. So yeah, growing up I knew about gay people. I grew up in a village in the northeast of England, so of course you heard it bandied around the playground. But I also knew about this wonderful relationship that my grandmother had with her partner, and I didn’t associate the two of them at all. It took me until I was nine years old and I was sitting in the back of the bus and I turned to my mum and asked ‘Mummy, are Nanna and Helen…lesbians?’ and she was like ‘well, yeah!’ and it actually came as quite a shock to me to see something that I always thought was nice and lovely, and to associate it with something that as far as I knew was a bad thing.
BEN: Despite the fact that you clearly have a great relationship with your Nanna and have complete acceptance of her and her partner…yet when you put two and two together and realised that is what lesbian is, you say you reacted with shock.
EMMA: Yeah, a really prevalent part of school was that gay was a bit of an insult, until it got to around the stage where my friends were realising their sexuality and things, then it was standard to use that. There wasn’t much adult influence in saying ‘actually guys, you shouldn’t be saying that.’ I remember an English teacher standing in front of the class and one of the words was ‘gay’, and she said ‘oh yes, the meaning of ‘gay’ has changed over the years, back then it meant ‘happy’, then it meant ‘homosexual’ and nowadays you guys use it as an insult don’t you?’ and we were like ‘yeah, miss we do!’ and she was just solidifying it for us that that’s standard.
KATE: I think honesty with children is the best way, it’s so simple to explain. I think that as soon as teachers go ‘ah well it’s this..oh…well…thing’ they pick up on it so fast. They go ‘ah! There’s something I could tease someone about!’
KIM: My dad got a new girlfriend over the summer, she’s got two sons, they were five and eight at the time. They met my girlfriend cos she was over quite a lot in summer, they had no real idea what was going on. They’d be bandying around ‘that’s gay’, ‘you’re gay’ with no idea what it was. Later, the 8-year-old happened to overhear a conversation we were having which happened to contain the word ‘homophobia.’ Later on in the kitchen, he turned to me and asked ‘what did that actually mean?’, so obviously I had to explain that to him, and so he found out about me and the girlfriend, and he was perfectly OK with it. He said ‘if you love her, what does it matter?’ and I was like, that’s such insight for an eight year old.
EMMA: You’ll never find a kid who once they’ve properly understood and have an example they can relate to, won’t accept something.
KATE: My sister was always very curious about my romantic life, so when I told her about my girlfriend, she was most worried about nieces and nephews. She was really concerned about the whole procreation thing. Where are the babies? So I had to explain to her that I could have children, that I was going to have children, that I was planning to have a family. But I think my sister, once she realised there could be more than one kind of relationship she wanted to know the rules. So girls and girls can be together? What about boys and boys? Yep. And then I started trying to introduce the idea of trans, you know, maybe you don’t feel comfortable in the gender you were given originally. They’re so receptive. They’re asking these questions – they’re wanting to know.
Someone who knows all about the curiosity of children is Fred Kaeser of New York University. Child psychologist, Sex Education expert and author of What Your Child Needs To Know About Sex, And When. For a time, he was in charge of sex education in New York, and told us that raising the issue of homosexuality with children was not only inevitable, but important.
FRED KAESER: Every time I walk over to this school I’m walking down this very famous street in Greenwich village called Christopher Street, and it’s loaded with sex shops. And I always think what happens when you walk your five year old down Christopher Street every day, and there are fake penises in the window, fake vulvas in the window, blow up naked dolls. At some point you’re going to have to talk to your child about what they’re seeing in that window, and it’s the same thing with respect to homosexuality. I think we should be talking about homosexuality…certainly by age 5. It affects them no differently to talking about sticks, stones, people, houses, cars…they’re going to listen, they’re going to respect what you’re saying and they’re going to move on. I’ve probably spoken to well over 50,000 kids in my time. Most four and five year olds are probably going to look at you and go ‘oh, that’s fine.’ The idea that if somebody talks to a young child that somehow that’s going to make them become gay or become lesbian, or act gay or act lesbian…there isn’t a shred of empirical evidence to suggest that that’s remotely true. In fact, just the opposite – they become more informed, and kids become less curious.
By not talking about it, kids are still learning! They’re just learning from sources of information and guidance that are less than ideal. There are those who are learning things which are detrimental to young gay and lesbian people. I mean not only are they stigmatised, but you have young gay and lesbian people who are significantly higher risk for suicide. If you tell kids ‘you shouldn’t feel this way, you shouldn’t think this way, you shouldn’t act sexual in any way’ – that’s pretty harmful, I think. My father always told me not to masturbate. It didn’t stop me masturbating, but I sure as hell felt guilty every time I did it! I can go into any community in New York City, I can go into a fifth grade class, a sixth grade class, seventh grade class, eighth grade class, I can mention homosexuality, transgenderism, and I’ll get my fair share of rolling the eyes, groaning, it’s alarming to me that in today’s day and age, we get this sort of response. Where should kids be learning about homosexuality? Things it is important to teach them, we teach it in schools. So, schools and home – gotta be done both.
