Mensch and Dorries shouldn't have to deal with sexist abuse

Why are female politicians not taken seriously?

Why is it still so hard to be a female politician in Britain? Decades ago, Conservative men bowed down to the Iron Lady. Today, female politicians are vilified from one end of the scale to the other. If they dare to be attractive, they are treated like a porn star. If they say something people don't want to hear, they are considered mentally ill. 

Earlier this week Conservative MP Louise Mensch – spokesperson for sisterhood after having reported to the police the betrayal of a rape victim's anonymity  – defended a political position on Newsnight. It was about the culture, media and sport select committee's report into phone-hacking and its disagreement over Rupert Murdoch's capacity to run News Corporation. But in our dumbed down world, the subject she was discussing seems to lose all relevance after sexist comments, from both men and women, were unleashed towards Mensch on Twitter. 
 
“Embarrassing watching you whore yourself out to News International,” one man said. “Louise Mensch is such a knob, fuck off slut”, said a woman. Perhaps some commentators thought they were being complimentary when they told the world “you would, wouldn't you?” (Someone continued: “Given half a chance you'd strangle her!” Could this be construed as a death threat?)
 
Meanwhile, hipster publication Vice ran a “May Day special” in which two journalists thought it would be hilarious to ask occupiers of Finsbury Square if they would sleep with Mensch. Not only is this hard-hitting journalism offensive to the “crusties” at Occupy (though to be honest, for people who are supposed to be politically active, a surprisingly large number of them didn't know who she was), the entire premise is brimming with sexism. Apparently the very notion that a woman should expect to be taken seriously in politics is risible. Does Mensch not know women are only allowed to exist as sex objects?
 
Last week, fellow Tory MP Nadine Dorries caused a stir within her party as she claimed that David Cameron and George Osborne were “two posh boys who don't know the price of milk.” This led, quite rightly, to the commentariat musing over the silver-spoon syndrome of our cabinet. Some, however, chose to focus on Dorries as a figure of ridicule, such as the Telegraph's Bryony Gordon, labelling her “Mad Nad” (and all too easily dismissing, somehow, her claim with “it isn't where you come from, it's where you are going”). 
 
Nadine Dorries is one of the last politicians I agree with, particularly on abortion. But she was making a valid point – whether or not you agree with it – on the shortcomings of social mobility in today's society. How many members of the cabinet grew up on council estates? Of course no-one wants to admit this is a problem, so instead they will pretend Dorries is from another planet.
 
The abuse Mensch has received is enough to put any girl off a career in politics. Do people tweet sexist abuse at George Osborne or Andrew Lansley, who are abhorred among the left? How are we to achieve any level of equal representation if this is what intelligent, determined, political engagement leads to? As with Dorries, Mensch and I disagree on a lot of levels. But it is her ideas that should be challenged, not her appearance, sexuality and certainly not her gender.
 
I hope that Louise Mensch continues her courageous stand against sexist abuse, because it needs to be done, not just for us but for the future of young girls. If she doesn't, who will?
Louise Mensch: not impressed. Photo: Getty Images
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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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