Did you see people like you?

Our Society and Community editor Beth discusses LGBTQ+ sex education in schools and representation in children’s literature…

LGBTQ inclusive education and representation in children’s literature

In September of this year, all secondary schools in England will be required to teach Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and all primary schools will be required to teach Relationships Education (RE). In secondary schools these lessons must include exploration of gender identity and sexual orientation and the challenging of everyday sexism, misogyny and homophobia. A timely (if not extremely, shockingly late) addition to what can often feel like a very one-sided curriculum. In primary schools however, the guidelines only state that children should be taught about different families, which can include LGBTQ parents. What I struggle with here is the power given to teachers in deciding which relationships children are required and able to learn about. As if educating children about healthy LGBTQ relationships is an option, but not a necessity. In lingering on the can of this guideline, we become aware that the heteronormativity of the curriculum remains pretty much unchallenged. The governmental regulations requiring the teaching of RSE and RE are a massive step forward in the mainstream normalisation of multiple and disparate identities. But they express no conviction; no recognition of the urgency of teaching LGBTQ children about people who are like them.

The topic of LGBTQ representation in the school curriculum has received a lot of coverage recently. In 2019, protesters gathered outside Parkfield community school in Birmingham, against the teaching of LGBTQ rights, identities and relationships. Largely, the protests were sparked by a series of books introduced at the school. One, for example, told the story of a young boy who sees three women dressed as mermaids and decides he also wants to dress up as a mermaid. The books were included in the ‘No Outsiders’ program, introduced in 2014 by the assistant head teacher, Andrew Moffat. The program was created with the intention of teaching about, and thus encouraging, the celebration of difference among students. It sought to represent identities across genders, sexual orientations and ethnicities; identities which are so often disregarded in children’s literature.

What are we to make of the resistance this program received? How are we to deal with this reality kindly? Firstly, I think it is important to recognise that these protests were embedded in multiple sensitivities, too complex to discuss here. One thing that we can see is that they highlight the conflict of needs and interests at play when it comes to representation. Undoubtedly, the books being protested against draw attention to differences between people which need to be acknowledged; differences which have for so long been denied or used to ostracise groups of people. The protests highlight a difficulty however, which comes with this attention given to difference. Namely, they shine a light on the reality that different people will have diverging needs regarding who or what should be represented on the curriculum. The resistance highlights the tension faced by educators in deciding who or what children should be taught about. The reality of this dilemma is not to be denied. In my view however, school teachers have a responsibility to represent the richness of diversity amongst people within the curriculum. Having the choice of who to include in a child’s education is a privilege which should not be taken lightly.

The protests leave us with the questions of who should determine who is represented in on the school curriculum, or in children’s literature? Who should have the authority to decide which identities and relationships children will be taught about? Should it be the parents, the teachers, the children themselves, or the groups who have been so often unrepresented or misrepresented?

It seems clear to me that the answer to this question ought to be the latter, but this consistently fails to be the case. What I am certain about is that as a child growing up, it is important to see people like you in the stories you read. A book can be a universe to get lost in. It can provide comfort and adventure when the world does not. But a book can also be a very lonely place to be. There is no doubt that we read ourselves into stories. But what if there is no one in these stories to read yourself into? What happens when you are both lost in the world and made absent in a book? The ‘No Outsiders’ program overcomes this dilemma, ensuring that children see themselves in the characters of the stories they read. Including this as necessary in the curriculum has the power to relieve children of loneliness and make them realise that there are a multitude of people like them. The ramifications of this, I believe extend far beyond the individual reader. Seeing and reading about difference encourages children to accept people around them; an acceptance which will only diffuse amongst people.

In short then, I don’t think offering primary school teachers the mere option of teaching about LGBTQ relationships is enough. These lessons and stories should be a necessity in any curriculum. Yet, in making this suggestion we must remain intersectional in our thinking. Who may resist or protest against this inclusion? Why? And how do we encourage conversations across our differences, which enable people to see the value in the representation of a multitude of people in children’s literature?

Beth Simpson, Society and Community Editor