Here in the UK, one organisation which is raising the issue in schools is gay rights charity Stonewall. They provide resources for both primary and secondary school teachers. Their primary school materials bear the slogan “Different Families, Same Love”, including lesson plans, stickers, reading suggestions and training DVDs for teachers, explaining how to raise the issues in an age appropriate way. Chris Dye, who oversees the programme, told us how the programme was working, and why Stonewall thinks it important to target primary schools:
CHRIS: More than 2 in 5 primary school teachers say pupils in their schools have experienced homophobic bullying. What we know about primary school children is they will become withdrawn, they won’t feel able to do the things they enjoy doing, or to talk about their family situation. Children will veer away from socialising outside of school, so children veer away from inviting other children to parties or to their home, because obviously then they’ll find out that they have two dads or two mums. Stonewall’s been working with primary schools for a number of years now, and our suite of resources encourages children to talk about the idea that there are all different kinds of families, and to feel comfortable talking about their own family. I haven’t had anybody come to me and say ‘these haven’t worked very well in our community’ or ‘there’s been a massive backlash from parents’. Sometimes, people have a fixation with sex and they think that when you’re talking about sexual orientation you’re talking about homosexual sex with primary school children. That’s no more the case when you’re talking about a mum and a dad that you’re talking about heterosexual sex. Children respond very well to our materials, and we produce a training DVD called ‘Celebrating Difference’ where you can see the children responding very well to our ‘Different Families’ posters, and drawing their own posters, and what primary school staff say is that children at that age are much more open to difference.
I went to St Matthew’s Primary School in Cambridge, one of the schools which features on that DVD. Headteacher Tony Davies and Deputy Miss Elizabeth Steele explained why they used Stonewall’s resources.
TONY: This started a few years ago now when we were just starting to notice that there was some language being used in that playground in a derogatory way that we felt was inappropriate.
ELIZABETH; If you missed a goal, you were called ‘gay’. When there were girls arguing, it was always ‘you’re a lesbian…your mum’s a lesbian’. It was used as a term of abuse, constantly. I don’t hear it anymore at all, and I think the children understand what it means to be homophobic, and that it’s not acceptable.
TONY: We had a hugely supportive response from parents, but it was one of the questions in our heads, I wonder how people are going to respond to this. Maybe people were worrying it might go against the teachings of particular faiths. When people were actually saying ‘well, is this age appropriate for children this age to be hearing this kind of language?’ we were able to say ‘well actually, children are hearing this language now, and the work we’re doing is going to prevent them from hearing that language used in an inappropriate and unkind way.’
ELIZABETH: When we started, people imagined that it wouldn’t have any effect, that children would always be using homophobic language. And we cast our minds back ten years ago when racist language was commonplace and now it’s completely unacceptable, and we thought we could do the same for homophobic language and bullying as well, and in our school I think that’s happened. I don’t think it’s a huge agenda item for the government. I don’t think they really know what they want to do with it or how they should handle it. Racist incidents legally have to be recorded on a database, and we decided to go down the same route with homophobic incidents. I think it would be useful to use this nationwide, to make it clear that it’s just as awful to do homophobic bullying as it is to have racist bullying. When we started, the children had to have parental permission to do the work from the sex education point of view. There was actually one boy who was withdrawn – a Muslim boy, and she wanted to teach him about sex education in the way that she thought was most relevant to her family. When we sent the letters home saying we were going to be doing the work on homophobia she actually rang me up to ask me what it would entail, and once we explained that it was about homophobia, not about sexual acts, she said, you know, my son must do this – we expect people to tolerate our religion and our differences, and my son needs to learn to tolerate other people in society. And I took that as a real positive sign.
One group which has always been a prominent opponent of what it calls the “creeping homosexual agenda” in British society is the British National Party. On its website, an article names St Matthew’s as a proponent of what it calls “homosexual propaganda” and “akin to child abuse”. To explain why the BNP is so vehemently opposed to discussing homosexuality in primary schools. Joel Lewin went to talk to the BNPs National Media Spokesman, Simon Darby.
SIMON: There’s no reason at all why a child of five years of age should want to know, or even need to know about same sex relationships. In my view it’s tantamount to political paedophilia.
JOEL: We’re talking specifically about non-sexual contexts. What’s the difference between telling children that mummies and mummies can love each other, and mummies and daddies can love each other?
SIMON: Well that just confuses kids, doesn’t it? Traditional families are a mother and a father, and that’s just the most proven stable relationship to bring up kids.
JOEL: Where is it proven?
