The week before last was a little historic. The week before last the UK said goodbye to its first and only female prime minister. The week before last the ghost of one of the Iron Lady's harshest pieces of legislation was further laid to rest. The week before last I went back to a Jewish school for the first time as an openly queer Jew sharing my story, representing Keshet UK, which champions the inclusion of LGBTQI people in all areas of Jewish life in the UK. The week before last, for the very first time, pupils in a Jewish school addressed homophobia and encountered a positive young LGBT Jewish role model. Moreover, these pupils engaged with supportive perspectives on homosexuality (both Orthodox and Progressive).
I left school in 2002, one year before Section 28 was repealed by New Labour. For the entirety of my primary and secondary education, schools and teachers, banned from "promoting homosexuality," simply didn't discuss homophobia or the diversity of sexual identity or highlight information that could have helped LGBT young people be happier and healthier.Don't get me wrong: People who came before me and my peers had it a lot worse, and with LGBT life and personalities far more visible today, modern LGBT teenagers face a different set of challenges. When I was at school, the expression "that's so gay" wasn't the pervasive playground putdown it is now. Indeed, Stonewall's school report reveals the following troubling statistics:
- "More than half (55 per cent) of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils have experienced direct bullying"
- "Almost all (99 per cent) gay young people hear the phrases 'that's so gay' or 'you're so gay' in school"
- "Three in five gay pupils who experience homophobic bullying say that teachers who witness the bullying never intervene"
- "Two in five (41 per cent) have attempted or thought about taking their own life directly because of bullying"
Sadly, in faith schools, homophobic bullying and the response to it is even worse: "Only half of gay pupils report that their schools say homophobic bullying is wrong, even fewer do in faith schools (37 per cent)."
So it was with huge excitement and pride that I spent a few hours with pupils at a Jewish secondary school, storytelling for change and showcasing the range of Jewish voices on sexuality and broader campaigns standing up for LGBT young people.
Part of the session was a version of Keshet UK's activity "Pride and Prejudice: Being Young, Jewish and Queer." In these sessions a speaker from our group of diverse and open volunteers meets groups of young people, shares his or her experience of growing up Jewish and LGBT and takes questions in a safe and sensitive space. Some of the questions that the students asked me pertained to whether being gay is something biological or sociological, whether it's easier to come out to friends or to family, whether being more typically "masculine" makes it tempting to stay in the closet, and whether my largely positive story is representative of the experiences of young LGBT people. I was moved by the overwhelming sincerity of the questions and the positive responses to the connections being made with the universal experiences of growing up.
The session wasn't just about homophobia; it was about addressing the difficulties that all young people face when it comes to fitting in while wanting to be themselves. As Matthew Todd points out:
[T]he most fundamentally important, yet hitherto ignored fact about homophobic bullying [is] that it is not a gay issue. Despite the them and us portrayal of gay righst by some, it is the kids of straight people (including Daily Mail readers) that this is happening to, every day in every school in the land. The truth is that homophobia destroys not only individuals but also families.
I've been volunteering and working in youth, community and social action roles for over a decade, yet only recently have I felt comfortable mixing my public life with my personal story concerning issues of social justice and sexuality. Previously, when asked what motivates me, I shared my experience of coming from a mixed Indian-Ashkenazi Jewish home, where my mother and her family were immigrants; of always being told as a child that my mother can't be both Indian and Jewish; and of finding meaning in Jewish values and our collective narrative of "being the stranger." All these things are true and are still a huge part of my identity, but I was only telling half the story.
Growing up struggling with (and enjoying discovering) the fact that I am queer had a profound effect on my worldview and informs much of how I approach combating ignorance, prejudice and attempts to reduce human experience and expression to simple and fixed ideas.
The week before last, for the first time in a Jewish institutional setting, I felt that I was delivering education around social action while being truly authentic about why it is important to me and how it can be inspiring for people of faith.
The week before last was a little historic. As a nation bid farewell to the lady not for turning, I'm hopeful that we are very much turning a corner. I'm optimistic that in the weeks, months and years to come, faith communities will get closer to burying homophobia for good.