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UK Equalities Minister: LGBTI people will be protected after Brexit

UK Equalities Minister: LGBTI people will be protected after Brexit

Caroline Dinenage says better sex ed is coming soon.

LGBTI Britons will have their rights guaranteed after Brexit, the UK government has revealed.

And in the next few weeks, Britain will unveil a new policy, promising better sex education for LGBTI students in schools.

The two key commitments came from UK Equalities Minister Caroline Dinenage.

She was speaking in an exclusive interview with Gay Star News to mark LGBT History Month.

Dinenage also told us:

  • She is open to giving more protection to LGBTI students in religious schools.
  • She supports unisex school uniforms to help trans children.
  • Trans children should be able to use bathrooms for the gender they identify as.
  • She is happy to consider national guidance to improve school bullying policies for LGBTIs.
  • Post Brexit, the UK should use its trading relationships to support international LGBTI rights.

Sex ed

Dinenage’s Department for Education is due to unveil the government’s new policy on sex and relationships education (SRE) in schools very soon. It will be the first time in over 15 years there’s been a major change to what our kids are taught in sex ed classes.

Students feel failed by school sex ed. Some have told GSN they searched YouTube for advice because their classes told them nothing about sex for LGBTIs. Many have had little or no relevant teaching. And meanwhile sex infections are rising among young people.

So LGBTI and children’s charities and even police want a change. They have been lobbying for a fully LGBTI inclusive, compulsory sex and relationships education in schools.

I started the interview by asking Dinenage if her new policy was going to make them happy.

‘Well I hope so,’ she said. ‘We are really serious about getting it right.

‘It has taken time. But we have to equip our youngsters with what they need to face the challenges of the modern world. And those challenges are so different from the stone ages when I was at school.

‘We weren’t talking about online bullying and revenge porn even five years ago. We need to make sure we are equipping our young people to lead happy and healthy lives.’

What about drugs?

The charities and campaigners also want to see sex ed being taught in a wider context. They argue it is helpful to talk about sex alongside talking about subjects like drugs. So Sex and Relationships Education become part of a wider Personal, Social and Health Education curriculum.

‘PSHE is really valuable. But what’s more important is that it’s taught well, rather than just taught,’ Dinenage told me.

‘I’m very keen to see it taught in schools. But I’m almost more keen to see it embedded in the school ethos.

‘Healthy, positive relationships with yourself and with others shouldn’t just be taught for half-an-hour on a Tuesday afternoon. Respect for yourself and for others need to be embedded in a whole school ethos.’

Can we trust parents to get it right on LGBTI sex ed?

Previous sex ed proposals have suggested religious schools should be able to opt-out. Or at least to teach sex ed in a way that matches their ‘ethos’.

On this Dinenage said: ‘Parents should ultimately be allowed to make decisions about their children. But I think good education should be offer for everyone.’

But a recent study by a Christian organization showed gay people raised in religious households are 12 times more likely to experience mental health problems. These include depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

So I asked the minister, ‘when it comes to the LGBTI community, can we always trust parents to make the right decision?’

‘Well you have to allow parents ultimately to make their decisions around what their children are taught. Sex and relationships education in the biological aspect is compulsory, they can’t get out of that.

‘We have to make sure our youngsters, whatever their gender, their sexual orientation, whatever challenges they face in their life, that they are equipped in the best way we possible can.’

Religious schools and opt-outs

The minister was keen to point out the Equalities Act applies to all schools. This, the government argues, means LGBTI students should be treated fairly whatever kind of school they are in.

But even if they do provide decent sex and relationships education, schools are still free to tell their students ‘our religion doesn’t approve of homosexuality’.

So I asked: ‘Do you see that may create a worse outcome for LGBTI students in that environment? Being told their religion doesn’t approve of them.’

‘I do. I do. And I have enormous with LGBT Christians who feel somehow their faith is not supportive of them and their religion.’

‘So could we be doing more to protect those pupils?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know is the honest answer to that. And it’s something we have to look very carefully at. We do want all our youngsters to grow up feeling happy in their own skin and happy with who they are, and not being made to feel in any way that is wrong.’

That preparedness to look at whether more can be done to protect pupils in the growing number of religious schools is a huge concession. It’s an open door for LGBTI campaigning charities to say what that protection should look like.

Are Conservatives on board?

The minister’s own party voted against a Labour amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill that would have put in place compulsory, inclusive sex ed. Naturally the vote in January sparked headlines saying LGBTI sex education had been blocked by Conservative MPs.

Given Dinenage’s own commitment to the issue and what she had told me, I asked if that vote by her colleagues had sent the wrong message.

‘At the time we had already made a commitment that we were going to look at this,’ she replied.

‘As I said before, I am very keen we do it right, rather than do it quick. That means taking everybody with us. That’s how we make real lasting change.’

Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying

The government has committed £3million ($3.8million €3.5million) to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools. But some schools do not even have up-to-date anti-bullying policies talking about LGBTIs.

I asked: ‘Do we need national rules, that there has to be a policy and it has to include gay, bi, trans, intersex people?’

