We still can’t take LGBT equality for granted | Gaby Hinsliff | Opinion

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

So opens a Jackanory-style film uploaded to social media this week by one Birmingham mother, featuring her reading aloud from a picture book called Mommy, Mama and Me. It’s a cosy, toddler-friendly bedtime story about two mothers doing what mothers do the world over: pouring juice, tucking children up in bed, playing hide and seek. Your children’s primary school or your local library might well have a copy. Although they might have plumped instead for And Tango Makes Three, the tale of two daddy penguins adopting a chick.

Her point, of course, was to reassure anyone alarmed by wild rumours about primary school sex education that the idea of gay relationships can be introduced in a perfectly age-appropriate way, even to five-year-olds. Watching that film, I thought how far we’ve come since the 1980s, when tabloid scare stories about leftwing councils stocking such books in libraries panicked Margaret Thatcher into introducing section 28 – the ban on local authorities “promoting homosexuality”. Now we have an openly gay schools minister and a generation of kids who thankfully won’t have to grow up heaped with corrosive, lifelong shame. Times have changed. But not so much that we can take them for granted.

What began as a local protest by mainly Muslim parents against a pro-tolerance initiative in Birmingham schools this week escalated alarmingly. Several schools have suspended the use of teacher Andrew Moffat’s award-winning No Outsiders programme, which seeks to tackle hate crime – on the grounds of sexual orientation, religion, disability or anything else – by promoting acceptance of difference. Families in parts of Manchester are now threatening to withdraw children from school, ugly leaflets are being shoved through letterboxes, and there are fears that all this may be exploited by political extremists. LGBT parents, meanwhile, are understandably afraid of what their kids might be hearing in the playground, and one can only imagine the impact on children who are LGBT themselves.

It doesn’t help that government attempts to calm things backfired after cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom, in what was clearly meant to be a pro-equality intervention, suggested parents still had a right to decide when their children were “exposed to” the concept of homosexuality – as if it were some shocking secret rather than part of many children’s everyday reality.

As for the idea that parents should get to choose what their kids know about sex – well, I’m afraid that ship sailed with the invention of wifi. Would parents rather their 10-year-old learned about homosexuality via a clip of explicit gay porn passed around the playground on a smartphone? Sex education now is as much about explaining what children have already half-heard as introducing new concepts, while anti-bullying policies rely on kids learning from the start that “gay” is not an insult.

The Birmingham parents insist they’re not homophobic, merely concerned about what’s appropriate for four-year-olds. However, at that age, they’re not learning about the mechanics of sexuality, but about treating everyone with kindness and respect. If your objection to kids learning merely that families come in different forms is that you regard gay couples as wrong or lesser than straight ones, then I’m afraid that is a homophobic objection, faith-based or not. You’re entitled to your own private views, but they stop being private when you seek to impose them on others in ways that risk wellbeing. The public good comes first – which is why a belief in creationism shouldn’t dictate the GCSE science curriculum any more than Catholic doctrine on contraception should affect free prescription of the pill.

This isn’t just about one faith. Caroline Farrow, a Catholic journalist, this week expressed her shock at being interviewed by police over her tweets about the trans rights activist Susie Green, whose daughter is trans. As a Catholic, Farrow says she simply believes “that a person cannot change sex”. Yet this recourse to the religious high ground sits uncomfortably with the tone of messages in which Farrow accused Green of “child abuse” for having her child “mutilated” and “castrated” (Jackie Green underwent reassignment surgery, which is only available to adults in Britain, in Thailand aged 16.)

Farrow is as entitled to her private beliefs as anyone else I disagree with. We’ll probably never know what the police would have made of her expressing them publicly, given Green has now withdrawn her complaint, and readers may have their own views on whether this was the best use of police time.

But journalists have an obligation to use their platforms responsibly where potentially vulnerable young people are involved, and the words Farrow used seem at best hurtful and overly personal. Faith is not a free pass for causing distress, on or offline. If anything, it should lead towards compassion.

The sad truth is that there will be gay parents and gay children feeling suddenly more vulnerable than before. Families who had felt accepted in their communities may be wondering what others are really thinking, even in playgrounds where most truly wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Those families need to hear that we really have come a long way since section 28, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. And we’re not going back.

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