How Going to Faith School Made It Harder to Be Gay
Education grounded in religious doctrine made me wish I could be "normal".
I don't remember when I first encountered homophobia, when I became aware that for LGBT people life is still disproportionately really fucking hard. But there are distinct memories, certain moments from my childhood, that were formative. I know I was sure that being gay was something to be ashamed, worried or afraid of long before I knew what being gay actually meant. Not through playground jibes or from a prejudiced family, but from the ancient teachings of my faith.
I remember being sat in a year 3 bible studies class at my Jewish primary school, a part of my education taught in parallel to lessons in maths, English and science as if they were each one and of the same. A kid in my class put his hand up to ask the teacher about that passage in "Vayikra" (Leviticus): "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination."
The teacher's answer? It's somewhat immaterial. For years that followed it's a passage I carried with me as I started to explore my sexuality, the anxieties and discomfort repressed.
We might have come a long way from the days of Section 28 and outright homophobic teaching in most of our schools, with the rights of LGBT people enshrined in law after long battles. But classrooms and playgrounds remain notoriously dangerous places for young LGBT children, hostile environments that without dedicated outreach, support and provisions can scar young queer kids for decades to come.
It's hard to describe to a heterosexual counterpart just how much lasting damage hearing a slur of 'that's so gay' on a daily basis can truly have, let alone being mocked, beaten and abused for being an adolescent faggot.
In a report released by Stonewall last week, it seems clear that across the board our education system is still failing LGBT children. Nearly half of LGBT pupils (45 per cent) are bullied for being LGBT in Britain's schools, half hear homophobic slurs "frequently" or "often" in classrooms or the playground. For queer kids at faith schools though, the situation is even more unpleasant.
LGBT pupils in faith schools are more likely than those in non-faith schools to say that teachers and school staff never challenge homophobic, biphobic and transphobic language, just one in ten LGBT pupils in faith schools have learnt about where to go for advice about same-sex relationships. Anecdotally the picture is bleaker – just look to the news stories, ask your friends about their experiences, read the harrowing testimonies in the Stonewall report.
"It's not that mainstream education has been great to LGBT pupils and faith schools haven't," suggests Dominic Arnall Stonewall's Head of Projects and Programmes. "Schools are often bad, and faith schools came off worse." Dominic is responsible for overseeing the work of his organisation in the fields of education, international programmes and faith communities - so I ask if he thinks for LGBT kids and faith schools can ever go comfortably hand in hand.
"Faith schools are subject to the same rules in the UK under the Equality act, so they must be a safe environment for LGBT students and they can't be disadvantaged by their gender or sexuality," he explains. "Regardless of faith or belief, all schools have to live up to that standard."
Dominic says no religion is inherently homophobic, that looking for positive LGBT role models and ensuring harm prevention protocols are in place in faith schools doesn't go against any rational reading of biblical text.
It's a diplomatic answer, one that no doubt holds some truth, but it's far from a convincing argument for faith schools being safe places for LGBT pupils to develop and learn in. Can damage be limited? Certainly, but that's not the same as saying schools that intertwine faith and factual education are places where young queers can thrive.
He suggests I talk to Paul Halliwell, the headteacher of the St Bonaventure's Catholic School in East London, who's busy attending Mass when I first try to call. Having entered the teaching profession back in 1989, Paul is open and honest about the barriers that he firsthand saw LGBT pupils facing. "They struggle at home, and at school too," he explains. "As a school leader in a Catholic community I thought it was crucial to encourage our students to attend school in a safe and loving environment, one where every single child whatever their diversity felt they can attend safely without any fear of bullying or antagonism."
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Paul's interpretation of biblical scripture dictates the need to treat all people with respect, compassion and sensitivity, that for all his pupils there will always be a kind and loving God. His school might be Catholic to the core, but all classes recognise LGBT history month at St Bonaventure's, staff are trained in equality and diversity too. But as Dominic admits – Paul and those like him within faith schools are the exception, not the rule.
When I reached out to friends and strangers online to ask about their experiences as LGBT people in faith-specific education, everyone who replied to said they wished they'd been sent to a secular school instead. Some have heart-breaking stories. One talked of being at an all boys Catholic boarding school, listening to preachers condemn the sin of sodomy week by week. He recalls a "full on witch hunt" led by an alliance of teachers and pupils when a rumour spread that two pupils were having sex. Another tells me bluntly that queer-bashing wasn't seen as bullying; a nun would say to her class of young pupils "if you're gay, then what can you expect?" Self-harm, assaults and teachers looking the other way comes up all too often.
My experience, relatively speaking, wasn't as bad - I left my faith school aged 11, before I understood the LGBT acronym or my own identity. But faith school still wasn't helpful.
It's shit that I spent my formative years trying to convince myself I could spend my life hiding from myself and my sexuality. It's shit that still now a little part of me still questions whether I'll go to hell for being with a person who I love. It's shit that to this day there are kids being taught in classrooms that a non heterosexual identity means you'll be looked down on by a big guy looking on from above, even if in other lessons there's talk of LGBT history month and the need for mutual love and respect. It's shit that the faith school I went to made the journey to self-acceptance so much rockier.
I'm no fan of faith schools. I think they breed division and ignorance, create further segregation in our communities, and make differentiating an inherently irrational belief in faith and religion from logical facts and figures near impossible for kids. But until religious communities are rid of anti-LGBT teachings, it should be reason enough for us to stop turning the other cheek.
It's not a moment in my life I've ever really spoken about, to be fair I've probably not quite dealt with it myself. But for years – I couldn't tell you how many – I convinced myself I'd just carry on and be "normal". I'd marry a nice Jewish girl, have nice Jewish children, and contently settle down. I've no doubt I'd have struggled with similar denial and shame had I been educated outside the boundaries of a faith school, but one thing I'm certain of is that learning about biblical teaching as if it was as factual as my timetables or oxbow lakes really, really didn't help.
Top image via Geograph