Banning students from LGBT+ learning is a travesty – the shame of being a gay Muslim still hangs over me

I was raised in a homophobic, religious household, as well as a homophobic school, and the intensity of shame that has been attached to my sexuality is sometimes insurmountable

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It is deeply disheartening to read that Parkfield community school in Birmingham has rescinded its decision to educate students about homosexuality.

This LGBT+ initiative was part of a strategy to combat endemic homophobia in schools. However, the scheme was revoked following complaints by mostly Muslim parents, who withdrew their children aged 4-11 from the school in protest.

Fears of corrupting children is not a new narrative when it comes to LGBT+ rights. This episode is eerily reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s 1986 Section 28 policy, which banned the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools, infecting the public imaginary with the notion that childhood innocence was at threat. Recently, we’ve seen a horrific tide of transphobia in the British media, which has similarly argued that trans rights are a violation of children’s rights, with Mermaids charity, an essential organisation dedicated to helping trans children, threatened with the withdrawal of its National Lottery funding (thankfully, there has been a rethink).

What all of this spectacularly misses is that children cannot learn to be homosexual or transgender – what they can learn is homophobia and transphobia. Initiatives to prohibit the inheriting of prejudicial beliefs are one of the only methods to destabilise systems of exclusion. As someone both gay and from a Muslim household, I can tell you first hand that learning to view homosexuality as unacceptable has had irreversible damage on my mental health.

I was raised in a homophobic, religious household, as well as a homophobic school, and the intensity of shame that has been attached to my sexuality is sometimes insurmountable. I have had to be on extensive medication and in intensive therapy to help with the anxieties I’ve developed. If I’d been raised in an environment that didn’t view my identity as transgressive, I can’t imagine how much more peaceful my life would be now.

I fear for any potentially LGBT+ student at Parkfield, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who will internalise this incident and attach shame to their sexual identity. Once this shame is learnt, it’s very difficult to unlearn. Childhood is a crucially formative period psychologically, and intercepting damaging thought patterns early is key to improving the mental health and lives of LGBT+ people later in life (Stonewall has revealed that 13 per cent of gay and bisexual men suffer with depression, with a staggering 84 per cent of queer women affected). It is why I am grateful for the work of people like Olly Pike, whose wonderful Pop’n’Olly children’s books help to educate younger audiences about queer identities in a positive, accessible way.

My drag troupe Denim has recently been offering drag shows for children, which has been a hugely healing thing to be a part of. What I’ve noticed is that no child in the audience thinks what we do is wrong – they accept our gender identity for what it is, and simply enjoy the show without any questions asked. How upsetting it’s been to realise that it is adults who corrupt children’s automatic acceptance of difference.

Although this incident in Parkfield has been initiated by Muslim parents, we must all be careful not to allow this incident to be instrumentalised by Islamophobic institutions. We’ve recently seen how gay rights can be co-opted by far-right Islamophobes, such as with Marine Le Pen, who was able to win the vote of a third of married gay men in Paris through her rhetoric that Islam was a threat to civil liberties. Yes, extremism exists in Islam, as it exists in western religions – and western politics – but this is not representative of all Muslims.

I for one have been incredibly touched by the work of London Queer Muslims, a beautiful collective who are able to find Quranic justification for their queer identity, offering a space for queer people to find harmony with their Islamic identity. Other groups exist, such as “Muslims against LGBT Hate”, and Imaan, another organisation for queer Muslims. Islam is not inherently homophobic; rather, the institution of Islam – as with every major religious institution – has become a breeding ground for homophobia.

Whilst the right-wing media might use the Parkfield incident as yet another way to incite hate against Muslims, let us also not forget that homophobia was something inherited across the globe from western colonialism. Seventy-one countries around the world deem same-sex relations illegal – it is not a coincidence that over a half of them are former British colonies. Homophobia is not something inherent in non-western faiths, but something that has grown in tandem with the pervasiveness of western ideology.

So as we collectively condemn the homophobic decision at Parkfield school – as we rightly should – let us also condemn all the resultant attempts at Islamophobia. For any form of prejudice must be thwarted in the hope of a more tolerant world for children.

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