(Illustration by Dan Evans)
Discovering I was gay in the overbearingly macho culture of 1990s South London – and in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic, with its imposing tombstone advertising campaigns – was scary and isolating. If that wasn't enough, I also grew up in a huge Greek-Cypriot family with parents who were actively involved with the local church. This all amounted to a mountain of repressive crap for a little gay kid to have to climb.
You’d think the education system would have been a place where society’s judgemental, moralistic tones would be given a rational perspective – where religious doctrine would be balanced with scientific fact. Unfortunately not, if – like me – your teenage years are spent in a Roman Catholic school. As such, my sexual identity was a source of shame. It became buried within pervading fears of rejection from the people who put a roof over my head. No wonder so many young LGBTI kids are so desperate to flee their rural towns or villages.
My coming out was a long and painful process. I didn’t have any gay friends so I went out to a bar and made some. One of my earliest sexual experiences, aged 19, resulted in me being raped by two guys who took advantage of me after getting me drunk.
I didn’t report the incident to the police or my teachers because I didn’t feel I could. (With Section 28 still in place at the time, my Catholic school would hardly have been much help.) I didn’t tell my family because I feared their reaction to finding out I was gay. I didn’t even go to a sexual health clinic because I didn’t know that option was open to me. I didn’t do a lot of things, because nobody told me I could.
The author as a teenager
Sadly, little has changed since then in terms of our attitude towards educating young people on having healthy, informed sex lives. As long as you're not causing harm to anyone else, being able to enjoy your body as you desire to is a pleasure we are all entitled to. Education about sex, relationships and sexual health during a young person’s formative years is key to this. It teaches an open dialogue, encourages young people to seek advice and help, and empowers them to challenge situations where they feel pressured into unwanted experiences. What kind of society do we exist in that puts children and young adults in a place where they have to discover these basic life skills without any support?
I’d like to say we’ve moved on from the 20th century education system when it comes to sex and relationship education (SRE). But while the world might have made all sorts of other huge leaps, the teaching of young people about the fundamental aspects of human existence – sex and relationships – seems to have remained in the dark ages.
Our world is highly visual now, and the fact that porn is so stupidly easy to access online presents another problem: while there's not necessarily anything wrong with consenting adults having sex in front of a camera, what's harmful is that teenagers aren't been taught the difference between fantasy and reality. Through the access to apps and websites, a young gay teenager can end up in a sexual situation that he or she is not prepared for.
Yet, schools are still not required to teach any SRE beyond the very basic lessons about the procreating benefits of inserting a penis into a vagina. A dismal 25 percent of young people consulted by the Sex Education Forum considered their SRE to be "good" or "very good". Even Ofsted described SRE in English schools as "not yet good enough".
“Anything we learned at school was about heterosexual sex,” says James Hansom-McCormick, 24, originally from Nottingham and now living in Surbiton. “It was all about how to have a baby or how not to have a baby. No information about STIs. It was completely isolating. They’re teaching that heterosexual sex is the right thing to do, so I’m thinking: ‘Are my feelings wrong?’ There was nowhere I could go to for information.”
For many gay men, the first awareness of facts surrounding HIV and other STIs comes via the advertising in gay clubs, bars and gay media. For young teenagers who are just discovering their sexuality and have yet to engage in the wider gay scene, there’s a dangerous lack of accessible, correct information. And if schools don’t teach it, you can be sure most parents aren’t addressing it, either.
“Friends would joke about what they’d heard – like chlamydia – but we didn’t know what it was,” James tells me. “I was having so much unprotected, casual sex at 16 and 17 and had no idea about HIV until I contracted it.”
Does he feel he would have been more cautious if he knew the facts at a younger age? “Completely. I think it would have put a stop to me having unprotected sex.”
There’s a very real problem when the first meaningful encounter the vast majority of guys or girls have with sexual health information comes when they attend a clinic because they have a problem. Young gay guys are afraid to speak to their teachers or friends about sex for fear of reprisals. In the eyes of the law we may have more equality for LGBTI people since Labour scrapped Section 28 and the Tories delivered us equal marriage, but equality does not deliver acceptance. It takes time for laws to have a fundamental effect on society’s views.
What needs to happen for a change of attitudes towards LGBTI people is for all types of relationships to be included in statutory age-appropriate SRE lessons in schools. Discussing LGBTI rights within this framework challenges the homophobia that is sadly all too common in schools. Children aren’t born homophobic – they learn such behaviours from their immediate environment. If your parents have antiquated views, it’s hard, as a kid, not to absorb them.
I believe it’s the education system’s responsibility to teach respect and acceptance for all lifestyles, regardless of sexuality. That even applies to my Catholic school in Croydon, because tolerance and love transcends religious rights.
