Former Labour minister Angela Eagle has insisted: “We aren’t going to get back in the closet,” as she challenged those protesting against LGBT equality teaching during a Commons debate.
Eagle, who was the first openly gay female MP when she came out in 1997, said such education is not “propagandising” or about “trying to turn people gay”, but about respecting their rights to have an “equal welcome in school” and not be bullied.
Her voice broke with emotion when speaking during a debate on parental involvement in teaching linked to the Equality Act 2010, called by Labour MP Roger Godsiff, whose Birmingham Hall Green constituency covers one of the schools targeted by protests against lessons on LGBT relationships.
Speaking in the Commons, Eagle said: “We know that the motivations of some of those involved in this are reactionary and they are to return us to an era where LGBT people should get back in the closet and hide and be ashamed of the way they are.
“We aren’t going to get back in the closet or hide or be ashamed of the way we are and nor are we going to allow a generation of pupils that are now in school to go through what the pupils in the 80s had to go through because this chamber let them down and nor are we going to allow this to happen in the name of religion.”
Protesters have stood outside Anderton Park primary school every day for 12 weeks with microphones, chanting: “Let kids be kids” and “Our kids, our choice”. Other protesters have carried placards with the message: “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
They have also demanded the resignation of the headteacher, Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson. The school does not teach “No Outsiders”, the programme that informs children about LGBT identities, but it does share equality messages and books with pupils. This month the school and council secured a new injunction banning protesters from standing at the gates.
During the debate Godsiff, the local MP, raised concerns about the level of consultation with parents and said those who protested “had some valid reasons for doing so”, challenging allegations of “homophobic hatred” against the campaigners.
He added: “I regret the controversies which have arisen around the two schools in Birmingham. I believe they could have been avoided if the schools had taught the provisions of the Equality Act in different ways and taken the parents’ concerns into account.”
“At two schools in Birmingham there has been a major reaction among parents which has become increasingly bitter and polarised. Parents felt the school had no regard for their concerns. At two schools they have got it very wrong.”
He described the protesters as “mostly young mothers”, adding they have “done nothing wrong, other than be good mothers who want to express concerns about what their children are telling them”.
Godsiff, who was previously reprimanded by Labour’s chief whip after backing the campaigners, concluded his speech with an apology for “any offence caused” by what he has said or written, including to members of the LGBT community in Birmingham and across the country.
He was heckled throughout his speech by Labour colleagues and others who disputed his claims that the protesters were mainly women and mothers of children.
Labour MP Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) suggested the protests at the school were due to a small number of individuals “whipping this up, creating a myth and creating fear”.
Doughty, who described himself as openly gay, said he had watched scenes in Birmingham with horror. He also revealed that two of the lead protesters from Birmingham had come to his constituency handing out leaflets and trying to give a talk which was subsequently cancelled.
However, Godsiff maintained that some of those those who protested “had some valid reasons for doing so”, claiming the headteacher seemed “totally unwilling to have meetings with the parents to address their concerns and to seek a compromise way of resolving the conflict”.
Education minister Nick Gibb said the government had introduced the regulations for making relationships and sex education (RSE) compulsory in schools and was determined to press ahead with the policy.
The guidance he added had been “very carefully crafted and written in order to build the widest possible consensus for this policy”.
He said: “And I would say that those people who are opposed to it are at the other end of that consensus and I’m afraid it’s unlikely that we will bring those extreme ends of the debate into that consensus.”
Referring to the situation in Birmingham he said: “So we are working very hard to try to assuage concerns if you like, but ultimately we will be on the side of the headteacher in making these decisions because we do believe that ultimately the content of the curriculum is a matter for schools.”
The protesters are crowdfunding to contest the injunction, raising more than £8,000 of their £30,000 goal to date. A full hearing to consider the injunction is to take place between 22 and 31 July.
Godsiff’s move came as the Department for Education (DfE) published its updated statutory guidance on relationships, sex and health education, which will involve all primary and secondary school pupils in England receiving lessons on relationships, including LGBT, from September 2020.
The guidance gives discretion to primary school heads over whether teaching pupils about LGBT relationships is age-appropriate, despite fears from the National Association of Head Teachers that the DfE’s policy leaves schools vulnerable to protests such as those in Birmingham and Manchester.
Damian Hinds, the education secretary, said the new guidance “is clear that children should leave school having learned about LGBT relationships”.
“I would strongly encourage schools to discuss with children in class that there are all sorts of different, strong and loving families, including families with same-sex parents, while they are at primary school,” Hinds said.
Ruth Hunt, the chief executive of Stonewall, supported the new policy, saying: “This guidance is a historic achievement that will change the way LGBT families, people and relationships are taught.”
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