Interview: The Tories, gays and education

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While many in David Cameron’s Conservatives are recent converts to gay equality, including Cameron himself, there are a few who spoke out long before it was fashionable.

The Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Families and Schools, Michael Gove, was urging the party to break with the past long before he took his place in the House of Commons.

Elected in 2005 to represent the true-blue constituency of Surrey Heath, Gove is a clever, articulate Scot, a former Times journalist and new Tory through and through.

He used to share a flat with prominent gays Ivan Massow and Nick Boles, and during his time as a columnist he spoke out in favour of gay equality and even praised Will Grace.

“Sexuality is incapable of being swayed by “promotion” in schools,” was his common sense take on the hated Section 28 in 2003, when the Tories were still supporting it.

“You can no more “promote” the idea of becoming gay to a testosterone-fuelled, Key Stage 4-taking, FHM-reading, Jordan-ogling male teenager than you could have persuaded the young Graham Norton to make an honest woman of Ann Widdecombe,” he continued.

“The intractability of your sexual orientation, and the folly of trying to change it to fit in with social pressure, forms one of the running gags in Channel Four’s marvellous comedy Will and Grace.

“As the title itself prompts us to realise, your sexuality is not a simple matter of free will. It is something beyond your power to effect. Like the operation of divine grace.”

The party, under the quietly suicidal leadership of Iain Duncan Smith and later the spine-chilling Michael Howard, continued to wear prejudice against gay people almost as a badge of honour until the arrival of David Cameron.

Gove, who is married with two small children, has risen quickly through the ranks since becoming an MP, making a name for himself as a quick-minded debater and as someone skilled at making simple statements about complex ideas.

Just before the summer, the first major ideological crisis for the “new” Tories was over grammar schools.

The party’s then-Education spokesman David “two brains” Willetts made a complete hash of explaining policy, seemingly announcing that the Tories no longer supported them, angering many.

Willetts was moved sideways at the first opportunity and replaced by Gove.

At 40, he is a central figure in the Notting Hill set that surrounds Cameron.

He was promoted to the frontbench as soon as Cameron became leader, and in July was promoted to the Shadow Cabinet, one of a handful from the new intake at the top table.

He shadows Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and has been a vocal supporter of new guidelines aimed at tackling homophobic bullying in schools. spoke to him about faith schools, the importance of sex education, double standards at the BBC and what age to start teaching kids about gay relationships. : What was it that spurred you to give the new guidance on homophobic bullying such a strong endorsement?

Michael Gove: The first thing is that bullying for all is a significant problem, a growing challenge, and it reflects some of the weaknesses, the broader weaknesses and challenges that society faces overall.

Two things I think reflect the way society has changed, and has shown up in the way bullying manifests itself, and that is as Britain has become more multi-ethnic and more multi-cultural, there is a real danger that there is a racially prejudiced tinge or a culturally prejudiced tinge to bullying.

I think that people are rightly aware of that, though as ever the government has a role to play in disseminating guidance, which helps people deal with some of the cultural challenges.

The other thing that’s a related challenge is that as society has grown up and become better able to deal with sexual diversity, there are still taboos to be tackled and difficulties that need to be dealt with when it comes to adolescent sexuality.

In particular I think it’s the case that society is still finding it difficult to work out how to deal with young people below the age of consent who are attempting to deal with a sexual orientation that is not the majority orientation. That requires some sensitive handling.

You can’t pay attention to popular culture and what’s happened in the last ten years without being aware of a nasty edge to bullying and intimidation and sometimes it can have a homophobic element to it.

Many of us will remember the controversy around Chris Moyles, the Radio 1 DJ.

I myself do not believe that Moyles meant to be malicious.

I’m sure that he regards himself as an equal opportunities tease, as it were, but what he’s doing is picking up on the fact that ‘gay’ as a word has been used to intimidate in a pejorative sense, and without having to go into details about language, there are other examples of that. It’s a complicated area.

I wanted to pick up on racial bullying. There are actually legal requirements surrounding racial bullying – schools are legally required to record it and the authorities are required to deal with it. Homophobic bulling just gets ‘guidance,’ which is voluntary.

One of the concerns about guidance is that at present 75% of gay and lesbian pupils at faith schools are bullied.

A much higher figure than in other schools, I want to know how you feel it is going to be possible to present guidelines to a Roman Catholic school or a Muslim school, when clearly they have views that are going to clash with that.

Well it is going to be tough, it is going to be a challenge because I support faith schools.

