A shed of one's own

We need to be more open about issues facing men.

We need to talk about men and we don’t do so. Quite often, because of the cultures of both modern men and women, it’s because we can’t.

Even to suggest that there are issues among men that might need talking through is a minor heresy: being a white male is like playing a computer game on “easy mode” – men are the patriarchy. Not only do we sail easily into the elite, with great jobs and pay, we’re also responsible for a huge number of problems faced by other groups.

For some men, all of the above is true. Looking at the very top of society, you could imagine it was the case for huge numbers. But it's not the case for everyone: millions of men are losing out and their situation is getting steadily worse each year. And all too often, it’s happening below the radar.

Despite the focus on the real and severe impact of the UK’s austerity measures on women, men were more likely to be unemployed before the downturn and still are.

Men are more likely than women to be the victims of violence and far more likely to be in jail. Year after year, boys’ school attainment falls behind that of girls, as does their chances of getting into university.

It goes further. There is still a pay gap between the genders for those under 30 – but men are lagging behind women. Given what’s happening in education, this could sustain and even worsen in the coming decades.

Are these problems the fault of women, or feminism? Of course not. Do they mean that it’s time for women (and men) to stop fighting for social justice, access to abortions, an end to domestic and sexual violence and more? No.

But why should the problems of one group only be addressed and discussed if they are caused by another? We certainly don’t do so for race: black-on-black violence is recognised as the genuine social problem it is and efforts are made to tackle it. Similarly, few suggest that the staggering level of black youth unemployment – in excess of 50 per cent for men – is simply down to racism. It’s far more complex than that.

So it is with many of the challenges facing modern feminists and the problems faced by many men. The pay gap for women over 30 is now far more about access to childcare – an issue that surely could unite men and women – and choice of profession and primary care-giver, rather than outright prejudice.

Right now, too much of the conversation around what’s going on with men is left to people who’d either prefer to go back to 1950 or who think feminism’s battles are won.

But if we will take the time to acknowledge complex issues for women, why not for men? The game need not be zero-sum: things that benefit men need not come at the cost of women, nor vice versa.

Our uneasiness about bloke talk has wider problems. Take cancer as an example. Breast cancer killed 11,556 UK women in 2009, while prostate cancer killed nearly as many men (10,382). But despite their broadly similar mortality rates, breast cancer receives nearly three times as much site-specific research funding as prostate cancer.

The reason for this is a positive one: the "sisterhood" is a positive image and one used to fundraise aggressively for an excellent cause. Women’s-only fundraisers and races are increasingly common – not just for cancer but for other causes.

Being a strong and successful woman might still be loaded with a huge amount of baggage around appearance and more that men don’t have to face but it’s almost unquestionably a positive image.

Seeing a group of strong men as part of a "brotherhood" is not nearly such a positive image, reeking of conspiracy and cabal. Any club or society that only admits men is (possibly rightly) pilloried.

Success as a man is for many of us loaded with the guilt that comes from having it easy – and talk about male culture too quickly slides into chauvinism.

It’s a confusing welter of mixed signals that leads to no decent sense of male culture and male identity – something that is surely a contributing factor to the problems set out above.

The “battle of the sexes” is a cliché with a lot to answer for. It’s a fake battle that we should all be tired of fighting. Surely allowing for room to think about and discuss men, masculinity and what’s going wrong with it is legitimate. If it led to creative thinking or solutions to violence, imprisonment or low attainment, men would certainly not be the only beneficiaries.

Give men a bit of space to think, to discuss, to write – a shed of one’s own, as it were – and we might all come out better off.

James Ball is a journalist for the Guardian

Sisterhood: this "pink Zumbathon party" was held to raise money for Breakthrough Breast Cancer. London, October 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

James Ball is special correspondent at Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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