For several months now, parents have been protesting outside a primary school in Birmingham. Their objection? The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted)-approved classes on equality, with a specific focus on a new curriculum that informs students about LGBTQ+ issues and history.
Andrew Moffat, the assistant head at Parkfield Community School in Saltley, Birmingham, developed the No Outsiders programme, which is currently being piloted at his school, in accordance with the 2010 Equality Act. Moffat has previously been awarded an MBE for his work in equality education.
Under the scheme, children of all ages, from reception to year six, would be taught five lessons per year, each one covering a different aspect of the 2010 Equality Act. After extensive protests from parents, who worried about the content of the classes, they have been paused—but not stopped permanently. This is a developing story, with more schools in Birmingham and some in Manchester now halting classes after similar protests, but I want to get to the core of the issue, and why this is setting a dangerous precedent.
The protests were mostly on religious grounds; the vast majority of the community and the pupils at the school are Muslim, and parents were objecting to the classes due to their faith. But after the protests gained media attention, Orthodox Jewish and conservative Christian parents also added their support.
The issue was first raised by Fatima Shah, who temporarily pulled her daughter out of the school. Speaking to the Birmingham Mail Shah said that, “It’s inappropriate, totally wrong. Children are being told it’s OK to be gay, yet 98% of children at this school are Muslim. It’s a Muslim community. He [Andrew Moffat] said all parents are on board with it, but the reality is, no parents are on board with it.”
Parents have claimed that primary school children are too young to be learning about these issues, despite Ofsted’s ruling that the lessons are entirely age-appropriate. More to the point, there are children at primary schools with same-sex parents, are they too young to be exposed to same-sex relationships too?
Olympian medalist Callum Skinner, whose father is gay, wrote a message in support of the programme on Twitter, saying that, “Mr Moffat sounds like he’s doing a great job. When I was at school, I was someone who had one set of same-sex parents. It sounds to me as if this programme is as much about protecting kids from intolerance as well as same sex couples. It should be commended, not shunned.”
These classes are not teaching children about the ins-and-outs of homosexuality; nor are they in outright contradiction to the religious teachings of many of the communities. “People are worried about the way the government are proposing to change sex relationship education in the UK and people are mixing that up with No Outsiders,” explained Mr Moffat to the BBC. “No Outsiders isn’t about sex education. It’s about community cohesion, British values, it’s about people getting along and co-existing.”
What’s disappointing—and could set a really dangerous precedent—is that the lessons currently being protested is derived directly from the Equality Act, which protects people from discrimination based on identity. The “protected characteristics” are: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.
These new classes were introduced for the same reason that, say, children at a Christian primary school in rural England are taught about Islam and Hinduism. These set out to expose children to the diversity of thought, identity, and expression that exists throughout the United Kingdom. Children do not discriminate: they are taught to do so. Massive leaps toward greater equality take place when children are taught to be accepting and open to others. The classes are called No Outsiders: do those protesting really want to encourage the idea that there are—that there should be—outsiders?
LGBTQ+ people exist in all walks of life. When exposed to prejudice at a young age, children are taught that they’re different and that they don’t belong. They become isolated and repressed. These lessons would teach them that they belong, will be accepted and deserve to be loved. To object to these lessons is to object to these principles.
This story cannot be divorced from the legacy of Section 28, the Thatcher-era legislation that forbade schools from teaching about homosexuality in any way. The legislation stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”, or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. In her 1987 Party Conference Speech, Mrs Thatcher remarked that, “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay… All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life – yes, cheated.” Section 28 was repealed in 2003 under Tony Blair’s Labour government.
I’m left wondering why we aren’t asking the children what they think? They are being taught acceptance and diversity in an age-appropriate way. Are they genuinely left confused? Or just more open to the variety of the world? Discrimination can be taught—but so can tolerance.
Since December 2018, a new purge of LGBTQ people has begun in Chechnya, a conservative territory in southern Russia, governed by the religious tyrant Ramzan Kadyrov. While world governments and mainstream media outlets have failed to take significant actions to sanction Russia and protect queer Chechens, a growing number of LGBTQ activists across the U.S., Europe, and Russia, have been raising their voice in protest. One of the most prominent activist groups expressing solidarity with Chechnya’s LGBTQ community is the New York City based Voices 4.
“We’re having a vigil with RUSA LGBT this coming Sunday outside the Russian consulate in New York,” Wyatt Harms, a Voices 4 activist, told Screen Shot. “There will also be a simultaneous vigil happening in Belgium that’s led by recently escaped queer Chechens. And so it will be a global vigil to commemorate what is happening in Chechnya and draw attention to our solidarity with our LGBTQ people there.”
News about the persecution of Chechnya’s queer population emerged in April 2017, when an independent Russian newspaper, the Novaya Gazeta, began reporting about the kidnapping, detaining, torturing, and murder of men and women suspected to be gay. Reports indicated that victims are often lured through gay dating apps, and that many have been turned in or murdered by members of their own family (encouraged to do so by the extremist regime). Since then, dozens of LGBTQ people have been murdered and hundreds detained.
As word began to circulate about the most recent ongoing purge of Chechen queers, Voice4 members joined forces with RUSA LGBT (the Russian Speaking American LGBT Association) and called an emergency meeting at New York City’s LGBT centre, where plans for Sunday’s upcoming vigil were discussed. Present at the meeting was exiled Russian professor Lyosha Gorshkov, who currently presides over RUSA LGBT. Gorshkov, providing information from ‘the inside’, stated that the mainstream media continuously downplays the tragedy unfolding in Chechnya, and that the number of victims in reality is much higher than official reports indicate.
Gorshkov further claimed that seeing as world governments and the United Nations are both reluctant and unable to force Putin to crack down on Kadyrov’s murderous anti-LGBTQ campaign, the best way to help at the moment would be to express solidarity with queer people in Chechnya and show them as well as the Russian government that the world is watching. Gorshkov added that donating to organisations operating on the ground will also be extremely helpful, as they smuggle first aid and other necessary supplies to victims.
Word about Sunday’s rally is rapidly spreading across social media, and particularly on Instagram, a tool proving to be significantly useful for Voices 4’s organisers to get their message across and recruit supporters.
“Our organisation began on Instagram,” says Adam Eli, writer and co-founder of Voices 4, “I posted and said we’re gonna do this march, and if you wanna come plan with us then you can come meet us at this time and place. We always made sure we created a new graphic to post each week, and that way it sort of snowballed. IG has been an extremely powerful tool.”
“Especially because we’re not seeing much press coverage, social media is a really good way for an activist group like us to disseminate information,” says Harms, “People turn to social media as another medium to see what’s happening in the world, and when mainstream press won’t cover what’s happening in Chechnya to the degree that we like, we can step in and help educate our followers and other people we interact with online about what’s happening and how they can get involved.”
Voices 4’s message is clear: now is the time to rally the LGBTQ community worldwide, as well as its allies, and raise awareness of the atrocities unfolding in Chechnya. We must show queer Chechens that they aren’t forgotten, and remind the Russian government that the heinous crimes committed against LGBTQ people on its territory aren’t going unnoticed.
Those of you tuning in from New York City, bundle up and attend Sunday’s rally which will be held across from the Russian Consulate at E9 91st Street, NY from 1:00-2:00 PM EST. Those of you who cannot attend the vigil, please visit Voices 4’s Instagram page and share their posts calling for action. For donations, please visit the website of the Russian LGBT Network, or Venmo @Voices4-.