I also support the right of individuals to believe, if they wish to, that homosexual behaviour is a sin.

The basic nature, the basic compact of British society is that you can believe what you like. But schools, if they are funded by the state, have to be a prejudice-free zone, they have to be zones where you respect the moral and ethical codes of the great religions, but it’s also the case that there are basic minimum standards that have to be upheld.

That means when it comes to the treatment of women or to the treatment of anyone who might have a different sexual orientation from the majority, or from that prescribed as “optimal” by the faith, they have to show they are sensitive to those needs and respectful of them.

Now, I am not in a position to speak definitively about how you can negotiate those boundaries, but the one thing that I’m clear about is that there’s a compact.

Faith schools have an ethos that’s influenced by their faith and they have the right to insist that when it comes to appointments, people subscribe not just to the ethos but also to the religion.

They can be clear about what they consider to be the highest ethical standards, but at the same time they have to also be clear that if there are examples of behaviour which are prejudiced or intimidatory, based on someone’s sexual orientation or their gender or their cultural background, then that’s unacceptable.

The contract that comes if you’re state-funded.

Exactly, and as I say these are uniquely sensitive areas because the contract at the heart of British society preserves the right equally of a fundamentalist Muslim preacher to hold certain views and of a militant atheist to hold his views and we have to hold the line between them but with institutions like schools have that challenge to respect both. What the faith expects and also what society expects.

What part does sex education play here? Surely it is a mechanism by which ignorance can be defeated?

Yes, I think that one of the things I am cautious about is prescribing in detail every aspect of the curriculum.

I think that teachers find that a great deal of prescription, often very well meaning, constricts their freedom to teach in the appropriate way.

I think that what you need is a light-touch curriculum, clear boundaries, proper inspection from Ofsted, and that can provide the groundwork.

Of course sex education and the other things that the curriculum has, such as PSHE, which is this broader menu of teaching, which covers personal and sexual developmental and health issues – there are things which can be taught there.

There are also things that can be taught in citizenship, so that people can understand the diverse nature of Britain, why we are where we are, and the respect that we have towards people from different backgrounds and who follow different lifestyles.

So you think they should be teaching civil partnerships in citizenship classes?

Well the key thing is that I wouldn’t prescribe a particular model of teaching these things. But I do think that one of the things is that sex education is there first to provide young people with an understanding of human biology and also to provide them with the tools and the knowledge to be more aware of their own bodies and the risks they can run.

A good school will teach children to respect themselves and their own bodies. Not just through sex education but generally through the way in which discipline is enforced, the way in which boundaries are set.

Doesn’t that mean that faith schools can just not teach civil partnerships and not teach homosexuality as an acceptable thing or even mention it, a Roman Catholic school doesn’t have to teach that…

You are quite understandably trying to draw me in to prescribing the curriculum. There are certain minimum standards that one should have ….

Isn’t why civil partnerships exist a key part of citizenship?

I think that there are a variety of issues here. I believe that Britain is a better, healthier and a more advanced society because we deal with discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation, and civil partnerships are part of that.

But I also recognise that British society is a delicate contract. I recognise that in order for diversity to work you’ve got to be firm and clear about what is acceptable. You’ve also got to be open to negotiation with minority groups about their beliefs. More broadly, with the curriculum, it is also clear in my mind that there should certain things that we expect, but how schools achieve them should be up to them.

Because to specify that a Roman Catholic school should teach precisely this set of ethics in this way in order to ….

This is not an ethics issue, this is a citizenship issue. We have two forms of commitment in this country, marriage and civil partnerships, this is not a moral issue.

It is one of the basic things – if you are going to teach them about how to be good citizens, how to vote, what voting is about, but you are not going to mention that we should be proud of the fact that we have created civil partnerships, the most important legal contract that two people can have ….

You are inviting me to re-write the curriculum …

I’m asking you whether it’s something that you think should be taught in every school.

You’re inviting me to step into an issue which I don’t want to step into in the way in which you’re inviting me.

Would you hope that it’s something that every school would teach?

Again you’re inviting me to …. look – the key thing is, I respect the autonomy. I’m a believer in both choice and autonomy.

I have clear views, but I do not believe that it is right for me to use the education system to impose my views in every area.

Both as an individual and as a politician I think that civil partnerships are a good thing. But it is important that I do not use the curriculum as a way of advancing these things.

People should develop in education a practical tool to be able to engage with these issues so that they can then challenge prejudices and ethical positions.

