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Forget me not? LGBTIQ+ representation and rights in education

Francesca Zanatta

In the film 120 Beats Per Minute, which depicts the work of Act UP Paris during the AIDS epidemic in France in the 1990s, activists perform a nonviolent instance of direct action: they enter a classroom announcing, ‘We’re here to talk AIDS prevention as the government won’t’, while holding signs proclaiming ‘SILENCE = DEATH’.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a historic moment for LGBTIQA+ rights, we ought to ask whether schools are still silent on sexuality matters.

May 2018 marked the 30th anniversary of the introduction of Section 28 policy, which set the ‘prohibition on promoting homosexuality by teaching or by publishing material’ in British schools. Part of the Education Reform Act 1988, this controversial clause seemingly originated from three common beliefs on childhood and sexuality: homosexual activity as a form of perversion; childhood as period of innocence; and the appointment of adults as lord protectors of integrity, justice and morality (Eekelar, 2017). These beliefs were invoked by Lord Airesdale, an avid promoter of Section 28, in his recruitment of supporters in Parliament: ‘anybody who votes against this amendment is saying that they have some wider purpose than the protection of children’.

In remembering the introduction of such shameful policy, it is important to review its lasting impact on education. Most existing studies focus on teachers’ experiences (Edwards, Brown, & Smith, 2016), while pupils’ accounts are more often first-person stories in news media. Both research and media articles indicate the correlation between lack of representation and the consequent stigmatisation as the most long-lasting impact of the policy, even after its repeal. Lack of representation and uneasiness about discussing sexuality in schools have also been identified as having had negative effects by respondents to a recent national LGBTIQA+ survey (GEO, 2017).

The recent victory by the campaign Time for Inclusive Education (TIE) has seen the Scottish government agreeing to the incorporation into the curriculum of the 33 recommendations identified in the TIE report (2016), promoting representation, dialogue, and knowledge. While this is a significant and progressive step forward, the issues around the preparation of teachers and wider school staff could still pose a threat to progress.

‘The evidence suggests that while teachers recognise the importance of delivering sex and relationship education (SRE), they often feel underprepared for the task.’

A recent systematic review of 261 articles on existing practices in the teaching of sex and relationship education (SRE) (Pound et al., 2017) suggests that teachers recognise the importance of this curriculum area, yet feel underprepared for the task. The findings of the review were also discussed with 55 five students, who confirmed pupils’ preference to have someone knowledgeable and comfortable with the subject matter, to avoid awkwardness and imprecise explanations. They also perceive SRE as heteronormative, stereotypical and confined to biological processes. Multiple factors affect teachers’ confidence and preparedness to engage in meaningful facilitation of SRE sessions. Teacher training would require significant adjustments, as teachers should not be asked to rely only on their own personal experiences to teach the curricula (Kehily, 2002). Sessions would need to engage with the deconstruction of heteronormative hegemonies, while also preparing students to face potential defeats and attacks on their sexuality and relationships, and to deal with the ‘messiness’ of life (Diorio, 2011).

While these advancements would address stereotypical or ill-informed knowledge of LGBTIQA+ experiences and history, for conversations to be truly meaningful teachers would also need to recognise and value children’s agency and rights, abandoning discourses of innocence and adult-led best interest. In exploring the quality of communication and engagement in sessions facilitated by peer-educators, research has evidenced that students talk more openly with peer educators, as humour, horizontal dynamics and colloquial language enabled lengthier and more in-depth conversations (Dobson, Beckmann, & Forrest, 2017).

In remembering Section 28, celebrating its demise and looking to the future, we ought to ask ourselves whether policy will suffice. When thinking of how to deploy a LGBTIQA+ inclusive curriculum, we shan’t forget to reflect on queering the pedagogy as well (Sykes, 2011). Policy alone will not set us free.


Diorio, J. D. (2011). Citizenship Education and the Politics of Public Participation: The Case of Same‐Sex Marriage. Curriculum Inquiry, 41(4), 502–529.

Dobson, E., Beckmann, N., & Forrest, S. (2017). Educator–student communication in sex & relationship education: a comparison of teacher and peer-led interventions. Pastoral Care In Education: An International Journal Of Personal, Social And Emotional Development, 35(4), pp. 267–283.

Edwards, L. L., Brown, D. H. K., & Smith, L. (2016). ‘We are getting there slowly’: Lesbian teacher experiences in the post-Section 28 environment. Sport, Education and Society, 21(3), 299–318.

Eekelar, J. (2017). The Interests of the Child and the Child’s Wishes: The Role of Dynamic Self-Determinism. In Kilkelly, U. & Lundy, L. (eds.), Children’s Rights. London: Routledge.

Government Equality Office [GEO# (2017) National LGBT Survey: Research Report. Retrieved from

Kehily, M. J. (2002). Sexing the Subject: Teachers, pedagogies and sex education. Sex Education, 2(3), 215–231.

Pound, P., Denford, S., Shucksmith, J., Tanton, C., Johnson, A. M., Owen, J., Hutten, R., Mohan, L., Bonell, C., Abraham, C. & Campbell, R. (2017) What is best practice in sex and relationship education? A synthesis of evidence, including stakeholders’ views. BMJ Open 2017;7:e014791.

Sykes, H. (2011). Hetero‐ and Homo‐Normativity: Critical Literacy, Citizenship Education and Queer Theory. Curriculum Inquiry, 41(4), pp.419–432.

Time for Inclusive Education [TIE] (2016) Attitudes Towards LGBT in Scottish Education. Retrieved from