SIMON: Well there are a number of studies that have come out to say that that is the most stable and natural way to bring up kids, you only have to Google it and see. I don’t think it’s right that kids should be without fathers, I don’t think it’s right that kids should be without mothers, I mean 90% of people would probably agree with me.
JOEL: I’ve spoken to Cambridge psychologist Lucy Blake, and she says that research shows that there’s no difference.
SIMON: One contemporary psychiatrist can rip up the books of generations of previous knowledge and experience? The question here is for the rights of children – they’re the most important thing. It’s not about the rights of gay people. These people don’t really think about us. I just expect that if we’re going to be tolerant and do a deal, so to speak, that on their side, we expect that our kids are not going to be indoctrinated with homosexual propaganda, and most gay people, other than the gay mafia, would accept that.
JOEL: Who’s in the gay mafia?
SIMON: Your friends at Stonewall are pretty much the capos, but there is a very organised gay lobby that are pushing for gay rights very aggressively.
What did Miss Steele make of the BNP’s charge that her lessons were planned by a ‘gay mafia’ hell-bent on robbing children of their innocence?
ELIZABETH: I don’t think that they understand what we do. These are primary school children, so we don’t talk to them about their own sexuality. We talk about it in the context of different relationships that are in families. We talk to them about perhaps their parents or their aunts’ and uncles’ relationships. It’s not stealing their innocence because it’s there, it’s out there and families are different.
We tried to remedy Simon’s lack of knowledge about what the materials involved by reading him a story.
JOEL: So I’ve got a children’s book here about two gay penguins, I was just going to read a little passage…
SIMON: Do you have to, Joel? Do you have to? Are you serious? Gay penguins?
JOEL: I’ll read a small section. <reading> “They didn’t spend much time with the girl penguins, and the girl penguins didn’t spend much time with them. Instead, Roy and Silo wound their necks around each other. The keeper, Mr Gamzay, noticed the two penguins and thought to himself ‘those penguins must be in love.’ “
SIMON: Well it’s just farcical isn’t it? I mean if you honestly think that reading that kind of nonsense is going to be any help to any kids at all, then you must be living in a dream world, to be honest.
JOEL: What about children who go on to face homophobic bullying?
SIMON: What about the penguins being bullied? I’ll probably lose sleep over that!
JOEL: How about the homophobic bullying of children?
SIMON: Well again, look at the phraseology you’re using. ‘Homophobic.’ What a convenient term for anybody who dislikes or disagrees with somebody that’s pushing forward a pro-homosexual agenda. ‘Bullying,’ again, it’s always been around and it’s made far too much of in society. It’s just a trendy social aspect that we can focus on. Yeah, I don’t agree with bullying, but I’m afraid there’s far worse things that go on in the world.
JOEL: If you could teach one thing to children about families, what would it be?
SIMON: Loyalty…love…gay penguins doesn’t come into it though.
Now let’s hear Iona, aged 5, reading with her mum Emma. What would Iona make of the gay penguins in And Tango Makes Three?
EMMA: <reading> There is a great big park called Central Park. Children love to play there. Best of all, it has it’s very own zoo. Two penguins in the penguin house were a little bit different. One was named Roy, and the other was Silo.
IONA: Silo?! That’s a funny name!
EMMA: <reading> Roy and Silo were both boys, but they did everything together. They bowed to each other, and walked together…
IONA: But, but…they’re both waddling!
EMMA: Yes, they are waddling, aren’t they? <reading> Wherever Roy went, Silo went too.
IONA: Is Silo the girl?
EMMA: No, they’re both boys. <reading>They didn’t spend much time with the girl penguins, and the girl penguins didn’t spend much time with them. Instead, Roy and Silo wound their necks around each other. The keeper, Mr Gamzay, noticed the two penguins and thought to himself ‘those penguins must be in love.’
IONA: They don’t have babies, because they’re boys!
EMMA: Yes, that’s right, shall we read about it? <reading> Then Mr Gramzay the zookeeper had an idea. He found an egg that needed to be cared for, and he brought it to Roy and Silo’s nest. CRRRRAAAACCCKKK! Out came their very own baby! Now Roy and Silo were fathers. We’ll call her Tango, Mr Gramzay decided, because it takes two to make a tango. <speaking> A tango is actually a kind of dance and you always say ‘it takes two to tango’. I think you’ve seen a tango, actually.
IONA: Yes, on Strictly.
EMMA: What do you think about the book, do you like it?
EMMA: What’s it about?
IONA: Daddy penguins and a chick.
JOEL: Do you think the penguins who had the egg given to them were different to the other penguins?
IONA: Yeah, very different. The name was different…the age….
EMMA: And the fact that maybe, the fact that the baby’s got two daddies.
