Managing difficult conversations around LGBT+ issues

Marking the end of LGBT+ history month with a look at three challenging questions students ask and how to answer them

Marking the end of LGBT+ history month with a look at three challenging questions students ask and how to answer them

4 Mar 2024, 5:00

We are privileged to live in a time when there is so much acceptance of LGBT+ people in FE and in society more broadly. However, there is a long way to go, and we can never take that acceptance for granted – something we are inclined to do especially with young people, who we assume are somehow generationally inclusive.

This means we still have to have those difficult conversations with them about LGBT+ issues. And a risk associated with that is of assuming that all of our colleagues are equally prepared to do so.

To help with both of these, here are three questions I am regularly faced with, and some ideas about how to answer them if you are asked.

Why do we even need LGBT+ history month?

This event plays two important roles: It takes place in February to mark the anniversary of the end of section 28, and it acts as an impetus to make visible and to celebrate LGBT+ people and their impact on society.

Sadly, this question still often arises among our learners. In part, that’s because they don’t know the historical (and ongoing) levels of inequity that affect the LGBT+ community. The question can take different forms, such as “why don’t we have a straight history month?”, “why is it pushed in our faces?”, “it’s against my religion”.

More so than awareness, the aim of the month is to create cohesion. To that end, our aim as teachers isn’t simply to encourage tolerance but to foster respect. I’ve never been bothered about gaining acceptance or changing the hearts and minds of society (though it’s a bonus if it happens). I just want others to respect my right to be who I want to be, live how I want to live and express myself freely.

As teachers, our best tool for fostering respect is knowledge. Why don’t’ we have a straight history month? Because we have 12. Why is it pushed in our faces? So that it will never again be brushed under the carpet. It’s against my religion! Respect is a precept of every major faith.

Can someone be Muslim and gay?

This is a question I have been inundated with since I entered the profession. As an openly gay Pakistani Muslim I have researched Islam’s stance on same-sex relationships. There are many schools of thought and individual interpretations, but the short answer is yes, but not easily.

The general Islamic consensus is that same-sex relationships are a sin. The next logical question is then: how can you be both? Well, according to Islam, all of humanity sins in one form or another and to varying degrees. Sinners should not judge other sinners.

The three major sexual sins in Islam are homosexuality, fornication and adultery. Yet only homosexuality is widely frowned upon and only the LGBT+ community is vehemently persecuted. This makes the issue one of culture more than religion.

So how do we successfully articulate this response? The answer is you don’t. We can educate and we can draw attention to gay Muslims. But identity is a highly personal business, and it is not our job to influence how young people navigate these complex issues. I encourage any learner from any background asking this question to simply do their homework.

What about my freedom of speech?

A common refrain of those who try to justify using derogatory language about the LGBT+ community or individuals, the answer here is a simple one: Using homophobic language to abuse someone is illegal. Sexuality and gender are protected characteristics under the Equalities Act 2010, and punishment under the law has lasting consequences. Hate crimes go on your record, must be declared to future employers and stay with you forever.

Some might ask why, if British values promote tolerance, they can’t express their beliefs in public. This might be a good moment to introduce Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance.

“But it’s just words,” or “it’s just a joke,” some will protest. No. They are words with social, emotional and psychological effects that cannot be understated. Victims often suffer long after experiencing homophobic language or behaviours. They can lead to depression, anxiety and PTSD.

As with our first question, the impetus here is not to change beliefs but to educate and, where necessary, to sanction.

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