Why the Tories have got it wrong on homosexuality

The Conservatives' former spokesman on London explains why he had to oppose his own party's stance
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The Independent Online
We have a choice of the kind of society we wish to build. Is it one in which we will value individuals because of their true worth, regardless of their race, gender or sexuality? Or is it one where we will perpetuate prejudice and intolerance?

The repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act of 1986 will be fiercely argued. It should be. The purpose of Section 28, when it was introduced as a backbencher's amendment to the Bill, was to prevent local authorities from "promoting homosexuality". But the consequences have been anything but benign.

Many people argued at the time that it was a sledgehammer to crack a nut - a knee-jerk reaction to a particular problem in Labour-run Islington council in north London. In practice, since the legislation was introduced, not a single prosecution has been brought. Its proponents argue that this demonstrates the effectiveness of the law itself. Its detractors argue that there have been no prosecutions because it is simply unworkable.

The row centres on the word "promotion". The damage arises from singling out homosexuality for special treatment. The consequences create not only a climate of prejudice but lead to an atmosphere in which homophobic bullying becomes extremely difficult to stamp out.

Good sex-education in schools should surely be about relationships and sensible health precautions. It should be about protecting young people, not hurting them. It should not be based on discrimination. It should not engender an attitude which leads young people to feel bad about themselves if their sexual choices are not those pursued by the majority.

The fundamental problems which have arisen over this legislation are that it has become very difficult for teachers to deal responsibly with issues that arise in relation to young people who may be gay or who are questioning their sexual identity.

At such a sensitive time in the development of young people's lives, they need understanding and acceptance, whatever their sexual orientation. Intolerance and discrimination undermine good sex-education; they also encourage attitudes which are damaging. However, there is an even more insidious consequence of the legislation.

Bullying is one of the biggest problems in our schools, and children are far too often the victims of homophobic bullying. The law should protect people and not hurt them. Section 28 has made it harder, not easier, for responsible teachers to deal with bullying.

I have been a trustee of ChildLine for several years. On the specific issue of Section 28, the charity is not campaigning, but it does have a repository of evidence which illustrates that homophobic bullying is a problem in our schools. Listening to what the children themselves have to say can help us shape a society which recognises and deals with the problems that they face.

Last year ChildLine received more calls about bullying than about any other problem. The most pressing types of bullying were name-calling and teasing. Physical bullying was high on the list. Racism and sexual attacks were less prominent. But, of course, even the painful and lonely voice of just one child should be enough to justify focusing our attention on the causes of bullying, and how to deal with its consequences.

We need to deal with this issue sensitively and with care. I have listened to the views of teachers as well as young people. I have spoken to every head teacher in my constituency. I have listened to the views of the National Union of Teachers, the Royal College of Nursing, the Family Planning Association, and social workers. They want the present law to be repealed.

Should we ignore the evidence of these professionals who have to deal with the consequences of the current legislation? Of course not. The choice we face is whether we take their collective evidence seriously, or dismiss it. I think we should listen.

Richard Graydon, the head teacher of Chipping Norton secondary school in my Oxfordshire constituency, said of Section 28: "It hangs like a sword of Damocles" over teachers who attempt to deal with the problem of homophobic bullying. Why?

Let me use the evidence of another teacher in my constituency. He described to me a recent problem with which he had to deal. A 15-year-old girl, overweight and with very short hair, was the victim of a sustained bullying attack by a group of very pretty girls in her school. She was called: "lesbian", "dyke" and a whole raft of other offensive names.

In this case, the taunts had no foundation. Yet the pain for the girl was unbearable. Her teachers needed to act. They needed to protect her. They needed to deal with this bullying.

In tackling her classmates, the teacher explained that every individual, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is entitled to be treated with decency and respect. It is a simple fact that some people are gay. The teacher rightly explained that people should not be bullied because of their sexuality; that this is a private choice and everyone should be valued with equal worth.

But the teacher felt threatened in his task. Why? Because under the current law this responsible and caring man ran the risk of "promoting homosexuality".

There is a sensible way forward. We should scrap Section 28 because it discriminates, it hurts, and it does not protect young people. In its place I would like to see a statutory requirement on every school - including private schools - to have not only sex education policies, but an anti- bullying policy which was specific for that school.

Crucially, this policy would be drawn up by parents in consultation with the head and other teachers, and governors. Surely this is simple common sense. It would allow the law to work to protect all our children from bullying, whatever the cause. It would be as tough against bullying arising from homophobia as it would be about racism. The law would be used to require the school to recognise and deal with the problem effectively and responsibly.

I came into politics to help promote decent values and build a better society. I cannot see how the present Section 28 contributes to either.

Discrimination is abhorrent wherever we find it and we should be as tough on its causes as well as its effects. Understanding and compassion , as Robert Kennedy said, are the starting points for building a better society. A nation which is at ease with itself must be tolerant of and caring towards every individual.

If we truly wish to create a society of opportunity, we will have to make brave choices, and seek to persuade those who sometimes wish to produce a morality based only on the views of a majority. The repeal of Section 28 presents such a choice. We should be brave.

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