No doubt certain Daily titles will decree that educating kids about LGBTI relationships in schools will see swathes of children suddenly become homosexual. But we all know that’s just not going to happen. Sexuality might be a fluid scale, running from fully gay through to fully straight, but surely the larger outcome of same-sex SRE, in tandem with standard SRE, is that LGBTI people will feel their identities are no longer a source of shame. They'll be able to go to their teachers for advice rather than suffering in silence.
The author today
Over the years, as well as editing QX magazine – the UK’s most widely-read free gay publication – I have campaigned for myriad gay issues, from organising protest rallies outside Downing Street, to highlighting the plight of LGBTI Russians, to running countless features on the day-to-day problems affecting gay men today, from drug addiction to mental health.
But this campaign is perhaps more important than all of those. Why? Because the roots of so many of these problems can be traced back to the same thing: the fact that, often for around a couple of decades, gay people are forced to live two lives. I wouldn’t have lost the first 24 years of my life to fear had my teachers at school made it clear – even in just one of our hour-long classes – that it was OK to have the feelings I had. I probably would have even gone to the police after that night when two men sexually assaulted me.
It was with all this in mind that, earlier this year, I met with other gay media to address the issue of same-sex SRE in schools. They gave their immediate support. I then went to the other key gay health agencies and charities to sound them out on the subject. One of the first people to meet me and commit to supporting this campaign was Dr Yusef Azad from the National AIDS Trust (NAT). He immediately saw the importance of tackling sexual health issues in adults at an early age.
NAT had already been campaigning for all schools to provide SRE for some years, so adding their voice to this LGBTI-specific issue was a natural step. The organisation came on board as a major supporter, lending its expertise to formulating the initial press release and launch campaign.
“Ofsted has described current SRE provision as 'not yet good enough', and as many as 85 percent of gay and bisexual men also tell us they received no information about same-sex relationships in school,” says Susie Parsons, Chief Executive at NAT. “The result is unacceptably poor mental and physical health among gay men. HIV diagnoses among young gay men have doubled over the last ten years. In our recent research, young guys who are attracted to other guys told us that they want to receive information on HIV from teachers at school. But we’re clearly not meeting this need.”
Others were quick to show support and, before we knew it, we had over 20 signatories from a broad range of LGBTI organisations – from health charities to groups focused on youth and education. Three key figures to sign on were human rights activist Peter Tatchell (who has been vocal in his belief of how vital inclusive sex education is, saying that "sexual and emotional literacy are just as important as literacy in reading and writing"), Dr Christian Jessen and Lord Norman Fowler. For those who don’t know, Lord Fowler is the man who battled from within Thatcher’s government in the 1980s in the fight against HIV/AIDS, despite strong resistance from his own party. I met him at a book signing in August and asked him to come on board. He was wholeheartedly in favour of the concept, and it was, naturally, a major coup to have such a respected Tory figure as a supporter.
"THE EMOTIONAL HEALTH AND PHYSICAL WELLBEING OF EVERY CHILD AND TEENAGER NEEDS THIS TO HAPPEN"
The Evening Standard carried the story before we issued the press release to national media last month. It was timed to coincide with the start of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour conferences.
During their conference, the Lib Dems confirmed that SRE for children aged seven onwards would make their manifesto next year, but it's unclear whether this will include LGBTI relationships. At the Conservative party conference, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan spoke to the Terrence Higgins Trust attendees and discussed the issue of sex and relationships education. “We had a good conversation,” reveals Daisy Ellis, acting policy director at THT. “It was great to hear her talk positively about the importance of preparing young people for life in modern Britain. We believe SRE is a key part of helping young people prepare for their adult lives and we hope that the Education Secretary agrees with us.”
Other signatories, such as Stonewall and LGBT History Month, joined the campaign. By this point we now had over 28 key LGBTI groups supporting us. It was quite overwhelming to see so many organisations agree to focus their support for the same cause.
Two weeks ago I met with one of David Cameron's advisors, who seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. We spoke for over two hours about the issue, in great detail, while he made notes.
The interest from the Lib Dems and the Conservatives (hello, Labour?) doesn't mean anything, of course, because the disillusioned masses no longer view politics as a force for making a difference in the world – rather, a popularity contest that's all about winning votes. And will the SRE campaign (which must include same-sex SRE) ultimately be a vote winner? I'm not sure. Will it make the manifestos of the political parties next year? I hope so. I have faith that good people will see sense and change will come. The emotional health and physical wellbeing of every child and teenager needs this to happen.
Last week, VICE replied to an email from me and were enthusiastic about supporting this campaign, which is another powerful voice on our side. This week, the National AIDS Trust and I posted our open letters (view the letter in full here) signed by all 28 LGBTI signatories to David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg. The ball is now firmly in their court.
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