Sex education is lagging behind in the UK.Sophia Luu

In Britain, it’s easy to think that we’re perched on the pinnacle of modern social attitudes. We may have a few vocal nationalists lurking around, but in general, we’re lurching forth on the arc of progress. Not only are we among the top 3 in Europe’s LGBT+ rights rankings, our cities are moderately accepting of multiculturalism, and non-nuclear families are decreasingly stigmatised. Some would have us believe that the only real threat is the (mythical) Muslim, intent on wreaking havoc in liberal Britain: dismantling democracy, gender segregating and inciting violence.

So how can it be the case that our government – champion of ‘British values’ in ‘modern Britain’ – only last week resolved to make sex education mandatory? Until now, schools have permitted parents to opt their children out of sex and relationships education that isn’t part of the science curriculum. This is to say that some pupils have been missing out on vital lessons on how sex works, the importance of consent, healthy relationships, sexual health, and abuse – the kind of information that every young person, religious or not, sexually active or not, needs to know to thrive in the world. It’s baffling to think how this lingering vestige of Victorian cultural conservatism been allowed to survive for so long.

“The curriculum’s ideological project of queer normalisation in a queerphobic world had normalised me

While the government’s recent decision must be welcomed, there has been no explicit mention of LGBT+ inclusion, and I dread that those experiences won’t be included. Meagre Conservative support for equal marriage is belied by a long and murky history of hostility towards the ‘intrusion’ of queerness into education. The decriminalisation of gay sex in 1967 initially meant very little for social acceptance, and until 2003 we saw how this was cemented in the notorious Section 28, which forbade the “the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

Fears of a gay agenda to convert ‘innocent children’ to depraved same-sex lifestyles were legitimised, alongside intense transphobia. But even after the repeal of Section 28, there was never any follow up to make LGBT+ sex education compulsory in schools. So we entered a strange phase in which societal attitudes towards LGBT+ people improved yet young queers – facing more confusion and hatred in school corridors than their straight and cis peers – were guaranteed little or no support. The damage this has caused, and continues to cause, on those who are queer or questioning, is untold.

Thinking about how growing up as a queer teenager was for me, I can’t say it was a particularly bad experience. This was a stage in my life of negotiating, accepting, and trying to thrive in difference: being an immigrant in Sweden and adapting to a new culture, and being Asian in a sometimes white environment. Queerness didn’t really factor into it, because I didn’t see myself as queer. I suppose it was a kind of knowledge that existed and lingered at the back of my mind, but it was nothing I would ever consider confronting, as it would shatter the expectations I’d constructed about how I was supposed to be and what my future would look like. For sure, there was plenty of queerphobia around, in conversations and classroom banter. I remember my English teacher once explaining that, statistically, three class members were LGBT+, to which one guy leaped back and shrieked, to the delight of the class. I laughed along – ultimately, I’d convinced myself that the teacher wasn’t talking about me.

So the secondary school curriculum, which emphasised the deconstruction of norms, gender equality, and incorporation of LGBT+ perspectives into all sex and relationships education, at that point, felt inconsequential. The textbook chapter our biology teacher awkwardly read out loud, featuring images of at least five different queer animal couples in the wild, was just another chapter. The same went for the new video we were shown: a cartoon featuring a white lesbian girl and black straight boy as main characters, explicitly focusing on the meanings and practices of sex, pleasure and consent for people of all sexualities (with reproduction as an afterthought).

It wasn’t until coming out to myself at the age of 17 that I realised how much they’d meant to me. That textbook and video were sources of incredible authority, with a power to dictate what was and wasn’t normal and acceptable. Accepting myself was confusing and scary, but I had a legitimate source of knowledge and validation to fall back on. The curriculum’s ideological project of queer normalisation in a queerphobic world had normalised me. It’s only in hindsight, with a lot more knowledge and understanding of queerphobia, that I could also see that this normalisation was a process of demonsterisation. It fought a battle against the monster that was queerness itself, against the forces that stopped me from accepting myself for so long – that made the guy in my class leap at the suggestion that he might be among queers – that made my mum scared of a trans woman who lived in our neighbourhood – and some family members sceptical about a lesbian cousin’s suitability as a parent. It made arriving at Cambridge, and taking on university life, so much easier.

I can only hope that the new sex education policy launched in the UK will follow Sweden’s example. There’s so much potential to make school and society at large a safer place for queer and questioning pupils, by affirming their existence and, crucially, enabling them to understand themselves. More so than me, those who face outright bullying, mental health problems or sexism on top of queerphobia stand to gain. Diversity or religion cannot be used as an argument against this: queer religious individuals, or those of colour, such as myself, are equally entitled to this safety. Queer students have suffered for too long. Fourteen years after the repeal of Section 28, let’s do them right