IONA: Cos, um…normal people sometimes have two daddies. But I don’t know anyone that has two daddies.
MAX: Which would you like more, just mummies or just daddies?
MAX: Just mummies…why’s that?
IONA: Cos I like girls more than boys. I think that daddies would be a bit rough…but mummies would be OK.
EMMA: Why’s that?
IONA: Not because of Daddy!
EMMA: No, I thought so.
IONA: And I love babies too…and I hate boys!
The book Iona was reading, And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, was, according to the American Library Association, the most complained-about book in its libraries between 2006 and 2010. But the parents of Cambridge don’t seem to react to a picture book about two boy penguins falling in love in the same way.
We’ve already heard how gay rights activists think teaching small children that gay people exist is important for avoiding stigma. It also seems that actual families, by and large, don’t have much of a problem with the idea, even if they haven’t tried it themselves. What of Simon Darby’s charges that doing so might harm children? Is there any evidence that being raised by same sex parents is bad for you? Cambridge psychologist Dr. Lucy Blake , of the Centre for Family Research, doesn’t think so:
LUCY BLAKE: Studies that have been conducted over the last 30 years or so have all reached a similar conclusion which is that there isn’t a detrimental effect on children’s psychological wellbeing of being raised in these families. Children that have been raised in these families might be asked lots of questions by their peers about their family, and how their family works, and children might find that confusing, or annoying, but then again, some children might not really mind. But I think, by no means, is it a simple case that all families of this nature in the UK experience stigma and bullying. Children seem quite relaxed and accommodating when you talk about new kinds of families and relationships. They’re pretty chilled out and they can handle it pretty well. In my personal opinion, I can’t think of any reason why you shouldn’t talk about different kinds of families at a young age, so from primary school, so that there’s an awareness that there are different kinds of families out there.
So why all the fuss about introducing children to the idea of homosexuality?
We shouldn’t be too hasty to conclude that it’s misplaced. Alleged harm to children is not the only reason one might oppose teaching primary school kids about gay relationships.
We spoke to Sarah, a student here at the University of Cambridge and a Christian. She is a far cry from Simon Darby. Her god-given morality told her that, whatever the consequences of being gay, it wasn’t how God wanted people to live.
SARAH: If you do adhere to the point of view that there is a God who has created us and who has perhaps set down some standards of morality to which we should adhere, then that will fundamentally impact what you teach children. If there is a God who sets down principles for life, then maybe we need to look into that. Now the Bible is very clear that the homosexual lifestyle is not OK. God has created us male and female. It’s possible to have feelings, but feelings are not always correct. There is an absolute standard of morality according to which this kind of relationship is not correct, and so even trying to express that in a watered-down way for children wouldn’t be correct. If there is a fundamental baseline of morality which says that heterosexual relationships are the only way in which life should be lived, then regardless of the results on these children, does it still make it right…I’m not a hundred percent certain that there will be no impact whatsoever on these children. There would be one impact – children may think that this kind of lifestyle is OK, when really it’s not an OK lifestyle.
So where does this leave us?
In this programme, we’ve heard from all kinds of contributors to the debate on teaching small children about alternative sexualities.
We’ve heard compelling reasons in favour of introducing primary school aged children to the idea that some people are gay. It makes children of gay parents feel more included. It reduces homophobic bullying. It helps members of the LGBT community come to terms with their own sexuality, and gives them examples of how they might explain it to younger relatives.
There are counterarguments, certainly, but careful – some simply aren’t valid. There is no clear evidence that teaching children about homosexuality in an age-appropriate way robs them of their innocence, or makes them gay.
One counterargument remains – if your religious or ethical beliefs tell you that there is something fundamentally wrong with homosexuality, then even if no harm comes to children by teaching them about it, you might still think it’s a bad thing to do.
The real debate, it would seem, is whether the harm caused by not teaching children about homosexuality is great enough to mean that those with anti-homosexual moralities ought to keep those moralities to themselves. This is the real ‘hard question’ for the ‘new big issue’ of LGBT politics.
Yet another important message is that teaching children about homosexuality needn’t be a strenuous ordeal. Kids are, generally, very accepting people. For a final word, let’s head back to the café in Cambridge to hear, one final time, from Ben Vincent:
BEN VINCENT: All the family had gone out except for me and my youngest cousin, and he came out with ‘Ben do you like girls?’ I sort of thought about it for a second like ‘where am I going with this, I could get in trouble depending on how I answer this!’ So I turned to him and said ‘no, no, I don’t.’ And the response was ‘Oh I don’t either! Great!’ There was a real bonding moment, the relief on this five year old’s face to hear that I thought girls were icky!
“Don’t Say Gay?” was an original documentary made for Cam FM. The presenter was Ben Weisz, and the Producers were Ben Weisz, Joel Lewin and Max de Haldevang