A lesbian couple hold hands at a rally. Photo: David Silverman/Getty Images
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Labour’s plan to introduce LGBT education to five year olds is the best idea they’ve had

At school, Eleanor Margolis first heard “lesbian” as an insult. How much easier her own coming out would have been if the teachers had mentioned it was normal.

The first time I came across the word “lesbian”, it was being hurled across the playground as an insult. I was about nine and had no idea what one was, but thought it sounded interesting and exotic. I knew I fancied girls, but I didn’t know there was a word for that. In fact, the only word I could think of to describe my attraction to members of the same sex was “disgusting”.

If only I’d been taught, aged five perhaps, that what I was feeling was actually pretty mundane and this “lesbian” thing was about as exotic as a Marmite sandwich. Maybe then, I wouldn’t have burst into tears when I came out to my mum, aged ten. And maybe then I wouldn’t have kept this strange thing that was my sexuality knotted up inside my guts like an especially vindictive tapeworm, until it burst out of me.

Labour’s plan to introduce LGBT-oriented sex education to five-year-olds is simply one of the best ideas they’ve had. Liberal parents may shrug and say, “cool”, Daily Mail readers may reel off the usual Hallmark conservatism stuff about “loss of innocence”. But for me and all the millions of other LGBT people who know first-hand what it’s like to feel alienated at school purely because of our sexuality, this proposed policy couldn’t be more important.

For too many of us, our first introduction to anything LGBT is via playground meanness. I spent most of my childhood thinking “gay” was a rude word. When I was five, my very accepting parents just didn’t think to tell me that it’s OK for girls to fancy girls, and I didn’t think to ask them. If my teachers had taken it upon themselves to impart that crucial nugget, even as a side note – “A triangle has three sides. Two plus two is four. Oh, by the way, gay people are a thing and that’s fine” – things could’ve been very, very different.

The right wing press, naturally, have taken it upon themselves to remind us that teaching children about sexuality is a harbinger of the apocalypse. The Daily Mail headline “sex lessons for pupils aged five under Labour” seems to suggest that, if Ed Miliband manages to pull it off in May, every kid in the country is going to be issued with a My First Kama Sutra. But with stories like this about homophobic bullying in schools appearing more and more frequently, it’s vital that parents get a grasp of the difference between sexuality and sex. It really isn’t difficult. Not that teaching kids about sex is such a bad thing in the first place.

Aged five, the only narrative I knew about making babies was, “when a mummy and a daddy love each other very much… blah, blah, willy, blah, blah, fanny, something about tadpoles eating eggs, etc”. I wish I’d been taught that, if I ever want to have a baby, a willy doesn’t actually have to be involved, at least not directly. I wish I’d been taught that families come in different shapes and that, sometimes, sex isn’t for making babies at all.

I’m sure that, had my education taken that different turn, my response would still have been to hold back hysterical laughter over a teacher having said the word “sex”. But the stuff about girls liking girls, boys liking boys, and some boys being girls, and girls being boys: that would have changed my life.  

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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