I know you have only been in parliament since 2005, but that’s a massive change from your party’s position in 1988, when you were stomping round telling local authorities what books they could and could not take into their schools, and telling them that homosexuality under no circumstances was to be “promoted.”

I personally am on the record saying that I thought that Section 28 was a foolish piece of legislation.

Do you understand the point about the chilling effect across the education system, to the extent that teachers would not know how to react to gay pupils and did not know how to help them?

I completely understand the effect that it had. One of the reasons why there is the religious hatred legislation in the form which it was brought before us is precisely because they believed that it would have that chilling effect.

That even though Salman Rushdie might not have been prosecuted under that legislation, the publishers might have felt that it was inappropriate.

And so I entirely understand that. I also think that as well the chilling effect there’s a direct link between an environment in which Section 28 was part of legislation and the fear that adolescents and children may have had in discussing questions of their sexuality, their lack of confidence, their concern, their worry, with an appropriate authority figure, so yes I do.

I also understand why people with traditional ethical and religious views wanted to ensure that they were able to choose schools which reflected their value system and I think that it’s important that we respect that right.

I’m one of those people who takes a view of sexual diversity which is different from traditional religious teachings, but I respect what those traditional religious teachings bring to the country.

What age do you think it’s appropriate to learn about same-sex couples? Is it appropriate at primary school age?

Because the sexual development of young people has become a heavily fought-over area, the one thing I’m anxious to do is strike an appropriate balance between ensuring that children who either come from non-typical backgrounds or are developing in a particular way are given support and protection.

But I also think it’s appropriate to recognise that there are many parents who are worried about the premature introduction of sexualisation, not just into the classroom but into their children’s lives.

I think that there is an issue, everything from the way in which children’s fashion is marketed, the way in which make-up is marketed to girls, to the way in which even for young boys, children’s fashion and certain roles are assigned, which are encouraging children to grow up more quickly.

I absolutely share the concern that parents have and I think that while it is important that we counter prejudice, it’s also important that we recognise that it is quite right for parents to say, “I want my children to be protected from some of the inevitable complexities of adolescent life for as long as possible, I want them to enjoy and cherish their innocence away from the premature drive towards introducing that sexual element into their lives.”

As a social element rather than a sexual element, there is what is called the BBC test. When a footballer gets married, (Children’s BBC news programme) Newsround can’t shut up about it. When Elton John or John Barrowman from Torchwood gets ‘married,’ they couldn’t possibly mention it because it has moved away from being a social thing to a sexual thing.

I appreciate that and I think one of the things is that society is moving and has moved in a way which is much more understanding of sexual diversity.

The fact is that over time we are becoming more and more relaxed about these situations, but it’s also important that in human relations there’s always a desire to lay down hard and fast rules.

Sensitivity is required. There are people, to move it into a different area, there are people, particularly older people, who are not racist, but whose discourse and conversation wouldn’t pass muster as being as respectful of difference as they should be.

If people can be offended, in particular, as I say, by older people who use a form of language which is inappropriate, I would say that rather than getting on your high horse about it, one should just recognise that there is a difference between the use of inappropriate and insensitive language and active prejudice. And most of us know when we see it.

In the same way I think that it’s appropriate to recognise that when institutions are being well meaning and respectful, or when there’s an extra edge to it, it’s incumbent on all of us to use our judgement.

I am in the fortunate position of not having been a victim of prejudice, and not having had to go through the travails that people whose sexuality has been a source of prejudice have had to.

So it’s relatively easy for me to say you should be a bit more relaxed about it, because I haven’t been in the firing line, but the one thing that I would say is that it’s important that we as a society develop that sense of being prepared to acknowledge that if things are broadly moving in the right direction, that’s a good thing and patience can be a virtue as well.

Has having gay friends helped with you with that process of understanding?

Yes absolutely. I wouldn’t say that I was anything other than broadly typical of my generation.

I was part of a generation that at university it was natural and normal to have gay friends and I had friends, both gay men and lesbians, coming out at the time.

Therefore I’m part of a generation that finds it difficult to understand many of the arguments that were being made by people older than us against equality.

But at the same time one of the things that I’ve always tried to do, it doesn’t apply in every area, but one of the things that I’ve always tried to do is understand if people are generally well meaning but they appear to have a prejudice or a block in one particular area it is sometimes appropriate to give them the benefit of the doubt. I think that would mark me out from some others.