For Sexual Health Week 2020 and throughout September, Brook is celebrating the introduction of mandatory RSE in all schools in England. Here, Brook Education and Wellbeing Specialist, Emilie Cousins, talks to us about what teachers can do to make their RSE curriculum inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community.
“What if I say the wrong thing? I’m terrified of saying something I shouldn’t” a teacher shared, in our most recent Gender & Sexuality Awareness professional training.
This sentiment is certainly nothing new. Whether it’s with teachers, youth workers, social workers, police or charity workers, this concern is generally voiced: gender and sexuality feels like a minefield, and it’s hard to know where is safe to step.
Of course it is. The world is built for heterosexual and cisgender individuals and, if that is us, it takes work to see beyond this. It can feel confusing if we’ve never had our own sexuality and/or gender identity challenged; and if we’ve never had to consider whether it’s safe to hold a partner’s hand, or use a public toilet, or access a healthcare service. The terms around gender and sexuality can feel like a foreign language if we haven’t had much exposure to the LGBTQ+ community.
The good news is that we can learn new languages.
We can educate ourselves and we can challenge norms and assumptions that have dominated our upbringing; and RSE is an excellent place to start doing this.
RSE is now mandatory in UK schools and, even better, it is required to be LGBTQ+ inclusive. We’re finally actively pushing back against Section 28 and the damage it has caused. This is a colossal milestone.
But, what does it mean to be LGBTQ+ inclusive? Why is it important for RSE? And how do we do this practically?
What does ‘LGBTQ+ inclusive’ mean?
It’s a phrase that we’re hearing more and more now, and this is good!
Being LGBTQ+ inclusive is proactive. It means acknowledging and actively challenging our society as heteronormative and cisnormative (everyone is assumed as heterosexual and cisgender). It requires taking the time to reflect on what we’re putting out into our environment, through our mind-set, our actions and the words we use. It’s a conscious decision to make LGBTQ+ people feel seen, included and safe.
It’s not enough to have the sentiment: “I don’t mind if people are gay or trans, it’s fine, I don’t even notice.” Being LGBTQ+ inclusive is more than passive allyship.
Instead, it’s the practical steps of signing up to professional training and being open to learn.
It means educating ourselves on the difference between sex, sexuality, gender and expression. It means being conscious of the words we use. It means challenging and unpicking our own assumptions.
Why is it so important for RSE?
It may feel much safer to detour around this tricky topic and hope that students will approach us individually if they have specific questions. But we owe our young people more than that, especially LGBTQ+ young people.
School plays a huge role in shaping how young people feel about themselves, how they perceive and treat each other, and how they interact with wider society throughout their life.
LGBTQ+ inclusive RSE can support young people to understand, accept and celebrate diversity, in school and their future. It sends a powerful message to LGBTQ+ young people/families that they are accepted. Homo/bi/trans-phobia is unfortunately rife in society, and education can equip young people with the resilience to challenge this and be themselves.
With heterosexual and cisgender remaining the default position, it’s crucial that young people know they can be gay, non-binary, trans, queer or however they identify.
Making young people feel seen and included is a valuable part of education, and RSE is the perfect place to begin.
How do we do this?
We need to make sure our RSE lessons don’t pivot around heterosexual and cisgender relationships and experiences. Here are some practical tips:
- All-round approach
Having specific lessons dedicated to sexuality and gender is important, but LGBTQ+ inclusivity needs to be woven into all areas of RSE e.g. referring to different types of relationships/using a variety of pronouns when discussing un/healthy relationships and consent.
- Don’t over complicate it
Being LGBTQ+ inclusive isn’t about memorising every single definition and identity (language evolves!), but it is about celebrating difference and moving beyond a default position of heterosexual/cisgender.
It’s really important to use a wide range of sexualities, gender identities, pronouns and relationships when using examples or scenarios. Young people should be able to see themselves in the examples we use, as well as seeing difference. RSE is more engaging, motivating and empowering for young people if it’s relevant to their identity and experience.
- Neutralise our language
Using ‘partner’ instead of ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ is an easy way to include all types of relationships. Using ‘they’ instead of ‘she’ and ‘he’ can similarly include everyone. This may feel difficult initially, but it will get easier with practise, just as anything does. The words we use can make a huge difference to someone’s comfort levels and feelings of inclusion.
Just as we don’t expect our students to ‘just know’ the content of the curriculum, we also shouldn’t expect ourselves to ‘just know’ about gender/sexuality. We need to educate ourselves if this is a new topic, so make use of the professional training that’s available.
Again, we are not expected to know everything and there will be questions that we don’t know the answers to – and that’s okay! We just need to make sure we’re able to signpost onto reliable, age-appropriate information (e.g. Brook, Stonewall, Gendered Intelligence); it’s also okay to say that we’ll research the answer and let them know.
Many teachers bring up concerns about talking with parents, but we’re finally backed by legalisation, so use it! We can use both the Equality Act 2010 and mandatory RSE to explain the curriculum/school policy/lessons. We have a legal responsibility now to deliver LGBTQ+ inclusive RSE and to tackle homo/trans/bi-phobia in schools; it’s our job.
- Involving young people
If it’s appropriate, involve the young people in making lessons and the overall school more LGBTQ+ inclusive. It’s both motivating and empowering for them to be involved in their own education, as well as allowing them space to share what they feel they need and the knowledge they’re lacking.
When implementing these changes to your curriculum, it may take time for the more practical aspects to take hold, especially when we’re aiming for a whole-school approach, but it’s mostly about making LGBTQ+ young people feel seen and included.
These are powerful and often underrated feelings; and we have the ability to offer this through our delivery of RSE.