LGBTQ People Share Their Experiences of Sex Education
Theresa May has failed to condemn the parents protesting against better same-sex sex-ed. Here's how a lack of that education affected a generation of LGBTQ people.
Photo: Claire Doherty / Alamy Stock Photo
For every child, school can suck for a variety of reasons. For LGBTQ kids, there are a few more things to worry about. From polite ignorance to outright homophobia and transphobia, lots of LGBTQ millennials had a fairly miserable time figuring out and coming to terms with our sexuality and gender identity in a homophobic and transphobic system that privileges cisgender and heterosexual sex education over everything else.
It might seem like a distant memory, but Section 28 – the Local Government Act that prohibited local authorities from "promoting" homosexuality or gay "pretended family relationships" – was only repealed in 2003, so it was literally a criminal offence to teach kids about homosexuality when many of us started school, meaning inclusive sex-ed was a rarity throughout our education.
This is why recent debate over sex education in schools has been so alarming. For the straights who haven't been following the story, last month the Department for Education revealed plans to introduce inclusive sex education lessons with "integral" LGBTQ content. However, five schools in Birmingham withdrew these lessons after protests from parents, while parents in Manchester have also voiced unhappiness with the plans.
Theresa May has been heavily criticised for her refusal to condemn the ongoing protests – though it's not a surprise, given her history of denying the rights of LGBTQ people. Fighting the Prime Minister's corner, last week Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom said that parents should be able to decide when their children are "exposed to this knowledge", as if being LGBTQ is a disease they're likely to catch if they don't have the chance to build some resistance.
It goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: not teaching kids about LGBTQ people will not prevent them from being LGBTQ; it will just send the message that being LGBTQ is wrong – and make it much harder for LGBTQ kids to live authentically and be happy. In case there was any doubt about this, I asked some LGBTQ people to share their experience of sex education and the impact that it had on them.
I don’t remember there being much sex education at my school. My earliest memory of sex-ed was there being a Catholic boy in class who had a special note to be allowed to skip those classes, and figuring out that religious people didn't want us to learn about sex. We watched some videos of childbirth, which were quite traumatising, and there was a cartoon-ish video of heterosexual sex. Mostly I remember learning about the different sexually transmitted infections and diseases, pregnancy, contraception and periods, but we learned about them in biology, not sex-ed. Obviously it was all 100 percent binary and cis – girls learned about periods, babies and infections, while boys were told about erections.
I think the impact of my education was to reinforce the idea that penis-in-vagina sex was sex and that nothing else existed, which definitely contributed to the amount of queer shame I have. I knew I wasn’t straight in school, and I was very, very ashamed of that and repressed it hard for a long time. I came out as bisexual at 21 and as non-binary at 27, ten years after finishing school. It makes me sad to think about how much easier that process could have been had someone told us that there are more than two genders when I was a teenager. I could write an essay on the comments made by Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom, but in short" fuck them and their homophobia and transphobia. I’m living for the day when their outdated and repulsive views are seen for what they are.
I went to a Catholic primary school and then an all-male Church of England grammar school. Sex-ed was basically non-existent in primary school – we were just taught that sex was between a man and a woman (and God) and that it happened after marriage and its purpose was to start a family. In secondary school it was pretty rudimentary, but, to be fair, quite liberal. We learned about reproduction and were told that masturbation was good and there is nothing wrong with being gay or bi – we were even offered condoms.
Being a boys' school, we weren't really taught about women's bodies and we didn't learn anything about sexuality or gender identity at all. Most of the sex and relationships education about LGBTQ boiled down to "wear a condom or you could die of AIDS", and "homophobia is bad". I mostly learned about the mechanics of gay sex from Wikipedia – hardly ideal.
I definitely knew I wasn't straight from primary school. I got my first crush on a boy when I was eight, and it really freaked me out – I remember feeling a lot of guilt and shame, but not really understanding why. I think we learned so little about LGBTQ identities that it took me a really long time to figure out and unlearn internalised homophobia. I have no faith in a Prime Minister who voted against the repealing of Section 28 when she was Equalities Minister at the time. And I would tell Shabana Mahmood [the Labour MP who defended the parents protesting in Birmingham] that the trauma of compulsive heterosexuality, the shame culture justified via religion and the media discourse ratified by politicians that makes children invest in their own oppression for the approval of their loved ones should not be a choice available to parents.
I went to a pretty rubbish state school, where the main sex education we had was about safe sex and telling us how to avoid STIs by wearing a condom, etc. There was some focus on abusive relationships and sexting, and perhaps a little focus on consent, but very little on LGBTQ+ relationships. We were told about coming out, "if you're gay it's OK" stuff and not to bully LGBTQ+ students, but that was about it. Anything other than straight sex was never, ever mentioned.
I thought this was poor performance from them, however it now seems that the fact my school even acknowledged the existence of gay people is commendable, considering how other schools seem to be handling it. It was liberal and accepting, but just not enough. Nobody at school was "out out" or openly thriving or having non-straight relationships. Trans people were barely even talked about at this point. Some students were kind of known to be gay, but didn’t have the confidence to properly come out until college.
When I first had sex with a girl I punished myself, tried to suppress it, convinced myself it was non-consensual and didn't tell anyone about it for a whole year, despite being a very open person. Remembering it was horrible and I hated it. But there was nothing wrong with it, and if I'd been taught that I would have been saved a year of torturing myself and hiding things. I also would have been more comfortable being unsure in my sexuality. I'm more comfortable now admitting that I'm bisexual than when I was younger – however I do still doubt myself. It's hard to explain. Maybe it would be easier to explain if I was taught about it!
I went to a co-ed comprehensive school in south-east London, where sex-ed was spectacularly basic. I remember one of our religious studies teachers – who'd been charged with delivering a class to us in Year 8 – being asked how the mechanics of sex worked, and she got so flustered, the only thing she was capable of was mutely standing at the front of her class making this 👉👌motion. I don't think any of our teachers had been properly trained or equipped to handle even the meagre mid-2000s syllabus that was on offer at the time.
My overriding memory of sex education was external PHSE facilitators coming to our school when I was about 16. They sat the whole year group in the main hall and said we were going to do debates. One of the kids asked if we could debate "whether it was right or wrong to be gay". They said yes, and that everyone could choose which side of this debate they wanted to sit on. For about half an hour, these people facilitated kids in our year standing up and talking about how wrong it was to be a gay person. They occasionally challenged them, but it was mostly left to other students to offer a different viewpoint. There was one openly gay boy in our year then, and he was one of the only people brave enough to take his peers on.
I can't really describe how it felt, except that I feel an acute sense of anxiety whenever I think about it, more than a decade later. That – and the general attitudes held by the school – held me back years in terms of accepting who I was, and figuring out my sexuality was a long and muddy journey. I had chronic crushes on boys, but then when I was around 14 I started sexually experimenting with a female best friend, which lasted for years and was a massive part of my sexual and emotional development. It was a weird and confusing time; I felt like I wasn't allowed to be into both genders, so for most of my teens I thought of myself as a slightly broken straight person, and then that I was gay.
I think I was about 21 when I started calling myself bisexual and feeling genuinely valid in it. The internalised homophobia and shame I felt ruined my relationship with the girl I mentioned at the beginning, and, to be honest, made me a shitty girlfriend in almost every same-sex relationship I've had since. I had to unlearn a lot of bad attitudes and behaviours when I went to university, and that took a lot of time and emotional energy. I think in a lot of ways I'm still learning.