‘We have always taken the view that it’s up to schools to set their own policies. Like anyone else they are covered by the Equalities Act and everybody has to be treated fairly.

‘I’m interested to hear people’s views. I’ve always trusted schools to do their own policies. The work we’re spreading that best practice.

‘I’d be interested to hear if there was consensus that schools need better guidance. You don’t want to think anyone is having to put up with intimidating, frightening and distressing behavior at their school. As they should be learning.’

Again, that sounded like another open door for campaigners. So I asked: ‘Most schools want to get it right. But there are people who are resistant. So national guidance is something you’d consider?’

‘If it was felt to be necessary, I’d be more than happy to look at it,’ Dinenage replied.

‘But every school knows their own set-up, they know their own children, they known their own community. So you do trust them to put in place the procedures and training.

‘I’ve never been a great fan of big, over-powerful government telling everybody what they should be doing. You trust people to do the right thing. But I’m always happy to keep it under review.’

Compulsory LGBTI training for teachers

LGBTI organizations working in schools often report teachers are ‘out of their depth’ when it comes to LGBTI-inclusive sex ed or anti-gay, bi and trans bullying. Some teachers are reportedly ‘terrified’ of saying the wrong thing.

So I asked: ‘Should training on bullying and sex education be compulsory for all teachers?’

‘Schools do have a responsibility to make sure teachers feel well-equipped to tackle this.

‘Actually it often starts with what can be perceived as low-level name-calling. Or just using inappropriate language. Schools need to have a strong policy on the low-level stuff, which if ignored, can spiral and become a problem.

‘When you look at the statistics of how many teachers have heard homophobic language being used, it is upsetting. So I do think schools providing that training is really important.

Trans kids in schools

The US government officially cut protections to transgender students this week.

But could the UK go in the opposite direction?

I asking the minister if strict male and female uniform policies still made sense.

‘We have come ever such a long way on the LGB part of LGBT. We have a long way to go on the whole trans area,’ she said.

‘Certainly more can be done in schools. And it is very confusing for schools to know how best to support trans pupils.

‘More and more schools have flexible uniforms. You see more schools where the girls wear trousers. And that is great. You just want every young person to be themselves in a school environment. You don’t want to set them up for a negative experience.

‘I do think there is more schools can do. And uniform policy is certainly one of the things they can look at.

‘Having a more unisex approach to uniform is actually better for everybody. It is not just about trans students. Not all girls want to wear skirts. And if girls want to play football, you can’t run around and kick a ball if you are wearing a skirt.’

Boarding schools and trans bathroom access

The government tends to intervene less in independent, fee-paying schools. I highlighted one case where a British boarding school struggled with where a trans girl should sleep – with the girls or boys.

And I asked: ‘By being stand-offish and letting boarding schools develop their own policies, is the government letting some students down?’

Dinenage has little sympathy for schools with ‘far fetched’ concerns who stop trans kids accessing the dorms or bathrooms they want.

‘Nobody is exempt from the Equalities Act. Nobody should feel discriminated against because they are transgender.

‘I’ve heard this argument before. It’s like when they worry about trans students using toilets for that reason. It seems they are taking their concerns to a really far-fetched level.

‘Independent schools do have to teach PHSE and you would hope that would be taught in a way that’s sensitive to the needs of all pupils and does embrace diversity and embraces their right to be themselves.’

Could gender-neutral bathrooms become the norm in UK schools? Based on what Dinenage is saying, if we make a strong enough case, the answer could be yes.

As Brexit makes history, what’s our future?

The interview was timed to coincide with LGBT History Month. It’s a big year for the UK, marking the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality.

But I wanted to look to the next 50 years.

I asked the minister: ‘Since the Brexit vote, there’s been a rise in hate crime against LGBTI people. And some people have a sense that government and political decision-making has shifted to the right. Can you reassure people our rights will be guaranteed and progress will continue?’

‘We have made enormous progress. But there is still a way to go, particularly for trans people. And there is still a lot to do in terms of hate crime and bullying that you mentioned.

‘I want to say, in the strongest possible terms, that as we negotiate Brexit, I wouldn’t want to see any of the hard-earned protections in any way watered down, eroded or lost.’

LGBTIs around the world

The 50th anniversary is also a reminder that Britain gave laws criminalizing homosexuality to many countries around the world.

I asked: ‘With Brexit, we may be pushed more to do business in the future with countries that have a less positive attitude to LGBTI people. As we move away to Europe and do more trade globally, could there be a danger we sacrifice human rights in favor of making money?’

‘I would hope that doesn’t happen,’ Dinenage replied.

‘And we do have a unique opportunity, given our strong trade relationships with the rest of the world, to support other countries to make sure their legislation keeps pace with ours. We can support other countries to do the right thing.

‘We are a founding member of the Equal Rights Coalition [29 governments working together to promote LGBTI equality]. And I think that’s important to use our influence to support other countries.’

The UK Parliament will mark the end of LGBT History Month with a debate on Tuesday (28 February). Dinenage will speak on behalf of the government.

National Student Pride is being held in Central London this weekend (24 to 26 February). The students have chosen sex ed as their theme this year. GSN is media partner of Student Pride and will be live streaming the discussions.

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